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In Beijing, redevelopment threatens last bathhouse

Los Angeles Times [July 17, 2011]

By Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times
In Beijing, redevelopment threatens last bathhouse

Zhang Shan, left, and his friend Dou Liya at Beijing's Shuangxiang Bathhouse. “If I’m at home, I’m not happy, I’m lonely,” said Zhang, who lives alone. “But then I come here and talk to friends, read the newspaper or play chess.” (Benjamin Hass / Los Angeles Times / July 17, 2011)

Reporting from Beijing—

In his twilight years, Zhang Shan has simplified his daily schedule to the bare essentials: Wake up, eat breakfast, walk to Shuangxing Bathhouse and undress.

The bathhouse, on the southern outskirts of the Chinese capital, is a remnant of a time long past when homes here lacked plumbing and all bathing was communal. The bathhouse was also a social gathering point where men flocked to sweat, talk politics and relax.

But now, local authorities with an eye toward redevelopment appear intent on demolishing what is believed to be the last traditional public bathhouse in Beijing and the social culture that emanates from it.

Zhang, 67, used to commute more than an hour by public bus to fulfill his daily ritual, but two years ago he moved within walking distance.

The retired factory worker, head shaved and missing all but two of his front teeth, now lives alone in a small room. His bathroom has a toilet and a sink, but no shower.

“If I’m at home, I’m not happy, I’m lonely,” Zhang explained, sitting with only a white towel around his waist. “But then I come here and talk to friends, read the newspaper or play chess.”

Zhang grew up frequenting bathhouses, but one by one, they have been replaced by modern spas in upscale hotels that help define today’s Beijing. The new ones cost 180 yuan ($27) and up, compared with the eight-yuan entrance fee at Shuangxing. Beyond the high prices, says Shuangxing’s owner, Xiong Zhizhong, are larger issues.

“I’ve been to Bali to see what a Western spa is like,” said Xiong, who often washes in his own bathhouse. “They don’t use natural light, there’s no socializing, and there are too many creams and soaps. It’s so artificial.”

Traditional bathhouses similar to Shuangxing, which was built in 1916, became popular in the mid-17th century, when specialized bricks were imported from Europe. Almost all were for males only.

Bathhouses were a destination for people from all walks of life, who would mingle without being subject to the rigid hierarchal social structures of the outside world.

“There wasn’t a separation between common people and nobility,” said Zhao Shu, a retired member of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Program. “Once you take your clothes off, everyone is the same.”

Beijingers, young and old, spend hours wrapped in white towels playing chess or singing patriotic songs.

Socializing clearly takes precedence over scrubbing; less than one-third of the 1,800-square-foot bathhouse is devoted to baths and showers. Upon entering, patrons are greeted by two rows of narrow wooden beds where they can nap, eat or converse.

When they do go for a dip, they gather in groups and bob around the bath.

One of Zhang’s closest bathhouse friends, Dou Liya, 54, an eccentric poet who recites verses to anyone who will listen, first started visiting Shuangxing on doctor’s orders after suffering a stroke. Now he frequents the bathhouse for the companionship, not for his health.

“If Zhang Shan wasn’t here, I would stop coming,” Dou said before launching into another poem.

On a recent Sunday, retirees discussed the Western-led airstrikes on Libya and debated whether other countries had their own Tomb Sweeping Day, during which Chinese visit their ancestors’ graves.

Shuangxing Bathhouse is on the first floor of an unassuming hotel. Countless renovations over 95 years have left the entryway with a hodgepodge of architectural styles varying from Greek columns and gilded molding to round Chinese archways and carved calligraphy signs.

But the bathhouse itself has seemingly stayed untouched, and owner Xiong is adamant about keeping the interior as close to the original as possible.

Chinese courtyard houses traditionally didn’t have plumbing, so public bathhouses and toilets dotted the city. But the same crush of development that has swept Chinese people into modern apartment blocks has also meant that bathhouses have become obsolete.

Even traditional houses that lack bathrooms have had indoor plumbing installed so residents can shower in their kitchens.

Since the economic liberalization of the 1980s, more than two-thirds of Beijing’s traditional alleyways, or hutongs, have been destroyed to make way for apartment blocks.

Local government “officials only think about what the top officials want them to focus on, and that means new things and Western styles,” said He Shuzhong, founder of the nongovernmental Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. “They believe old buildings and the idea of the new Beijing, as a world city, are incompatible.”

In 2006, Xiong applied for protected status for his building with the Ministry of Culture. Five years later, he hasn’t heard back.

In a last-ditch effort to save the site, Xiong hired experts to measure and photograph every inch of the space. He plans to move the entire building nearby.

In 1935, Beijing alone had 123 traditional bathhouses. Families would make special trips during three major traditional Chinese holidays: the Spring and Dragon Boat festivals and Tomb Sweeping Day.

Zhao, the retired culture official, used to sit on the committee that grants historical protected status. If his thinking is in line with that of current members, Shuangxing Bathhouse’s days could be numbered.

“We have to move forward,” he said. “Our life in Beijing has already changed so much.”

In 1999, the interior of the bathhouse served as the location for a highly acclaimed Chinese feature film, “Shower.” The plot follows an elderly owner in failing health as his fictional bathhouse faces imminent destruction by the authorities, with an eye to redevelopment.

Now that the plot could become reality, Beijingers savor what could be their last soak here. Zhang waxed philosophical about the need to protect Shuangxing Bathhouse.

“We came from water. Without it, there would be no life,” he said.

Haas is a news assistant in The Times’ Beijing bureau. Nicole Liu of the bureau contributed to this report.

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