Hurts so good: a welcome return to post-lockdown bliss

167 Susan Murphy

Massage shops were one of the many businesses to be forced to close during COVID-19 lockdowns.Credit:iStock

I carry my stiff neck through the jingling door of my local Chinese massage shop, one of the many businesses to be forced to close during COVID-19 lockdowns. A pair of plastic feet sits on a shelf alongside a matching hand and ear covered in tiny black characters. A gold cat waves into the dimly lit room and a Buddhist statue sits alongside a roll of paper towel. Posters of human bodies hang on the wall, divided into sections like posters showing meat cuts at the butcher.

I am ushered into a cubicle with a few simple words and a gesture towards the curtains. There is no intrusive banter, no aromatic burning oils or a soundtrack of migrating whales. I don’t have to take off my clothes and expose my middle-aged torso or become covered in oil that would coat my hair and make my feet slip around inside my shoes. I drop my belongings into a box under the massage table and wriggle to align my face with the padded hole at one end. I’m laid out, relaxed and ready to feel the fine line between pleasure and pain.

The practice of Chinese massage was first recorded on bones and tortoise shells dating back 5000 years. Massage is part of Chinese culture and many people learn to administer it. Therapeutic massage businesses throughout Asia lie in wait for customers in convenient locations, near restaurants, shops, offices and easily accessible spaces, offering massage as a part of the daily routine.

Australia’s pre-Federation fear of men in plaits and “pyjamas” and the “Mongolian Octopus” led to the White Australia Policy and a long- standing mistrust of non-Western goods and practices of any kind. Thankfully, the numbers of Chinese massage centres, located all over Australia today, show Australians have embraced the ancient “Eastern” practice of Chinese massage. At last.

The smell of tiger balm permeates the air inside my cubicle. A Chinese tune warbles softly in the background. As I drift into dreamy sleep, I imagine tiger balm isn’t made from menthol and camphor but from puddles of butter left behind by whirling tigers, like the ones in the children’s story. I’m snapped back to consciousness with an elbow searing my sciatic nerve. My massage practitioner finds my most painful points and works on them with dogged determination.

After an hour of kneading, pummelling, pressing and pinching — between shots of yelp-inducing pain and periods of blissful reprieve — I float sleepily back through the tinkling door with a free-moving neck, straight back and grateful to find the ancient art of Chinese massage is back in business.

Susan Murphy is a freelance writer.



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