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This little piggy loves Beijing

After dancing to Asian techno, hipsters head to 24-hour foot-massage parlours. KAREN BURSHTEIN tests this painful pleasure

Special to The Globe and Mail

BEIJING — At a quarter to three in the morning, I found myself in a taxi, cruising through the quiet, empty streets of Beijing. I was with Don, a travelling companion, and we were heading to an appointment at the Liang Zi Foot Massage Palace.

There are many foot-massage parlours in Beijing. They cater to all strata of this so-called classless society and to all ages -- some clients are as young as two years old. But the 3 a.m. slot is unofficially reserved for the "Bobo," the name given to members of the ever-expanding circle of hip Beijing. After a night drinking lychee mojitos and dancing in clubs in converted hutongs, or alleyway houses, trooping across a darkened city for nocturnal toe massage is now the thing to do.

Some friends of ours had gone for a foot massage the night before, after doing the rounds on the city's Lotus Lane. This hot bar street is like a gilded lotus land. It's a world away from Beijing's drab ring roads over which expressionless workers cycle to their factory jobs in the morning, then cycle home at night.

Lotus has clubs where Chinese pop music is mixed with techno. There are art galleries that would have been banned a few years ago and restaurants, converted from military research centres, that serve haute Chinese cuisine in bird nests. And the places are packed. I doubt Beijing has seen so much idle partying since the Ming dynasty.

Our friends had followed some locals they had had drinks with at Lotus to a foot-massage parlour. Afterwards, they described to us a surreal-sounding treatment: All four of them sat side by side in a row of Barcaloungers while technicians beat a manic and perfectly synchronized rhythm on their feet and legs. "It was like a performance of Stomp," they said. Throughout the treatment, they also watched the Academy Awards ceremonies dubbed in Chinese. This was something I had to see. And feel.

Past midnight the next night, a group of us were having Maotinis at the Redmoon Bar in the Grand Hyatt Hotel, another Beijing hot spot. We were listening to a female quartet called Moon Mood that performs modern music on traditional Chinese instruments. In the bar, as at other clubs frequented by Bobos, we repeatedly heard the word fusion -- but here it means a mix of old and new Asia, rather than East meets West.

About 2:30, one of the people in our group, a massage devotee from Hong Kong who had moved to mainland China to work in public relations, flicked a book of foot massage coupons in front of us, then tore two out, handing one each to Don and I. "It will really enhance your mental clarity," she said. I'm not sure how clear a mental state I need to be in at 3 a.m., but feeling a little sloshed in translation by that point, and ready for anything, we headed out into the night.

Our taxi came to a halt in front of a place whose plain façade belied its cavernous interior of heavenly kitsch. After we entered, four attendants -- two women, dressed in pink polyester with matching kerchiefs in their hair, and two men in identical Mao suits -- bowed and greeted us. We were led down endless corridors off of which spilled rooms lined with people sitting in rows of Barcaloungers getting the hell whacked out of their feet.

Don and I were led into a room lit not by a vanilla-scented candle but by a glaring fluorescent bulb. A television, ubiquitous in China in any public place where a client stays longer than five minutes -- trains, buses, subways and shops -- broadcast a kung-fu movie. We took our seats. A male and female technician entered the room and, in unison, sat down on stools in front of us. In sync, they muttered a greeting we didn't understand, then offered a foot soak in a wooden tub filled with almost intolerably hot water and some smelly herbs. Through Don, who was born in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong and has some command of Mandarin, I asked what the mixture was. The answer? As expected: "Ancient Chinese secret."

As quickly as they entered the room, they exited. As our feet soaked, I had to fight to stay awake. Fifteen minutes later, the couple marched back in, sat down and began the next stage: a thousand-beats-a-minute assault on our right calves. I was enjoying it when suddenly, in perfect unison, they stopped, then began to twist our toes in painful half-nelsons.

Don and I stared at each other. In front of us were two people with whom we couldn't communicate playing a slightly S & M version of "this little piggy" on our toes while a kung-fu movie blared in the background. Soon, the couple were in full rhythmic force on our left calves, when once again, as synchronized as Olympic swimmers, they stopped. It was time for the main event: reflexology.

Reflexology has been practised in China since the fourth century BC. Its first documented practitioner, an acupuncturist named Wang Wei, maintained that every organ in the body is connected to a specific reflex point on the feet. Precise and skilled manipulations of these points can stimulate vital functions, he preached, eliminate toxins, improve blood circulation and sooth nerves. The practice was driven underground during the Cultural Revolution. But in the past few years, foot-massage parlours have opened all over this sprawling city.

Most foot-massage technicians come from Henan province, home of a renowned massage school. Almost all are from impoverished peasant families. Through Don, I learned that our masseurs work pretty much round the clock, six days a week, live and eat in residence, and send most of their earnings back to their families. It is conveyor-belt work, possibly more desirable then factory drudgery, but the non-stop massages result in technicians who have an eerie automaton quality, even when they are pounding out rapid fire beats on your legs.

After finishing with a Phillips screwdriver-like massage of our arches, they stood, muttered something and left. Several minutes later, they came back armed with creams and lotions. When this was done we were led down the corridor, to another large room, where we settled in for a back and shoulder massage. It all ended with some ceremonious shouts from the pair.

We retreated back out into the dark night. "If synchronized calf-beating makes it into the Olympics," I said to Don as we floated on air toward a cab, "China will definitely take the gold."

Pack your bags

BEIJING AT NIGHT

Liang Zi Foot Massage: 24 Jian Guo Men Wai St.; 86 (10) 6515 6666. Costs about $30 a person. Take a card with the address since most cab drivers don't speak English.

Red Moon Bar: Located at the Grand Hyatt Beijing, 1E. Chang an Ave.; 86 (10) 8518 1234, ext. 6578; http://www.beijing.grand.hyatt.com.

Lotus (Lian hua): Lotus Lane, 23 Yandai Xiejie; 86 (10) 6407 7857.

Cafe Sambal: 43 Doufuchi Hutong, Jiu Gulou Dajie; 86 (10) 6400-4875. A "hidden" bar in a hutong. Serves Malaysian mojitos.

Banana: 22 Jianwai Dajie, first floor of Scitech hotel; 86 (10) 6528 3636. A dance club with Chinese pop music mixed in techno beats.

WHERE TO STAY

Grand Hyatt: 1-800-233-1234.

Peninsula Palace Beijing: 8 Goldfish Lane; 86 (10) 8561-2888; http://www.peninsula.com.

MORE INFORMATION

Useful websites about visiting China include china.org.cn and cnta.com.

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