A friend of mine–a graduate student in anthropology at a well-known U.S. university–was compelled to leave China recently. The circumstances were unclear and his departure was sudden. Literally he just packed a few things and was on the next flight back to the United States.
We were not particularly close, but had bonded somehow in that way that people in a foreign country do over certain very narrow shared interests. Before he left, he called me and asked me to help wind down his affairs. And so I met him in a shady spot one summer evening by the Liangma Canal in Beijing.
He handed me a copy of his apartment key along with two manila envelopes, one much thicker than the other. We exchanged pleasantries. He looked well, but was clearly suffering. I didn’t ask him any details, and he didn’t offer any. I figured there would be time for that later when he was back in the U.S. I simply told him how much I appreciated our conversations, wished him good luck, shook his hand and then we parted.
Later, on the secluded rooftop of Vineyard on the River, I examined the contents of the envelopes. One contained bank forms and other financial documents. The other contained pages of his thesis. On the title page was typed:
I turned the page and began to read.
“January 13, 2014
I have found Sauna City, here’s how it happened. I met someone online who claims to have been there. The ISG people are a strange bunch–worth a study in their own right. But they came through all right.
I met my contact at Starbucks in Xintiandi. We could at least both find this spot. We exchanged greetings and small talk then he asked me if I was ready to go and I said I was. We got a cab and were off.
From the city center, past neighborhoods of preserved early-century architecture, past the cultural district, through the suburbs, past the warehouses and the industrial area, past the factories where they make the really big machines, past the dumping grounds and trash heaps, past isolated gated villa communities, past a replica of the White House, we drive through a dark countryside of family farms separated by clumps of hideous, three story houses all topped with TV antennae which somehow manage to resemble miniature versions of the Pearl Tower in Lujiazui.
We keep going a while until we reach an unmarked spot where we turn on a side road which soon takes us to a perimeter of street lights marking the edge of a small city. We enter the city and drive around. It looks like any other Chinese city–ramshackle, random, slightly chaotic. Block after block of apartment buildings and office towers–all grown grey and stained with the passing of decades.
In a part of town which looks just like any other we circle around a bit and finally stop at an intersection. My guide points catty-corner and ducks his head down to get a better look. ‘That’s it. Sauna City. Shall we go in?’
In the last six months I have devoted most of my time to Sauna City research. I’m determined to switch my focus and write my thesis on it. It’s fascinating. It’s a force of nature. It almost completely resisted the sex trade crackdown which took down Dongguan and Changping. Just need to convince my preceptor, Dr. _______, that it’s the right thing to do, and of course find some support funds.
The building looks pretty much exactly like any other building. It’s above average in size–I counted 55 floors–but not even the biggest in the area. However, inside, it is filled in entirety by massage parlors, saunas and spas. Every floor, every corner of every floor has been subdivided and leased to the country’s most notorious purveyors of pleasure. Some are regal establishments filling up three full floors, some are just a few shabby rooms subleased to independent operators.
Most establishments cater to mainstream tastes, but recently a flourishing subculture of independent operators has taken root, setting up shops catering to very specific perversions with very different pricing structures. Some focus on the massage provider, some focus on the service rendered, some focus on things which are simply not readily describable, but are clear nonetheless.
In the waiting room at one of them–Emperor’s Treasure Sauna–I see a TV commercial. A gaotie train ploughs through a pile of gold coins and gold bars, CGI job. Final screen: ‘Strong China!’
It reminds me that there is no government regulation in Sauna City. The original owners of the building were said to have been poisoned years ago, their bodies embalmed and propped up around a table somewhere within. In lieu of direct control, incredibly opaque networks have grown up which link it to the outside world, facilitated by bribery, intimidation, sexual favors and kinship considerations.
Scene from outside Sauna City. It’s a summer day, hot and humid and threatening rain. A few old people–residents of the neighborhood–shuffle down the street carrying plastic bags weighed down by bloody cuts of raw pork. An endless sluggish stream of cars slowly rolls by on a hooting, honking elevated highway which reaches up to Sauna City’s 15th floor. A few toughs loiter around an entrance, the kind of kids who grip cigarettes between their teeth when they smile. Occasionally a cab or private car pulls up dispatching a fugitive occupant who hurries in through an entrance and disappears into the gloom of the building.
I’m told that a few years back another building nearby was leased out in entirety to an unknown entity and renovations were started, intending to expand Sauna City’s influence. The project was quite suddenly shut down after a few months as if someone had decided that the current cancer will be allowed its space, but no more.
Inside Sauna City there is what could be called a central elevator, but it doesn’t start on the first floor, nor does it go all the way to the top. The reasons for this are unclear. The building was originally only 28 floors and was purposed to house a branch of the all-powerful State Grid. In the end, the State Grid did not need the building as they consolidated employees in a huge garish modernist structure made of polychrome, glass and concrete on the edge of Shanghai in the middle of a plot of reclaimed farmland. As such, the building was deserted.
