BEIJING DAYS: Dispatches From the Middle Kingdom

Good Massage. Bad Massage.

We lingered over hot tea, at a table near the tuxedo-wearing piano player, perusing the menu inside one of Beijing’s newest private clubs.

The year was 2006 and my brother-in-law’s girlfriend had given my wife and me $2,000 in massage coupons. That amounted to a lot of hands on this body, I observed.

The spa was divided into five floors, each with its own massage variation: Chinese on the first; Thai on the second; Swedish on the third; Korean on the fourth.

The fifth had no designation, but the prices were twice as high as the rest.

It was the Happy Ending floor.

But we didn’t know it at the time.

The pianist played softly as my wife studied the menu. My bargain-hunting Chinese bride was always in search of the biggest bang for her buck. Two grand was a lot of money to spend. The fifth floor was a mystery we could afford to explore.

“Let’s go for number-5,” she said.

What transpired there would become one of my routines in China, with my wife’s easy consent. The Chinese call it “huang ci,” or yellow massage, a way to experience the softer, more subtle, side of China that’s not usually included in the Fodor’s guide.

Here’s something about Lily: She’s both a completely modern woman and a long suffering spouse who understands her man’s selfish limitations. She is also the most self-assured person I have ever met. Sometimes she sighs at her lot — married to a girl-gawking buffoon whose neck swivels like an easy chair whenever he’s in public in Asia.

The man who once wished for eyes in the back of his head after he had wrenched his neck while street ogling.

One day while we were living in Seoul, we stood at a bus stop as my wife was talking about something important: our finances or her take on a story I was writing.

Two women passed and my eyes latched onto their movements like twin stalkers.

“Hey!” my wife said. “I’m talking here!”

She pointed to her eyes with two fingers and then mine, Robert De Niro style.

“Focus!”

Later, walking in our neighborhood, she laid it out for me: She was an attractive confident woman, who didn’t wilt like a flower in a Japanese sauna whenever my eyes wandered. She came from a culture where many men took on mistresses. Some older Chinese women are even content to look the other way, letting some younger more foolish woman take the brunt of her mate’s more-animal instincts. He wasn’t going anywhere, and she knew that.

So when I looked on the street, my wife didn’t threaten divorce, didn’t worry she had to lose five pounds, didn’t break down in tears. She knew my gawking was MY problem, not hers.

“Listen, when I’m not around, you can look all you want,” she said. “But when I’m here show me some respect. Give me some face.”

The way my wife saw it, a little “huang ci,” some mechanical rubbing and tugging in a private massage room, wasn’t going to rock the foundation of our marriage.

Her long leash had extended even in the U.S. Whenever I was in Las Vegas, out of town on assignment, I’d usually hit Cheetah’s strip club for lap dances and then call her back home in Los Angeles from my hotel room.

“How’d it go,” she’d ask.

“Oh, just OK. I had the little Filipina again tonight, but she was off her game.”

“Maybe she was fighting with her boyfriend,” she’d assure me. “Don’t worry, it’ll be better next time.”

My wife often rued that there were no Happy Ending rooms for women. If Brad Pitt ever became a massage boy, she’d buy a month’s worth of sessions.

So whenever in China I was free to flirt, to experiment. In 2005 we went to a Roman-themed private club, when a huang ci ending came as a pleasant surprise. Afterwards, I sat worrying in the waiting room. It wasn’t that my ending was so happy, but I feared a hidden charge.

That, I assumed, my wife would not be happy about.

When she emerged from her massage, I explained what had taken place in my room. “She attacked me!” I said. “I was helpless!”

Lily didn’t flinch. There was no extra charge, she said. It was all on the house.

After that, I sought out new huang ci experiences in private clubs we frequented. Sometimes, such as the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the federal government cracked down on the practice. Massage hands, at least in the capital city, refused to wander. At other times, the color yellow was everywhere.

One summer, I returned to a club to see a particularly expert massage girl. It became a joke among my wife and her brother, my visits to “ba xiao jie,” or girl number 8.

I told her about my wife. And she talked about her clients. There weren’t many foreigners. She said her boyfriend had no clue what she did for a living; she was ashamed to tell him.

During one session, she asked why I didn’t go to a prostitute for a more complete service.

“It’s not part of the deal,” I said.

One summer a group of us traveled to a small coastal town where my wife’s cousin, who everyone called “Da ge,” or big brother, had opened up a karaoke bar. Over dinner shortly after our arrival, I went into my standard rap on how Chinese women were more beautiful, and exotic in every way than American ones. Da ge listened. Of course, he disagreed.

A short time later, we toured his new club. There were large rooms with good sound equipment. Men could hire girls in tight dresses who drank and sang alongside them, popping grapes into their mouths.

Da ge led me to a back room where two dozen young women lounged on sofas and chairs, each lovelier than the next.

“Choose one,” he implored.

I began to sweat. It was like I had just dropped acid. They searched my face imploringly. I picked a Mongolian girl in a blue dress, because I liked the shape of her eyes. And for that night she clung to me like a soft barnacle. Lily disagreed with my choice, of course, saying there were many more beautiful women in that room.

She sighed: I had such peasant tastes.

Da ge was always living on the edge. He struggled with this venture and that, all of them failures. Eventually, the karaoke bar failed too. A few years later, he was in Beijing and had opened a basement massage parlor. He picked us up in the same old mini-van he drove years before. As he slid open the side door, it came off its hinges; just like always.

We had two-hour massages. The girls were from the countryside. Da ge couldn’t afford the prettiest ones. I asked him what services they offered.

He sighed.

“Nothing yellow,” he said. “The planes can take off, but they can’t land.”

But the plane landed that evening years ago at the club with the piano player.

Later, I rejoined my wife at the piano.

“Wow,” I said.

I told her my massage girl at the end kept asking: “Zai lai yi ge, ma?”

What did that mean?

“She wanted to know if you could do it again,” my wife said.

“Good thing I couldn’t understand,” I said.

“I would have had to tell her No.”