Blind masseurs are said to have a superior touch. Rob McFarland investigates at a Shanghai parlour.
It's not a good start. After being shown to a treatment table by the receptionist at Lulu Massage, I instinctively start to strip off. I'm already down to my boxer shorts and am about to lie down when she comes running back out with a squeal and a flurry of hands. It would appear I've been a little overeager.
Apparently, the only items of clothing I need to remove are my shoes. I sheepishly put everything back on and quickly lie down to hide my glowing face.
During this kerfuffle my male masseur has been waiting patiently on the other side of the room. Why didn't he say anything while I was stripping off? Because he's blind. As are all the therapists employed at Lulu. It's the parlour's speciality and the reason I'm here.
For centuries blind people have found work as masseurs; it's claimed that their heightened sense of touch makes them better therapists. In 2006, the Chinese government started an initiative to help blind people find work as masseurs and it's estimated there are now more than 110,000 around the country.
On a leafy street in Shanghai's stylish French Concession district, Lulu Massage is an innocuous-looking shop with an amusing English sign in the window that declares it to be a "Pressure Centre of Blind Person".
Along one side of its unassuming, dimly lit interior are three massage tables and four large armchairs; on the other a narrow bench, four more armchairs and a staircase.
My masseur starts at my neck and slowly works his way down my body, covering each area with a towel as he goes. I've never been massaged with my clothes on before and it's better than I expected. He finds a couple of knots in my back and gently loosens each in turn. The pressure is perfect. Hard enough to feel like it's doing some good but not so hard that I need something to bite on to stop myself from crying out.
The treatment's highlights are a tension-melting head massage and an unusual procedure that I can only describe as a vigorous buttock shake. This was an unexpected addition and an absolute revelation. (I've since tried to administer it to myself at home and it is surprisingly difficult.)
Next up is a foot massage. I settle into one of the large, comfortable armchairs and immerse my feet in a tub of soothing hot water. After a few minutes, a therapist carefully feels her way down the stairs and the receptionist guides her over to where I'm sitting.
I'm feeling apprehensive. I have incredibly ticklish feet and I have visions of accidentally knocking her out with an involuntary leg spasm. I can already see the headline in tomorrow's paper: "Tourist jailed after karate-kicking blind masseuse in the face." Thankfully, she senses this and adjusts the pressure accordingly.
The couple of times I do tense up, she scolds me with a smile and a playful smack on the foot. Other therapists start to arrive and the interaction between them is a joy to watch. Cries of greeting go up as each one enters the shop and slowly navigates across the room, white stick click-clacking on the wooden floor.
My jaw drops when one man turns up wearing a helmet and, for a terrifying moment, I imagine him weaving through Shanghai's chaotic traffic on a motorbike (it turns out a friend gave him a lift).
Soon there are four therapists sitting on the bench opposite, waiting for clients, and the room is filled with excited chatter.
Clearly, this is as much a social outlet as it is work. At one point two therapists bump into each on the way to the toilet and exchange what I interpret to be the Chinese equivalent of: "Bloody hell, Bruce, would you look where you're going?" The room explodes in a riot of laughter and my masseuse has to stop to wipe the tears from her face.
When I first heard about Lulu I was worried it might be exploitative in some way. As it turns out, it was the highlight of my stay in Shanghai. After two hours of pampering, I left with a spring in my step and a smile in my heart.
The writer was a guest of Helen Wong's Tours.
Lulu Massage, 597 Central Fuxing Road, Shanghai. Open noon-1am. A 45-minute body massage costs Yuan40 ($6.30). A 60-minute foot massage costs Yuan45. Phone +86 21 6473 2634.