For most people in Taiwan, the Lunar New Year holidays are the longest holidays of the year. However, for some, masseurs and masseuses for instance, it can the busiest time of the year.
“I usually feel happy about having more customers, but I almost fainted when the boss told me that I have another one to see,” said Panai, a 25-year-old Thai-style masseuse of the Amis tribe in New Taipei City (新北市).
“I did about 10 customers yesterday and have only had three hours of sleep. I feel like the living dead now,” she added. “This is not unusual for Lunar New Year holidays.”
A session of Thai massage usually lasts two hours, so having 10 customers means Panai worked for 20 hours the previous day.
On a normal day, Panai said, a masseur or masseuse would have four to five customers.
However, even on an average day, it is not an easy job.
“Work starts at 11am when the parlor opens, but it doesn’t mean that I can always get off work at 2am when the parlor closes, because some customers come in at 2am and we still have to see them,” Panai said.
“When that happens, that means I would have to work until 4am, and after taking a shower and everything, it may be 6am when I go to bed. Then I still have to get up in the morning and get ready to work by 11am,” she added.
Because of the long and irregular working hours, most masseurs and masseuses live in dorms in the massage parlor provided by their employers.
Panai said that when she first entered the trade about three years ago, her employer hired a massage therapist from Thailand to teach her and her colleagues.
“The training lasts from between one week to a month, depending on how fast you learn,” she said.
“Basically, during the training lessons, you get massaged three times a day by the teacher, and after each massage you have to massage the teacher, so that he can correct things that you may have done incorrectly,” she said.
Panai said that for the first few weeks she often felt sore everywhere, but things got better when she got used to it.
However, what really troubles her is not the physical fatigue, but the harassment from some customers.
“The man that I just finished massaging asked me to massage his private parts,” she said.
“You just have to realize that these things happen, and you have to remain as calm and professional as possible, and tell them ‘this is not included in our therapy.’ Most people back off when you tell them that,” she said.
Panai recalled that the most shocking experience she had was when a man took off his pants and asked her to give him a “hand job.”
“He said that he would pay me NT$1,000 [US$33] for it, I told him ‘I wouldn’t do it even if you pay me NT$1 million, it’s just not included,’” she said.
Panai is one of the very few massage therapists to enter the trade at such a young age, as most are in their 30s to 50s, and are often economically disadvantaged.
A masseuse surnamed Chen (陳), 32, who works at a Thai massage parlor in Taipei, is from such background.
“I am originally from Fuzhou [in China] and came to Taiwan after marrying my Taiwanese husband,” she said. “A few years into our marriage, my husband started to beat me whenever he was mad for some reason or drunk. I tolerated it, but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore, so we divorced.”
Having been dependent on her ex-husband economically, Chen did not know how to make a living after the divorce.
Fortunately, a friend helped her to get a job at a massage parlor, and now she works with a group of colleagues who she says treat her like a little sister.
“Things are fine here, I can make some money, I don’t need to spend much since the boss provides housing and I am surrounded by a group of good friends,” she said.
Chen added that in most massage parlors, the masseur or masseuse gets half the money from a customer while the employer gets the other half, so if a customer pays NT$1,000 for a two-hour massage session, the employer gets NT$500, while Chen would get NT$500.
If everything goes smoothly and Chen gets four to five customers a day, she can make NT$2,000 to NT$2,500 a day, which adds up to between NT$48,000 and NT$60,000 per month.
Another masseuse surnamed Zhang (張), in her 40s, who works at a Thai massage parlor in New Taipei City, also considers working as a masseuse a way to rebuild her life.
Originally from Zhejiang Province in China, Zhang said that she once owned a flourishing business that had several branches across China.
However, due to problems that she preferred not to talk about, her business collapsed about 10 years ago, and she had to work on production lines.
It was then that she met her Taiwanese husband, who was a supervisor at a factory where she was working.
“Not long after we got married, we moved back to Taiwan,” Zhang said. “At first, I worked in the restaurant that my husband’s family owns in Nantou County, but you just don’t make much money working in a restaurant, so I decided to come to Taipei where I started working as a masseuse.”
Zhang says she is so devoted to work that she has only been back to China three times in the past six years, “because it costs too much to go home for a visit.”
“You not only have to pay the travel expenses, you also need to buy a lot of stuff because all your relatives think you must be well-off since you are married to a Taiwanese, and expect you to bring home gifts and necessities for everyone,” she said. “I hope to save up and return home one day.”
Panai has a similar dream.
“Massage therapy is a very physically demanding job, I don’t think I can stay in the business forever,” she said, laughing.
“My dream is to save up as much as I can while I’m young and able to do extra work, and when I turn 30 or something like that, I’ll use my savings and move on to something that interests me more,” she said.