Foot massage parlors are sprouting up all over China. In big cities, like Beijing, there are shops on many street corners, and foot massage chain stores employ thousands of workers. This mushrooming industry is producing thousands of new jobs for the blind, who traditionally in Asia have been trained to do massage.
The Chinese government says more than five million people work in the foot massage trade. Most of them come from poor rural areas, and getting jobs in the city rubbing other people's feet offers a way out of poverty.
Workers at some shops have only minimal training, leaving them wide open to competition from highly trained blind massage therapists, who promise to deliver medicinal benefits at a competitive price. Cao Jun has been blind from birth and he owns three foot massage parlors. "We have an advantage in terms of touching and feeling, so we are very confident that we do a better job than ordinary people," he says.
Massage has traditionally been considered a profession for the blind in China, Japan and other Asian nations. Now the Chinese government is encouraging the blind to take up massage as an occupation that will allow them to live independently. Special massage schools have set up four-year programs, giving sightless students far more training than their sighted counterparts.
Mr. Cao says his 10-year-old business is strictly for medicinal massage based on ancient Chinese theories of reflexology, which say that points on the feet correlate to parts of the body and that specialized foot rubs, which hit the different points, promote overall health.
His massage parlors employ 32 workers. One of them is 23-year-old Guo La, who lost her sight at 17 in a bicycle accident. "When I first lost my eyesight, I lost hope. But after I studied the massage skills, I find my life is coming back again," she says.
As Miss Guo gets set up to give me a massage, a helper carries in a wooden bucket filled with fragrant, steaming water. Soaking the feet is the first step in the process.
And as my feet soak, another attendant brings me a cup of hot water to drink, and Miss Guo starts kneading my shoulders. "Massage will help speed up the blood circulation, and when you drink more water it will help you remove the harmful matters in your body," she says.
Miss Guo received her training near her home in Shanxi Province, but three years ago, she moved to Beijing to get a job. She knew opportunities for blind people were few outside the big cities, but she says the change was still hard. "I got homesick very easily at the beginning, but now I'm used to it," she says.
But she became very close to her co-workers. As in many Chinese businesses, everyone who works at Mr. Cao's parlors - even Mr. Cao himself - lives on the premises.
At night, fresh linens are pulled from a cupboard and the massage tables are made up as beds. In the workers' free time, Mr. Cao provides language classes and computer training, using audio software for the blind that enables them to connect to other blind massage workers in a virtual community.
The shoulder massage is finished off with rhythmic patting. "Patting is one of the massage techniques," says Ms. Guo.
Time now for the main event. Newly loosened up shoulders are eased back into an oversized lounge chair and feet are dried off, wrapped in terrycloth slippers and propped up on a stool. Miss Guo explains how reflexology works.
"If you put your two feet together, we will see it as a sitting human being with the two big toes represent the head, and the other toes representing eyes and ears, and that part, your shoulder, and then down to the end of the feet, your hips, and in the middle, all the inner organs," she says.
As she works, pressing and pulling toe after toe, she gets to one that makes me wince.
Guo: "Eyes. This is for eyes."
Howard: "That one hurt, and guess what? I have a prescription for glasses and I haven't had it filled for a month and I've got to go get some glasses. So, very good call! That was the one that hurt! That one toe!"
As Miss Guo's thumbs press the center of my foot, where the reflexology points for organs are located, she senses a problem - and correctly pinpoints some indigestion.
Miss Guo gently finishes one foot and starts on the other. She says she feels bad for blind people who are stuck in the countryside with few options. She says prejudice against massage holds some of these people back. "People may not want their kids to have this training because they have the wrong perception that this is not a decent occupation, and there are also some negative reports about the sexual services involved in the massage industry. But it's getting better now," she says.
Miss Guo says she is glad her parents allowed her to become a massage therapist. She says she has found her niche, and her parents see a big change in her. "My parents are very happy that I have this new occupation. … I make phone calls to my parents regularly and they feel happy for me," she says.
Again, Miss Guo works her way deftly through each toe and reflexology point. Before long, time is up.
Guo: "It's over. It's done."
Howard: "Hen hao. Hen hao. Very good. Thank you."
Eighty minutes of massage have flown by. And the cost? $7.50.