It was 5am local time when I arrived in Hong Kong. After travelling for 17 hours without sleep (I’ve learned that I function better with no sleep than low-quality airplane sleep) and 20-something episodes of season one of 24, I was ready for a shower and some rest.
My dad, excited for my arrival, had jumped on a bus from Kowloon an hour before to come and meet me at the gate. As we made our way to our home for the next couple of weeks – the City View Hotel on Waterloo Road in Kowloon – he chatted excitedly and earnestly about our plans for the day.
First, we would start with a breakfast of pork and preserved egg congee, a side of rice cakes and a Hong Kong-style milk tea at an eatery around the corner from the hotel – as I was in a much-needed comfort food emergency post-airplane flight. After that, we would go for a day trip to Shenzhen, China. A quick 30-minute trip on the MTR’s East Rail Line to Lo Wu and before I knew it, we were in China and in the heart of downtown Shenzhen.
A city that was once popularized for its amusement parks and gardens, today’s Shenzhen is a mecca for those who love shopping and spas. Work out your bargaining skills on items like handbags, tailored suits and dresses made to order within hours, watches, scarves and shoes. For tired or stressed-out Hong Kong residents or visitors in need of relaxation, Shenzhen is a great spa destination, offering services at incredibly low prices compared to Hong Kong.
A regular 60-minute foot massage ranges in cost from 25 to 50 CNY ($4-8 CAD) and includes a foot and leg massage while you sit in a massage chair. A 90 to 120-minute full body massage costs from 50 to 150 CNY ($8 to $24 CAD). Although the prices are absolutely unbeatable, the spas can vary drastically in the quality of the massage and the quality of the establishment – I learned this the hard way.
While my Cantonese is rusty, my Mandarin is non-existent – forcing me to rely on my father to pick the spa and choose our treatments. We found a respectable-looking spa and were promptly greeted by young Chinese girls dressed in faded ball gowns – an odd sight, but typical for front-of-house hosts at these spas. After a short exchange, I was guided to the women’s dressing room.
Now, what you need to know about spas in Shenzhen is that some of spas, massage parlors and hair salons are actually fronts for prostitution. Generally, the shadier shops have pink lighting and a fair share of girls in short skirts running around. Traditionally in China and parts of Asia, massages were given by the blind. Today if you’re looking for a legitimate Shenzhen spa, find one that still offers massages by a blind masseuse.
For the unknowing traveller stepping into Shenzhen for the first time, tired and weary from a 17-hour flight, I was really looking forward to a foot massage.
As I was guided down a dark hallway towards the women’s change room, I spotted red lighting glowing from behind a couple of doorways. Another door was cracked open just enough for me to glimpse at least six to eight girls spread on the couch watching television, donned with short skirts reminding me of a trashy Sailor Moon Halloween costumes. I quickly averted my eyes and gasped at the realization of the kind of place I had unfortunately stumbled into. I almost ran.
I changed into a spa-issued top and bottoms that made me feel like a hospital patient. Oh, how I missed the comforts of a plush bathrobe and comfortable waiting lounge with citrus-infused water, fruit, and fashion magazines! I was then taken to the foot massage room. Busy with tourists and locals getting a foot massage, drinking tea, and watching family-friendly-rated Chinese television, I breathed a sigh of relief.
After a 30-minute foot massage, I was taken to a private room for my 90-minute massage. The room held two plain double-sized mattresses with a hole at one end for face/head support. A far cry from the usual plush treatment beds and nature-inspired flute music of the many spas I’ve frequented, it was needless to say, the longest 90-minute massage of my life.
I emerged from the spa unscathed albeit, slightly traumatized, vowing to be overcautious from then on when visiting a new spa in a foreign country. Lesson learned.