Communal bathing at public bathhouses is a popular pastime among older men, particularly in northern China.
Here, customers can laze around in warm pools, get a rubdown from staff, and wallow away the day for as little as $4.
Some play Chinese chess, others watch cricket fights, and a few even bring along their pet birds.
But the days of the traditional bathhouse are waning in China, as they’re eclipsed by pricier, more modern facilities that offer additional perks like karaoke, billiards, and buffets.
Shuang Xing Tang is one of the last no-frills bathhouses in Beijing.
Located in the suburban neighborhood of Nanyuan, the two-floor bathhouse has retained much of its original character from the early 20th century, with its wood panels and ceramic tiles. It’s been featured in several movies and television shows.
Shuang Xing Tang’s history dates back to 1916, when it was established by a laborer to serve soldiers in the area.
After the Communists came to power in 1949, the bathhouse fell under state ownership until it was bought by the current manager’s father, Xiong Zhizhong, in 2003.
A native of Jilin province in China’s northeast, Xiong was a history buff and enthusiast of old Beijing culture.
He also loved communal bathing, a common practice in rural Jilin, where people didn’t have bathing facilities at home.
“When my father read in a newspaper that this century-old bathhouse was in search of a tenant, he was there,” his son, Xiong Gangjian, recalls.
By then, the bathhouse had been revamped and modernized, “with all the traces of old Beijing gone,” Xiong says.
Using images from an old film that featured the bathhouse, as well as accounts from old customers, Xiong Zhizhong went about restoring the building to its original form. The endeavor cost him more than $40,000.
But now, the future of Shuang Xing Tang remains uncertain.
The zone it occupies has been earmarked for demolition and redevelopment. Ramshackle houses, vacant buildings, and crumbling roads dot the landscape.
“Maybe after all the surrounding residential settlements are bulldozed, it will be our turn,” Xiong Gangjian says, “because the land the bathhouse occupies belongs to the government.”
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Xiong’s father made several efforts to preserve the bathhouse.
In 2014, he secured a designation from the Chinese government for businesses with distinct cultural characteristics.
He also applied for the bathhouse to be included on the Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
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But Xiong says all his father’s conservation efforts proved futile.
The government designation did not necessarily entitle the bathhouse to protection, and the business struggles to make a profit. There are only about 70 daily customers on weekdays and over 100 on weekends.
Xiong was initially reluctant to take over the business from his father, and even fought with him over the matter.
“I felt that he didn’t understand me,” Xiong says. “I was alienated from him for a long time and hated him somewhat.”
But after several years of working alongside his father, Xiong developed an attachment to the place and its most loyal customers.
“When I first arrived, I didn’t have much to talk about with the customers because they were much older than me,” he says. “But as I got older myself, I got along with them much better.”
Now, Xiong manages the bathhouse by himself, after his father left to focus on other businesses.
“I have become friends with the customers,” Xiong says. “Some customers bring their songbirds, and I enjoy hearing the music waft through the bathhouse. I have developed a love for bathing, too.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.