In Zhenghe neighbor community, a small residential quarter in Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, six massage centers line a 200-meter-long street,with neon signs blazing "Foot Massage," "Back Massage" or "Head Massage".
Massage, once the preserve of the wealthy or the infirm, has become a common part of daily life and an essential aspect of primary healthcare.
Mrs. Zhang, in her 40s, is one of the four masseuses at Wenxin Massage Center, all from rural areas in Yunnan and neighboring Guizhou Province.
Zhang and her colleagues keep 50 percent of their takings, each earning about 1000 yuan (US$125) a month.
"I have been doing massage here for two years and witnessed the boom in massage centers in residential areas. Having a massage from a professional and licensed masseur has become popular," she says.
Although the centers are relatively small and techniques not up to the standards of hospital clinics, they are often busy with local customers, most of whom are aged 30 to 40.
"Taking a massage seems a good way to mitigate fatigue and depression, especially for people living nearby who are reluctant to pay the higher fees of hospitals," Zhang says.
With so much competition, centers in Zhenghe community keep prices low for traditional Chinese massage at 15 yuan (US$1.9), therapeutic foot massage at 35 yuan (US$4.4), facial massage eight yuan, and back massage 20 yuan (US$2.5).
Customers trickle in from noon till midnight, occasionally coming in exhausted after playing all-night mah-jong or cards, Zhang said.
In busier areas of the city, larger centers cater to a wider range of clientele, including the old, young, male and female and offer customers a sauna or a hot spring soak.
"Up to 1,000 people come for a massage here each day, and queues form before festivals like the traditional Chinese Lunar New Year," says Chen Jian, director of the Golden Pond massage center in the downtown area, where prices range from 28 to 138 yuan.
"At least 100 more in Kunming are doing similar business, and there are hundreds or even thousands of centers in every city in China," Chen says.
Han Lu, an employee of a foreign-funded enterprise in Kunming, has received a foot massage at the Golden Pond with her aunts.
"Before my first massage last year, I thought it was embarrassing for a girl to go to a massage center rather than a hospital clinic, or to accept a foot massage from a man, but now I find a foot massage is a great comfort after a hard day," Han says.
"It has a therapeutic effect, and really helps to ease the pain in my neck."
Despite the growing numbers of healthcare professionals and masseurs, they still struggle to keep up with the demand for their services.
Yang Hongji, deputy director of the state committee of certificating foot massage experts, says more than five million foot masseurs are practicing in China, with 100,000 working at massage centers or hospitals in Beijing.
"We still need more," says Yang, himself a senior masseur. "People with certain incomes want this kind of pampering. It offers job opportunities, especially for those without other skills or qualifications."
The government is making efforts to increase training programs and to standardize the market in order to promote qualified massage techniques.
"Massage will eventually become a popular practice of healthcare and relaxation for people in China," Yang says.
(Xinhua News Agency May 12, 2006)