Where men bathe in milk until it curds

PEKING DAYS
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The Independent Online
The icy winds have stopped blowing, the buds are opening on the trees - and Spring Madness has taken hold in China. All of a sudden, Chinese newspapers are vying with each other to offer stories about the unexpected aspects of economic reform and the evolution of the country's social norms.

Take the Shenhe Worker's Cultural Palace in the north-eastern city of Shenyang. This previously sober establishment has just announced that it has built a special cage in order to suspend a wolf-cub above the dance floor. The animal will be illuminated by three lights to encourage it to prance about and howl. This "Dancing with Wolves" has the added benefit, said the Yangcheng Evening News, "that the wolf-cub would not demand a high performance fee like a singer". So as not to tire out the animal, it will at least only be expected to dance for one hour a night.

In Nanjing, near Shanghai, the new general manager of the Nanjing Dairy Industry Group has launched an important new venture: the milk bath. Thanks to the new Shanghai-Nanjing highway, reported the Peking Youth Daily, low-price dairy products from Shanghai now have a quick and easy route to one particular Nanjing public bath-house. (Many traditional Chinese homes do not include a toilet or bathroom.)

This bathhouse, which used to offer a Chinese herbal bath, now every morning fills its crescent-shaped communal tub with milk. This is for the men, who pay 38 yuan (pounds 3) for the lactic dunking. Ladies are offered a more private service; for 88 yuan, each female customer receives a bucket containing 5kg of milk. Some Nanjing men clearly feel that a milk bath is a nice way to round off the day; the report says that the bath is not emptied until 2am the following morning, by which time the bath house is presumably well on its way to offering that nose-wrinkling curd cheese bathing experience.

In Shiyan, in Hubei province, today should have meant manna from heaven for locals, if only the authorities had not got involved. The Shiyan Xinggan Villa Company had hired an airplane in order to scatter along the main street some 80,000 yuan (pounds 6,500) in coupons which could be exchanged for cash. In a country where the average annual urban wage is about 3,500 yuan, this was bound to cause pandemonium.

For the past two weeks, advertisements announcing this redistribution of wealth have been on local television and newspapers. "Pay attention to traffic when picking up the coupons," it urged. One farmer, according to the Peking Youth Daily, planned to travel 30 miles into town, hoping to use this "air-money" to buy fertiliser.

Local officials decided otherwise. They said that today's enterprise would "cause traffic congestion, impair social safety, and incur injury and death", and grounded the venture.

Sometimes the best of schemes go awry. In Xian, according to China Women's Daily, the 25 or so students in one middle school thought they had hit upon the answer to surviving dreary classes. The 12-year-olds had heard that sleeping pills contained morphine "which can stimulate the mind" andbought three or four bottles of the pills, distributing them before the afternoon lessons. "About 3pm, the teacher noticed some students were drowsy," reported the newspaper. As one by one they fell into a deep slumber, the teacher realised it must be more than the normal stupor, and before long the class was being taken to hospital.

Meanwhile, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, the Imperial Garden restaurant's attempt to brighten up people's lives has been deemed a "bad cultural tendency". It seemed far from counter-revolutionary when the restaurant launched an "evening tea" service and put up a large banner reading: "Light a lamp of hope in the darkness", a quote from a well-known Taiwanese pop song. Spring Madness among local officials has now judged this to be a highly political act. The local newspaper thundered: "For whom does this restaurant offer such a service with the name Imperial Garden? Here in China, what we are doing is to construct a socialistic market economy. Socialism is the pre-condition." The lamp of hope has been swiftly extinguished.

Zhengzhou's residents will instead have to settle for television this holiday weekend, when Easter coincides with the traditional Ching Ming grave-sweeping festival, and today's birthday of Guanyin, the Buddhist idol of compassion. The China Central Television (CCTV) film channel should have people gripped. It offers a programme of films today including Stupid Manager, Lover's Blood, Life Filled With Twists and, for those who last until midnight, The Fatal Tattoo.

Teresa Poole

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