Playtime at The Asylum: A Chinese Bath House

A smiley face from the Publicity of Credibility in Places of Bathing. Good. Very Good.

I'm walking around what looks like the lobby of a five star hotel, wearing blue plastic flip-flops and a vibrant muumuu covered in pink hibiscuses, feeling slightly uncomfortable and very underdressed next to the Persian carpets and marble check-in desk. To one side, a sleek black grand piano plays classical music. By itself. The keys just go up and down, plinkety plonk, plinkety plonk, churning out a Chopin piece. There is a piano stool and some sheet music propped up on the top of the piano, as if to suggest that the pianist is really there but due to some sensory alteration on my part I just can't see him. 

A polite young man in a suit hands me a menu, so I can choose between dim sum, mahjong, karaoke or a floor show before my foot massage today. Or if I prefer, I could have my foot massage during any of the above activities. Welcome to the confusing and surreal world of the Chinese bath house, a 24 hour pleasure palace for men and women, young and old. Before you go conjuring up seedy steam rooms filled with supplicant young Chinese women, forget it. This place is so much more than a spot to get clean, beyond anything you could dream up whilst sober. Six flooors of private rooms and restaurants stretch upwards from the lobby. The corridors are filled with Hawaiian print pyjama clad men and women, padding around in their flip-flops, having a great time going from bath to karaoke to tea to facial. The atmosphere is somewhere between a Butlin's Holiday Camp and the recreation deck on a really cheap cruise ship, or some kind of high class mental hospital, with the similar feeling of being locked in with all the other inmates. At any moment the tray of neuroleptics will appear along with the dim sum.

I'm here with my mahjong girls today, so we are escorted to the mahjong room, complete with wide screen TV, four comfortable recliners, and one of those amazing self-shuffling fully automated mahjong tables. I tell her we need the room until 4pm. That's OK, our personal waitress tells us, the room fee is for 24 hours. It's cheaper than a hotel, and we've got a crazy automatic mahjong table! I'm slightly obsessed with it. Press a button and the centre circle rises up with lights flashing like a UFO taking off, shove all the tiles down the hole, press another button and four slots slide back and four brand new walls rise up out of the table like magic. It even shuffles the dice for you if you're feeling too exhausted to do that by yourself. I may need the full 24 hours just to get maximum enjoyment out of the table.

We order lunch which, as bath house food goes, is delicious - crispy pigeon, guotie, noodles, fruit platters. Who knew they served this stuff in bath houses? After a full half hour of mahjong it's time for the foot massages. Don't get up! We'll come to you! Four masseurs arrive together, direct us to the recliners in the room and give us a ginger-infused leg treatment (for circulation, burns like hell) and an hour long foot massage. Bliss! The others keep playing while we have our massages, then we all swap. 

I decide we should explore the other floors, just to see what else goes on in these places. The sight of seven foreign women in matching muumuus is very amusing to the staff, who rightly think we look like wallies. We do. Undeterred, we poke our big foreign noses in every room, looking for the seedy undercurrent that must be here somewhere. We can't find it. That stuff must go on in other bath houses. We do find the kids play area though, and a little Chinese girl in a mini muumuu. She's just finished on the indoor climbing gym and is off to find someone to play air hockey with.

Downstairs is where the real bath action happens, through the doors marked 'Woman SPA'. We don't go into the 'man SPA' because that might see us kicked out. The Woman SPA is like a Korean bath house (ie nakedness is requisite), with hot and cold plunge pools, showers, and a battalion of scrubbers waiting to exfoliate you to within an inch of your life. On the spa wall are advertisements for this month's special treatments:

Doesn't look bad, does it? But the next one really caught our eye....

Toblerone facials! Reduce your fat hoard!! What will they think of next?

At 4pm, after more mahjong, I reluctantly hand back my muumuu and receive my shoes in return. I could really get the hang of this place, I think, after a few more visits. I want to come back at night for the 9pm floor show involving (I've heard) rollerskating, acrobatics, and Russian dancers doing a Scottish reel. Of course.

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