Beijing

The rare pleasure of a hotel shower

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In an essay published in Beijing's evening Mirror in May, journalist Ai Ma wrote about foreign guests, showering, and the city's deluxe hotels:

To bathe, go to a hotel

by Ai Ma

At the end of the 1970s, commoners in Beijing couldn't go into high-end places like the Beijing Hotel. This may seem unbelievable to Beijingers today, for whom hotels are nothing special, but that was indeed the case.

The 22 April, 1979, issue of Reference News ran a piece that contained an AFP reporter's impressions of Beijing, including Beijing's hotels:

Chinese people cannot enter the lofty Beijing Hotel unless they have obtained permission to accompany foreigners, and they must present documentation with their address and their reasons for entering the hotel. Hanging in the red-carpeted Beijing Hotel is a tablet that reads We Have Friends All Over the World. This is the largest hotel in the capital, though it is far from being the most luxurious. Managers of Chinese hotels have a certain inclination to look at all foreigners not only as capitalists, but more importantly, as people whose pockets are stuffed full of the foreign exchange that is so vital to China's development and modernization....eating at a hotel for westerners is three or four times more expensive than eating at a restaurant for common people, but the food and service hardly compare to international standards.

I remember wanting to go have a look at the guests at a high-end hotel that catered to foreigners. We were interrogated at the gate - it was like we were trying to do something illegal. We showed our documentation and carefully answered every question, afraid that if we answered one question wrong, we'd not only be barred entry, but we'd also raise suspicion that would cause us trouble in the future.

Even though the AFP reporter said that the food and service in Beijing's hotels could hardly compare to international standards, in the eyes of we Chinese commoners, they were like heaven. We didn't taste hotel food then, but we felt the sanitation equipment was truly luxurious, particularly the shower. Beijingers' homes at that time were not equipped for bathing. To take a shower one had to go to a public bathhouse, which was a lot of trouble. Seeing that the hotel actually allowed bathing 24 hours a day, I said to myself, what luxury! Later, a foreign friend of the family realized how inconvenient showering was for us and invited us to bathe at the hotel where he was staying. Later, I read an article by Ah Cheng in which he told of how his father stayed at a hotel for a conference and used the occasion to invite his friends over to shower. Then that group of old friends "sat there in the room, chatting with wet hair." I had to laugh reading this - what a perfect picture of that era!

Later I became a reporter and would sometimes have to telephone people at hotels. Since I didn't know what room people were staying in, I had to ask the front desk to look them up. At first I was a bit timid - would they tell me? You don't even know what room the guy's in, aren't you afraid of making them suspicious? - I had really been completely intimidated by that high-end hotel back in the day. Hotels exist to serve their guests, so of course they'll serve their guests' good friends. This is where their duty lies. And our requests were entirely justifiable. Sometime in the intervening years, there had been a imperceptible yet total transformation of the former mentality.

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There are currently 2 Comments for The rare pleasure of a hotel shower.

Comments on The rare pleasure of a hotel shower

Wow, this hits home. In 1981, I spent a month with my wife's numerous relatives all around China. Usually I stayed in their homes, so I sponge-bathed each evening to get a bit of relief. On two occasions, I and three of her female cousins took trips from Shanghai by sooty trains out Suzhou and Hangzhou. In each place, I stayed in a hotel for foreigners and they stayed in hostels for Chinese. However, showering in my hotel room was a treasured moment for them. They asked when might they ever again have the opportunity to enjoy such a luxury. I felt guilty for the ease with which I enjoyed this entitlement, in the face of the hardship they endured in just getting a chance to stand alone, in peace and privacy, with soap and shampoo, under a showerhead of hot water raining down. Certainly, the hotel staff knew what was happening, and gossipped, because unpleasant words were exchanged between the staff and the cousins. Now, 26 years later, those cousins travel internationally and stay at five-star hotels around the world which make those old Suzhou and Hangzhou hotels seem like pitiful way stations. Thankfully times have changed.

Even though Chinese are allowed into high end hotels now, when I was there in 2002 they would not let me (a foreigner) check into hostels with Chinese friends. Sometimes I could talk the proprietor into making an exception, but they always claimed it was illegal. While attending school, I stayed in an international student dorm that also had a few Chinese students who always had to show ID at the door. It was mainly to prevent theft, but foreigners could walk in and out at will while Chinese guests had to sign in. So there is still a double standard in attitudes toward "rich" pampered guests and another suspect Chinese.

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