He had the back of my neck in a tight grip before he jabbed his thumb hard into the side of it. A little later, I felt an elbow dig into my back. I was lying face down on a massage table but this place was a far cry from the soft lighting, ambient music and scented candles of a luxury spa.
Lit by bare fluorescent tubes from a ceiling marked by stains around exposed water pipes, it was one of two small rooms, each with three narrow tables about half a metre apart. Those of us stretched out on them were all fully clothed and the masseurs were all blind or with low vision.
There are places like this every few blocks in Beijing and tens of thousands of blind people work as massage therapists across China. The numbers have increased hugely since the 1990s following a government initiative aimed at improving employment opportunities for people with visual impairments.
The policy created opportunities for blind people but critics say it has also had the effect of limiting options for many and reinforcing prejudice by implying that visually impaired people have a natural talent for massage. The Chinese government has sought in recent years to improve opportunities for blind massage therapists through medical qualifications that also raise their social status.
The fear of coronavirus has almost gone and restaurants, bars, buses and underground trains are packed as China gets used to the return of normal life
The masseurs use a “push and pinch” technique that also involves kneading and stretching and it is a robust, vigorous procedure. Instead of oil, they use a thin sheet of cotton the size of a tea towel to move along the back as they massage.
I had been feeling a little stiff since a night at the opera that left me on the edge of my seat, not because of the drama onstage but because the woman behind me was so rapt that she was leaning forward throughout the show. It was a selection of scenes from Chinese operas performed by some of Beijing’s biggest stars and the Chang’An Grand Theatre was booked out.
The performers wore smart suits and evening dresses but almost everyone in the audience, which included a lot of children as well as the middle-aged and old, wore sneakers, jeans and long, thick coats.
There can be a kind of informal intimacy between those onstage and in the stalls at the theatre in China and the curtain call often ends with performers and audience waving at one another, like friends at the end of an evening together. Here at the opera, feats of vocal athleticism, particularly the highest notes, won loud cheers of “hao” and after a standout performance, the audience demanded an encore, shouting “zai lai yi ge” (another one).
Some of the children leaving the theatre carried lanterns on sticks for the Lantern Festival which marks the end of the Chinese New Year holiday and the traditional start of spring. In the days that followed, there was a change in the weather so that although it was still cold, the sharpness was gone from the air.
Out on the streets, coats became lighter and shorter and for a few hours on Wednesday it was warm enough to sit at a table outside a cafe. Most people still wear face coverings outdoors but maybe one in five go without and a growing number have exchanged their heavy-duty N95 masks with light, surgical ones.
A friend told me she was at the gym and that it was crowded but she had to stick it out. “My father told me I’m chunky. With a big, round face,” she said. I said her father was a monster
The fear of coronavirus has almost gone and restaurants, bars, buses and underground trains are packed as China gets used to the return of normal life. The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said 102 coronavirus-related deaths were reported in hospitals on Monday, down almost 98 per cent from a peak of 4273 on January 4th.
Exchanging messages with a friend the other day, she told me she was at the gym and that it was crowded but she had to stick it out.
“My father told me I’m chunky. With a big, round face,” she said.
I said her father was a monster and asked her if she had noticed that everyone had stopped talking about the pandemic. She didn’t reply but later that day, she sent me a notice for Beijing schools with guidelines for dealing with the next outbreak, including the possible return of online lessons for classes with a high number of infections.
If the end of the pandemic is tentative, so too is the start of spring. On Thursday, it snowed.