Hanging out in the public bathhouse where his grandfather worked was one of Liu Guangming’s childhood delights. Every day after school, he took his homework to the bathhouse where his grandfather, a disabled army veteran, helped customers and scrubbed their backs.
“One of my happiest moments was eating sunflowers seeds and chagan (marinated dried bean curd) my grandfather bought from vendors in the bathhouse,” recalled the 38-year-old Yangzhou native. “I used to lie on the lounge and listen to old gentlemen chattering.”
A good hot bath made him sleep so soundly that it was hard for him to get up the next morning and make it to school on time.
Today Liu has opened a vintage-style Yangzhou bathhouse where people can get an authentic misty and sociable experience — with modern plumbing.
Together with zaocha, or Yangzhou-style breakfast, bathing is one of the typical examples of the slow-paced, laid-back life in the city in southern China’s Jiangsu Province. The two major attractions are summed up by locals with a famous puzzle-like saying: “In the morning, skin wraps water; in the evening, water wraps skin,” meaning that in the morning people drink green tea.
Public bathing is an ancient tradition in Yangzhou. A bronze bathtub, bronze pot, bath stool, clogs and pumice were found when archeologists opened the bathing room inside the tomb of Emperor Liu Xu who reigned for more than six decades before his death in 54 BC.
Public bathing is said to have emerged in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) and reached its peak during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It became a ritual and important occasion for socializing and doing business. Literati from Yangzhou and ostentatious salt traders spread word of the custom to other cities.
“The fame of Yangzhou bathing and its skilled masseurs and pedicurists is also due to the decline of the city in the late Qing Dynasty,” said Wei Minghua, emeritus director of the Cultural Research Institute of Yangzhou.
As the salt industry declined and railways replaced the Grand Canal, Yangzhou, once a major canal garrison city, was much less prosperous.
Working people, including barbers, pedicurists and massseurs, were forced to abandon their relatively easy lives in the comfortable city and move elsewhere to make a living.
Yangzhou barbers and bathhouse staff became popular in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province, and Hankou, in today's Wuhan in Hubei Province.
By 1949, Yangzhou had more than 30 public bathhouses. The renowned Yangzhou Bathhouse and another bathing spa opened a section for female customers.
Opened in 1927, high-end Yangzhou Bathhouse was the first in the city to install bathtubs with plumbing for female customers.
All the equipment and furnishings were imported from the United States and Austalia. It pumped water from two wells and two generators provided electricity. Since there was no air-conditioning, the bathhouse circulated the air with transoms and had plastic ceilings that could be removed in good weather. Private rooms had telephones.
“Customers are treated well and feel respected when they bathe in public bathhouses,” said Wei, the Yangzhou researcher.
Yangzhou people call bathhouses huntang, or mixed bathing pools.
“People from all walks of life join in the same pool. Whether rich or poor, everyone is equal when they are naked.
“The public bathhouse is like a microcosm," he said and in the old days, when there was no indoor plumbing and limted entetainment, they were quite lively.
After a hot bath, customers received a hot towel and cup of tea. Wrapped in towels, they relaxed on chairs and lounges, played Chinese chess, talked business, made deals and chatted about evereything from domestic trifles and gossip to politics and war.
Vendors solds snacks while artists performed pingshu (storytelling to music) or operas. Potboys bustled around on errands, pouring tea, hanging clothes on walls overhead or bringing takeaway from nearby restaurants.
Today, public bathhouses are no longer popular since people can afford to bathe at home with better sanitation and facilities — but without the companionship.
“I personally don’t like the old bathhouses. They are quite misty and I find the steam suffocating,” recalled Tom Qian, a Yangzhou native in his thirties who now works in Shanghai.
“I haven’t been to a public bathhouse for 20 years. It’s too time consuming. Some people, especially seniors, still go to the bathhouse after lunch to socialize and won't leave until after dinner," said Wei, who is 64.
“The laid-back ways of the locals was born in the teahouse and bathhouse,” said Wei. “Yangzhou is one of the three cities in China where young people shouldn’t stay too long,” he added, quoting Peking Opera researcher Xu Jichuan. The other two cities are Suzhou and Beijing.
Xu, the secretary to Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang, once said, “If idle young people develop the habit (of going to the teahouse in the morning, and idling away the afternoon in the bathhouse), then they will live such an indolent life that it becomes impossible for them to forge ahead.”
Today Yangzhou has only six old public bathhouses, including the Yangzhou Bathhouse, the Yongning Spring Bathhouse and the Shuanggui Spring Bathhouse, all in the old town area. Some are being renovated and redecorated in hopes of winning back customers from spacious modern spas.
Liu Guangming, who has fond childhood memories of the bathhouse culture, recently opened a vintage-style bathhouse to provide a traditional bathing experience with modern facilities. His Lao Yang Cheng (Old Yangzhou City) Bathhouse, plays Yangzhou Opera on a gramophone, uses kerosene lamps (in addition to electric ones), and bamboo poles to hang up clohtes.
Water is disinfected with sulfur and a circulation and filtration system meets modern requirements for water quality and sanitation.
“Some customers travel all the way from neighboring Gaoyou City to take an authentic hot and misty bath here,” said Liu.
In memory of his grandfather, a disabled veteran, Liu set aside a special free bathing section for customers with disabilities. He provides free pick-up services for people who are unable to get to the bathhouse on their own.