Sometime later–no one is exactly sure when–the first spas and saunas moved in. It quickly filled up. As attempts to colonize nearby buildings failed, they simply began adding floors and building up. At the same time, they also dug into the foundation, hollowing it out and filling it with perversion. Over the years it added levels and parts of levels by the twos and threes, resulting in a rat’s-warren of shabby construction and makeshift engineering atop a web of welded struts and supports made of a variety of materials of vastly differing quality.
Currently, Sauna City is known to hold more sex workers than entire Chinese cities. Some estimate its semi-permanent population at 75,000.
Most of the girls lived in Sauna City. A few lucky ones were able to maintain residence outside. They would commute in and out at strange hours, dressed drably with their work things stuffed into knock-off designer bags so as not to attract attention.
But most girls lived inside, partially out of convenience, partially to save money. They slept in shifts in the same places they plied their trade. The rooms were shifted around in more or less fixed schedules so that a girl might be servicing a client in one room while in an adjacent room another girl was catching four hours of sleep.
This in itself became a perversion.
Some clients found they liked imagining the girl sleeping next door while while being serviced. This led to another niche perversion which was for a client to occupy a room for hours listening to clients being serviced in the next room–the playful banter which turns to heaving breathing and moans and dirty talk.
Still other establishments developed further iterations whereby anyone entering as a client and anyone working as a masseuse implicitly agreed to let themselves be spied on without their knowledge at any time via concealed holes and periscope-like devices. Eventually this morphed into video feeds, which, I am told, were eventually hacked by the underground.
In such a way did demand and supply evolve in ways constrained only by imagination and the twin poles of human decency and human endurance.
Girls typically did not last longer than a year, many only 6 months. In general, they were quite free to come and go, and, amongst themselves, experienced clear feelings of solidarity. There was a pecking order, to be sure, one not always congruent with seniority, but it shifted frequently and with rapidity, partially because the turnover was so great. New faces were always arriving from all parts of the country.
For the vast majority, the motivation to ‘enter Sauna City’ (xia sangna cheng 下桑那城) was clear: money. The best could make a lot. The merely mediocre could still do well, better than other massage parlors at least. And though difficult for obvious reasons, the work was still straightforward most of the time, sometimes even pleasurable.
And for some of the massage girls, part of the motivation was in fact pleasure–they genuinely enjoyed the sensuality, the sex, the animal contact. Some of these girls became genuine superstars–their services sought by many who often had to book weeks in advance, and even then were subject to the caprice of mood or whim. More often though the superstars graduated up to become managers, organizing schedules, recruiting, training, settling disputes, collecting money, year after year getting older, wiser, richer and more garrulous.
Some even became quite wealthy by identifying new niches and setting themselves up independently in some derelict corner of Sauna City.
I met one such veteran ayi. She’d become a laoban niang （female boss), saved up a pile of cash and even adopted a small child–a girl–whom she fawned over.
I often heard her whisper to the child, ‘You won’t have to suffer, my dear, not like I did.’
She was an equitable old soul. Her only hatred was clients who propositioned her for the girl. These she called scum and banned from ever entering her door again. In fact, from what I have been able to see, this is the main prohibition in Sauna City–no underage workers.
Although some most definitely did secure positions via forged papers (there was little that could be done if someone was resolutely determined to ‘enter Sauna City’), that was a line which was simply not crossed. And those who foolishly tried, were drummed out quickly, forever barred by the residents of Sauna City, never to return.
Sauna City’s reputation spread quickly, first around the region and then around the country and finally around the world, facilitated by online communities of those who devote some part of their soul to this pursuit. It became as famous as certain arrondisements in Bangkok, Thailand, and Angeles City, the Philippines.
Online guides grew up, maps were made, printed, passed around. Tip boards drew in steady traffic, touts offered professional guide service. Occasionally an article would appear in mainstream media–suitably sensationalist. For a nanosecond it would be a global topic, before quickly sinking beneath the global media event horizon, returning it to ‘local concern’.
Locally it was one of those open secrets that somehow remain known yet unuttered (like ‘politicians are liars’). Local residents knew of it, but couldn’t really point out which 55-story building it was out of all the similar buildings in the area. Cab drivers, of course, knew it, but wouldn’t take you there if they didn’t like your looks or you couldn’t speak the language. Local people hardly ever went there, same as how the Dutch never visit coffee shops in Amsterdam.
But all this is mere background. I have yet to do any in depth character study on a Sauna City massage worker. That is the next phase of my project. In that regard, I think I have a promising lead. We shall soon see.”
Here the notes end. I can only imagine that the “promising lead” led to a dead-end, or worse. In any event, this write up seems to be a synopsis of much larger body of notes which I could not find even after thoroughly dismantling my friend’s Beijing apartment.
With the manuscript was a note, hand-written, which said simply: “If you don’t hear from me in a month, go public with it.”
Today marks exactly one month.