A RECENT case involving some bathhouse bandits seemed like a good excuse to look at the colorful history of public showers in China over the last half century. Such public bathhouses were a fixture of everyday life for years in a densely populated city like Shanghai, where some homes still do not have their own shower place.
In addition to their more functional role as places to wash, these bathhouses were traditionally an important place to socialize, where people could chat with friends and neighbors and catch up on all the latest news and gossip while soaking in a hot tub.
Much of that glamour has been lost these last few decades in Shanghai’s current generation of grungy bathhouses, which themselves are rapidly drying up.
I would argue that many of these dingy bathhouses indeed need to be closed and washed away into the history books. But I would also add that a new generation of cleaner, well-equipped facilities could be just the tonic that Shanghai needs to add some color and character to an urban bath culture that is fast disappearing.
This case of the bathhouse bandits reflects the sorry state of Shanghai’s few remaining public baths, in this case drawing attention to their lax security. The case saw a gang of 19 youths secretly copy keys of the lockers in nine public bathhouses, and then plunder the contents of those lockers. Altogether they stole valuables worth 530,000 yuan (US$87,000) in their crime spree between January 2012 and June 2013.
One of my earliest impressions of Shanghai comes from a trip to a bathhouse back in 1987, and I’ll readily admit it was equally or even more unpleasant than having things stolen from my locker. Many homes didn’t have running water at that time, and the family that hosted me and two of college classmates lived in one such home in a rundown building.
We mostly used a basin to wash our faces and hands, but one day our host decided it was time to get a proper shower. Since my two classmates were both women, they both went to a different section of the neighborhood bathhouse and I had to enter the male section of the building by myself.
I won’t go into too much detail, except to say it was poorly lit and quite grungy by Western standards. The bathing pool was particularly memorable, filled with murky bubbling water emitting a steady flow of smelly steam. But equally memorable were the stares I received when I walked into the room, as most of the people had never seen a white foreigner before, let alone a naked one.
After that traumatic visit, I avoided public bathhouses in China at all costs. But in the interim, I also traveled to Japan several times where I saw how pleasant such facilities could be.
Unlike the Chinese bathhouses, the ones in Japan were immaculate and brightly lit, and often contained socializing areas like big pools and brightly lit saunas where people could read, chat and watch TV.
I was also impressed by the 1999 movie “Shower,” directed by Zhang Yang, which revolves around the vibrant social life at a public bathhouse in Beijing.
After reading the latest report about the bathhouse bandits, I decided it was time to break my two-decade ban and re-visit a Shanghai bathhouse to see what had changed. I was surprised by how rare these facilities have become, and after many queries was finally directed by the guard at my building to a place about two kilometers from my home in an area of Hongkou filled with crumbling old buildings.
I walked inside, took a look around and quickly decided it was not yet time to end my ban. The bathhouse was marginally cleaner than the one I visited in 1987, and slightly better lit. But the stares I received from the five or six bathers inside were enough to convince me to make a quick exit.
After that return visit, I could understand why one of my older local friends told me he rarely goes anymore to such bathhouses, which look destined to die a slow and anonymous death that is probably overdue.
But at the same time, it’s really too bad that Shanghai hasn’t done more to try to modernize and revitalize these traditional gathering places, which could really add some color and character to the city and help to revive a sense of community spirit.