Above: A male client has a Thai-style massage at the Banyan Tree Spa in Shanghai.
A market once dominated by female customers is shifting ground as higher-tipping males enter it, Xu Junqian in Shanghai reports.
The first time masseuse Jin Xiaoying had a male customer at the spa where she worked three years ago, she didn't know where to look. "I was even more awkward than him, and it was also a new experience for him," she recalled.
Now Jin, having been in the spa industry for more than half a decade, is very comfortable seeing a growing number of men taking off their clothes, lying down on the massage bed naked and waiting for her to knead their bodies.
In fact, she has become friends with quite a number of them, including that first customer, a 20-something good-looking man from Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, a city generally considered to be the home of China's nouveau riche.
"They now come to me not only for a spa treatment but also for advice about relationships or suggestions for a gift for their mums' birthdays," said Jin, 32, who quit her job as a tourist guide and learned Thai-style massage in 2006.
While male clients represent only 30 to 40 per cent of her business, Jin, whose two sisters are also in the industry, said the number has been climbing steadily over the last few years, at the rate of 20 per cent annually.
Bottles of massage oil at the Banyan Tree Spa, in Shanghai. The spa offers Ginseng and lemongrass scrub and other Thai-style treatments which take care of skin and relief stress.
Despite its robust growth during the past decade in China, at an annual rate of about 15 per cent, according to an estimate by China Spa Association, it is traditionally dominated by female clients - although that is changing.
Statistics from Banyan Tree, the famous luxury resort known for its exotic Southeast Asia Spa treatment, show that male clients now account for nearly half of its spa appointments at four of its locations in China. Although the numbers are lower than those in European countries, where spa treatments are as common as haircuts for men, Chinese males are quickly catching up, at the speed of 8 to 10 per cent every year.
Zhang Taiyu, features editor at ELLE MEN, a fashion magazine tailored for male readers in China and launched by French media conglomerate Hachette Group, has witnessed a similar rise among its readers in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. But instead of customers' "self-awareness", Zhang thinks it is instead a result of subtle "education" instilled by foreign cosmetic brands.
"It all started in 2008, when the idea of skincare for men, implanted by multinational companies such as L'Oreal, began taking root in these big cities," said Zhang.
"Since then, men have been taught to pay more attention to their appearance and, now, they are actively exploring ways to make themselves more presentable. Enjoying a spa treatment is a rather ideal method as it can achieve the effect of both skincare and the relief of stress."
One of the major reasons the industry has long been dominated by women is, unsurprisingly, the question of masculinity, say industry insiders.
"Men tend to get anxious walking into places such as spas," said Barry White, global director of Langham Hotels and Resorts' spa brand Chuan Spas.
Unlike the "saturated" female spa market, White said, the male spa market in China is still "an emerging one" and lacks sophistication. This, however, creates a window of opportunity for entrepreneurs. "Essentially, it's a business about looking good. And like the culture of going to the gym and swimming pool in Shanghai, which is already as thriving as that in Hong Kong and London, it will be a lucrative one," said White.
The Chuan Spa owned by the Langham Group, for example, was due to open its biggest spa treatment center in Shanghai's fashion hub, Xintiandi, this month. To ease any anxiety among male customers, White said they will create a unisex environment by using products that "don't feel so cosmetic" and offering a more professional service.
While the approach has yet to prove itself, the male market for spas, as in many other industries, appears to be more lucrative than that for women.
"They are very generous in tipping," said Jin, the veteran spa therapist. "While female customers usually think it's our duty to serve them well, men are easily enchanted and willing to squander big cash as a reward for our services."
Such generosity has also been witnessed at Banyan Tree. The size of its male membership has already surpassed that of its female members, a sales manager from Angsana Spa at Banyan Tree in Shanghai told China Daily.
"Once they have grown to trust the service, they are more committed to it and willing to pay big money," said the manager, who insisted on anonymity because of company rules.
One unique feature of the spa market for men in China, according to Banyan Tree, is that a fairly large number of customers are businessmen who treat the spa rooms as a perfect venue for meetings, because the rooms usually boast a private and relaxing environment.
"Like golf courses and wine cellars, for many nouveau riche in China, it's more an experience of pleasure-seeking and enjoyment," said Zhang, the male magazine editor, who said he was rather surprised to find that there are quite a few 50-something men, who are generally ignored by the skincare market in China, interested in the sector.