An earful at teatime

In Chengdu, Lee Atkinson finds an old man with a passion for cleanliness.

There's an old man heading straight for me, brandishing two terrifyingly long silver picks above his head, a grin plastered from ear to ear. I try to avoid eye contact but at the same time I'm mesmerised by what might possibly happen next, as he begins to hit the two picks together, emitting a long, low, resonating chime, like a tuning fork.

I take a sip of my tea, clumsily straining the steaming liquid through my teeth in an attempt to avoid swallowing a mouthful of fluffy chrysanthemums. A waiter hovers, resplendent in a canary-yellow silk suit trimmed with red braid. As soon as I set my glass on the rickety table, he refills it with boiling water from a copper kettle, held high above his head, the water streaming out with a theatrical flourish, setting the white flowers swirling.

Beside me, four silent young men are intent on their card game. Opposite, a young couple speak in shy whispers, no doubt glad to escape prying parental eyes for an hour or two. To my right, a middle-aged man is getting his shoes shined, his matronly wife enjoying a table-side shoulder and neck massage, eyes closed in bliss, oblivious to the people and noise around her. In the corner, a young girl dressed in a beautiful silk cheongsam, twirling a paper parasol, poses for a photographer.

There are dozens of people in this shady courtyard of a traditional tea house in the Chinese city of Chengdu but it seems the old man only has eyes for me or at least eyes for my ears. He's an ear picker, one of an army of ear pickers who make their living visiting the countless tea houses scattered around the city, inserting the skinny steel spikes into people's ears, swabbing away with scraps of cotton, intently peering, scraping and scratching as their clients sit, backs straight, eyes closed, expressionless, no hint of whether it's pleasure or pain they are feeling.

You see these ear pickers everywhere in Chengdu. And if you can't see them, you can hear them the chiming picks are a background hum at every tea house you visit. It's easy to imagine it's a city blighted by dirty ears, although I've been told it's more soporific than it looks.

I'm not convinced and prefer to remain grimy eared for the time being, despite being consumed with curiosity about what it would feel like to have one's ears cleaned in public. I try to convince my travelling companion to try it, to which I get a very rude reply.

Meanwhile, we sip our tea, endlessly refilled, the slight bitter aftertaste receding with each top-up. My ears may be resolutely grubby but at least my tea is lowering my blood pressure, cooling my body and relieving any gumminess in my eyes, not that they'd felt particularly gummy in the first place. I'm really just drinking it because it looks pretty.

The ear picker descends with a pleading look on his face. Not today, I say, as he waves his shiny picks in the vicinity of my ears. In an instant he's gone, having spied another pair of dirty ears across the room.