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How to survive a Hong Kong foot massage (and five places to get one, from cheap to pricey)

A buzzing neon light broadcasting “Massage For Foot and Body” is as much a warning as it is an advertisement. Yes you’ll get a massage, yes you’ll get a seat, but sometimes a lot more besides.

Take my recent visit to one such establishment. Anticipating bliss, I don’t immediately notice anything unusual. I don’t see the washing machine squatting against the wall opposite the recliners. I don’t see the half-drunk wine bottles nestling behind a half-full polystyrene takeaway container. I don’t notice the nappies, or infant formula, or towels or bedsheets hanging up to dry on hangers from the ceiling.

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It hits me that I may have entered someone’s living room. The manager explains. “This isn’t our home, but I have a child and no one to take care of him in the day, so I have to bring him here,” she says.

I sit on a recliner and read the massage menu as a plastic washing up bowl of warm water is placed at my feet. I ignore the single chopstick lying in the bottom. I ponder the gelatinous beige square of something floating on the top (portion of dumpling?). OK it’s not deluxe, but did you see the forearms on madam? She’s been wringing the hell out of sore feet for decades. This will be great.

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After a full 25 seconds of relaxing foot bath, madam returns and whips my feet out of the water. My feet are thrown into a towel, thwacked with a knuckly fist, then flung from the towel onto the footstool.

As the massage starts, reflex points compressed, lotion applied, I close my eyes and start the process of relaxing. But my ears pick up on something.

Before I can place the errant sound, another erupts into the room. Thud. Thud. Thud. It’s the washing machine, and it’s accelerating, and it hums and whines and thuds for the next 30 minutes.

I try not to get distracted. It’s just a spin cycle. I sink deeper into the recliner, and close my eyes.

I open them in a flash as the sound of a young child crashing through the front door breaks through the washing machine hum. He flops down onto the seat opposite, flings a schoolbag under the table and stares at me like I’m pulling faces. Because I am.

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I’m determined to relax. A few minutes later my heart rate is reasonably rest-like. The washing machine din is more distant. I no longer need to force my eyes shut. I’ve stopped frowning.

But then my nose is alerted to something suspicious. A salty, sweaty, meaty smell is floating through the room, followed by the unmistakable sizzle of beef or pork being cooked. I look up to see another woman frying up lunch on a hob next to the washing machine.

She turns to me and smiles and I half expect her to offer me a pork skewer, but instead my attention is diverted by the noise that’s been behind the wall of my consciousness, now starting to soak through to my senses. I can’t quite place it, until a blood-curdling shriek pierces the world. I realise someone has been screaming and squawking from another room in the place throughout. Lucky lady. What I’d do for a regular painful massage right now.

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During the final 10 minutes, a man enters and sits in the recliner next to mine. You’re in for a treat, I think. But he’s not a customer. A woman and a young man join him to play a game of cards, the object of which is to discover who can scream and slap cards onto the leather chair the loudest. “We always chat with customers,” the manager tells me. “We’re very friendly and just want to be ourselves.”

I’ve had a foot massage in Bali that was uncomfortably sandy. I’ve had a foot massage in India that left me with the flu. This Hong Kong experience is the only one that leaves me with earache.

Five places to get a foot massage in Hong Kong, from budget to deluxe:

Bargain:

Sun Yick Massage For Foot and Body

As described above, it may not be tranquil: expect one of Hong Kong’s most cheerfully raucous massage experiences.
45-minute foot massage: HK$138.
Shop 5, Kwan Yick Building, 434A Des Voeux Road West, tel: 2855 0866.

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Mid-range:

Gao’s Foot Massage

A spacious place with 40 massage chairs and eight rooms for further services such as body massage and cupping. 
50-minute reflexology massage: H$198. 
17/F, Silver Fortune Plaza, 1 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2810 9219. gaosfootlankwaifong.com

Ten Feet Tall

With 43 seats for foot-rub fetishists you’re guaranteed a spot, with a menu of juice cocktails on offer to help provide that healthy escape sensation.
50-minute reflexology massage: HK$320-360.
20-21/F, L Place, 139 Queen’s Road, Central, tel: 2971 1010. tenfeettall.com.hk

Zen Massage Foot Massage

Comfy chairs, hot neck presses, soothing music and a low price – you may be bang in the centre of the city but you’d never know it.

50-minute foot massage: HK$198. 
6/F Jade Centre, 96 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2142 1119. facebook.com/zen21421119

Plush:

Four Seasons Spa

A temple to the god of stress reduction, the expert therapists here conjure the same sense of relaxation in an hour as you’d get after a week on an empty beach. 60-minute reflexology massage: HK$1,430. 
Four Seasons Hotel, 8 Finance Street, Central, tel: 3196 8888. fourseasons.com