Saturday, 17 September 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 13- Ode to Gao's

Hong Kong is the world's centre for beauty treatments. It seems that every building has dozens of places that specialise in everything from pedicures to hair replacement.  There are ads everywhere for bust treatments (big business in a place where a C cup is considered massive)*, facials, nail extensions, threading, waxing, Thai massage, Indian head massage, hot rock massage, lymphatic massage, sports massage and, in certain areas, the kind of massage that isn't really a massage. You really are spoiled for choice, especially as most of these places charge less than half you would pay for a similar service in the UK. Actually, I don't know about the "massages" in Mong Kok (how is that for the name of an area with a reputation for vice!) that aren't really massages, but I expect that the rates for those are pretty competitive too. 

I think I have mentioned before that whilst some areas in Hong Kong have an active commercial life at street level, many shops, restaurants, beauty salons and other businesses are located in high rise buildings.  You would never know about these places unless you happen to be in a lift and the door opens onto a toy store or a flower shop and someone else gets out. This happened to me not long ago when I was on my way to the ninth floor of a building to get my hair done and the door opened on the sixth floor to reveal a fully kitted out party shop complete with a wide selection of paper plates/plastic cups/napkins/decorations and other party accoutrements.  Who knew? Anyway I filed the knowledge away for a time when I might have enough friends here to have a party.

Anyway, there is a building that I frequent regularly on D'Aguilar street in Central.  The basement is home to a Watson's Wine Cellar and the ground floor has a Starbucks.  The rest of the 16 floors are taken up with beauty treatment places, including several dentists specialising in teeth bleaching and several doctors who offer botox and silicone fillers. One of my favourite things about this building is a sign in the front for the "Advanced Hair Studio" which features big photos of "Australian Cricket Legend", Shane Warne before and after his hair transplant. It also features a profound and insightful quote from Shane - "The decision for me to do something about my hair loss was simple, I didn't want to go bald." This never fails to bring a smile to my face. 

As you might imagine, I don't head to this building for hair enhancement.  I push the button for the 15th floor and travel upwards filled with anticipation and impatient with those getting off on lower floors for the Elemis Day Spa or Josephine's Bust Beauty. Finally, the doors open and paradise awaits.  I am at Gao's Foot Massage Parlour.  The staff at the front desk greet me loudly and enthusiastically. I feel like Norm walking into Cheers. It's so nice to be somewhere where everyone knows your name. And the location of your callouses.  I can say without any reservation that Gao's is absolutely, positively my favourite place in Hong Kong.

The number of treatments is fairly limited. You can get full body massage or a Shanghai Pedicure. This involves the shaving of dead skin off your feet and is surprisingly pleasant. Honest. But the main reason to go to Gao's is the foot massage.  You can get 35, 65, 85 or 120 minutes.  I usually go for the 65, but occasionally I will be feeling particularly self indulgent and go for the 85 minutes.  I even have an account there where I have pre-paid for 1000 minutes and then got 200 extra for "free".  Each 65 minute massage costs the equivalent of about £12.  I therefore do not feel guilty about going once a week. Ok, sometimes I go twice a week.

I think the best word to describe the decor is eclectic.  In many ways it is like stepping into a dusty old aunt's living room. There are four main rooms, each of which has between 6 -12 leather "barcaloungers".  For those of you who don't know what a barcalounger is, they are reclining chairs that are featured in many American sitcoms, usually occupied by a man with a beer watching football on TV.   The walls are covered with a most unusual collection of artwork including some pretty good Chinese pop art, some oil paintings of landscapes that look vaguely Constable-ish", tapestry wall hangings, Chinese calligraphy and a few paintings that look like they were picked up at a yard sale for 50p. Of course there are no yards in Hong Kong, but these paintings must have come from somewhere.  There are also loads of nicknack's scattered around including a plaster of paris eagle's head, vases of silk flowers, brass sculptures, potted plants, and china kittens.  One room has a large upright piano and another has an enormous goldfish tank. There is also an in-house audio systems that plays and endless loop of bird song. Whoever feng shued this place was clearly on drugs.  However crazy it sounds it all comes together to make you feel relaxed and right at home.

Of course, you don't go to Gao's for the decor. That's just a little bonus. The real prize is the treatment itself. At the front desk, I give them my account number and tell them which masseuse/masseur I want. My favourite, Tony, recently moved back to mainland China, but I have a new favourite, Hugh, who seems just as good (maybe even better, but don't tell Tony).  Hugh leads me to my barcalounger via a quick stop at the magazine table to pick up the latest Hello, OK, Heat or People magazines.  I don't know how, but they always have the most current UK or US editions.  A lovely lady then brings me a special mug of tea. Special because the mug is divided, with one third filled with flowers and herbs and other lovely tea things that seep into the water in the other two thirds.  It even comes with a lid to keep it warm.  

Next, the tea lady brings a huge tub of hot water into which I place my feet after turning around to sit on a sort of ottoman facing the lounge chair.  Hugh then spends about ten minutes massaging my head neck and shoulders. I don't know how, but he always is able to find exactly the right places to work the kinks out. I am already well on the journey to bliss-town when I turn around and sit on the chair again.  He then takes a heated beanbag that is also filled with lavender and places it around my neck. He lifts my feet out of the water and gently places them on the Ottoman and dries them off. He even dries between my toes!  The foot massage that ensues is unlike anything I have every experienced. He starts by rubbing oil all over my foot and lower leg. He then starts to apply increasingly firm pressure to the bottom of my foot. When I first started having foot massage, it really hurt. It still hurts a bit, but in a good way. You know what I mean. He then works his way all around my foot and ankle before really digging into my calves.  After an hour of this, I am almost comatose. I have even been known to fall asleep and drool on myself a little bit.

According to the rules of reflexology, every part of your foot corresponds to a different part of your body.  For example, your kidney is related to the bottom left front part of your left foot. I am now a total believer.  For me, foot massage has cured a headache, eased my asthma and helped digestion. It really does work. Even if it didn't, I would still go back time and time again. It is truly the most relaxing and pleasurable experience you can have with your clothes on. Actually it may be the most relaxing and pleasurable experience you can have full stop, but don't tell David I said that.

*As an aside, there is a lingerie shop in HK called Bubies.  This makes me laugh. I went in one day as they had some pretty bras in the window.  They just laughed at me.

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