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July 21, 2009

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Home » Feature » Health and Environment

Blind date - Perfect for a massage

JENNY Yu swears by massage to help her stay healthy and rub away various aches and pains caused by sitting at a desk all day. This week it's a sore neck, so she takes out her 12-session massage card and makes an appointment for 45 minutes of therapeutic bliss.

The 27-year-old insurance analyst doesn't go to a spa. She enters a dimly lighted 20-square-meter room with six massage beds, five of them already filled.

Wearing a T-shirt and pants, she lies face down on a bed covered by a clean sheet. A visually impaired man wearing dark glasses and an orange T-shirt is led to her bedside.

"Is there any especially uncomfortable spot this week?" asks David Xiao, who has been giving traditional Chinese medicine massage (focusing on acupuncture points) for 11 years. She tells him about her neck. She's one of his regular customers.

Xiao covers Yu with a white sheet and starts rubbing her neck and shoulders. The soreness seems to dissolve.

With a card, Yu pays around 27 yuan (US$3.95) for a so-called "blind massage." All masseurs and masseuses are visually impaired. Good value at Heng Kang (Forever Health) near Fuxing Park, and good value in general.

Compared with many spas and massage centers with multiple services and amenities (TV, dining, pools), these massage centers staffed by the visually impaired are a bit shabby.

There are usually five to eight massage beds to a room. Clean sheets is all you get, apart from the rubdown.

Many Chinese people swear by "blind massage" therapy and these places are doing quite well in spite of the economic slowdown - business has even picked up. Expats, too, find some to their liking, though many prefer a more private setting.

There are small, family-run "blind" massage places as well as large chains, such as Shuang Caihong (Double Rainbows), Zhi Hui (Wisdom) and Yi Lin (Art Forest).

Shuang Caihong has three outlets, altogether 50 beds, and treats 150-200 customers a day.

It opened in 1997 with just six beds. It employes 45 visually impaired masseurs and masseuses with certificates of disability and a Health Care Massage Certificate from the Shanghai Labor and Social Security Bureau.

All outlets are busy all day, from noon to 10pm, says General Manager Wang Beilei.

The cheap price, of course, is an attraction. It ranges from 30 yuan to 80 yuan for 45 minute. Buying a card for multiple visits means a discount. Spa massage usually costs at least 180 yuan in Shanghai.

Some customers prefer spa privacy, a double room shared with a friend, a free meal, TV and champagne.

Kelly Lin, a 25-year-old reporter, says she gets a massage by the visually impaired if she has sore muscles, but she prefers a spa if she just wants a relaxing massage with a friend.

The skillful TCM massage by the visually impaired keeps customers coming back. Sometimes customers will follow their favorite massage therapist when he or she changes employers.

Jenny Yu is one of them and her favorite is 31-year-old David Xiao, who was born with weak vision. She was suffering from lower back pain and he relieved the problem. She had tried high-end message centers, but there was no big improvement. A friend recommended Xiao.

"It was amazing that he discovered my problem right away when he massaged my lower back, though I just asked for a whole body massage," says Yu.

"It is said that blind people are better at massage as they have a keen sense of touch, but I wasn't convinced until then."

After two months of regular massage, the backache was gone. That was six months ago. Yu still goes for massage whenever she feels physically tired.

TCM massage can help relieve sore muscles and joints as well as lower back and other pain. It can also help treat some internal problems like high blood pressure and diarrhea, according to Dr Pan Yunhua, chief physician of Massage Department of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.

Since the 1980s, professors at the university opened TCM massage courses to the visually impaired to help them find careers.

Over the years the courses helped many people support themselves, according to Carl Wang of the Labor Employment Service for the Disabled in Jing'an District.

"Visual impairment has robbed people of many work possibilities, but massage relies more on the touch than the eyes and this can help people develop their ability," says Wang. "They are usually more sensitive than others in finding the problem by touching."

Dr Pan says she has seen highly talented visually impaired massage therapists. But having vision problems does not mean someone is a gifted masseur. It takes talent and diligence in learning and practice.

There are three city-level certificates - primary, middle and high. Each course takes about two months and students must pass an exam.

The most popular massage places in Shanghai require staff to have at least the middle-level certificate.

Masseur Dong Dalin, 51, lost his vision when he was 15 years old, due to glaucoma.

He is one of the first people with visual impairment to gain the high-level massage certificate in Shanghai.

Many people think it's easy for the visually impaired, but it's not, says Dong who took a course open to both the visually impaired and those with normal vision.

"Ordinary people can see and feel the muscle and acupuncture points, but for me, I can only feel," says Dong.

To keep up in class, he tape recorded all sessions and replayed them for practice - he broke two tape recorders during one year of study.

"It was hard, but I liked it," he says. "Now I know what I can do and I can do it well."

After getting the three certificates, he started giving massage at home. His first clients came through friends' recommendations but he soon became popular through his skill and results.

Other massage therapists like Xiao work at massage centers where newcomers can learn from more experienced staff. Over the years he has had several apprentices, men and women.

"Textbook learning is far from enough. Different techniques are required," says Xiao. "Harder isn't always better."

Experienced though he is, Xiao recommends patients to go to the hospital if they're suffering a serious wrench or sprain, as massage centers are only allowed to provide healthcare services, not medical treatment.

Blind massage chain stores in Shanghai

Shuang Caihong (Double Rainbows)

Address: 45 Yongjia Rd

Tel: 6473-4000

Address: 426 Yuyuan Rd

Tel: 6211-7146

Address: 29 Pingwu Rd

Tel: 6294-5660

Yi Lin (Art Forest)

Address: 1842 Changning Rd

Tel: 5272-20122

Address: No.1, Lane 100 Nandan Rd E.

Tel: 6464-3786

Address: Rm 101, No. 4, Lane 119 Ronghua Rd E.

Tel: 6278-3282

Address: No.1, Lane 263 Huanlong Rd

Tel: 6876-0919

Address: 521 Xujiahui Rd

Tel: 5301-4327

Zhi Hui (Wisdom)

Address: Suit B, 2/F, 640 Zhangyang Rd

Tel: 5835-5009

Address: 3/F, 643 Hankou Rd

Tel: 6351-9867


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