An Spa: changing the reputation of gay spas

The co-owner of the successful Beijing gay spa talks about its above board policy

Time Out gets a warm welcome from the boys at An Spa, who are changing the reputation of gay spas one rubdown at a time

Even if we’ve never visited one in person (or won’t admit that we have), gay bathhouses are part of the scene from Turin to Tokyo. Usually dingy, sweaty and altogether disreputable institutions, venues marketed as ‘health centres’ or saunas are in reality about everything but cleanliness. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that we ventured to An Spa, a men-only venue known for its well-groomed, boyish staff who have a tendency to, shall we say, bare it all on WeChat Moments.

The upscale address – the Yongli International Apartment complex, part of the unmistakably plush Tunsanli supermall – gave us pause. As gay bathhouses in China are generally squeezed into dimly lit basements in 1980s apartment complexes, An Spa’s premium location seemed to suggest that this gay spa might actually be just that – a spa catering to gay men.

It turns out this is precisely the point. Greeting us in a marbled, split-level lobby straight out of an oil sheikh’s daydream, An Spa’s magnificently coiffed co-owner-operator An An, clad in a floor-length black fur coat and flanked by his equally regal golden retriever, Dollar, soon put our prejudices to bed. An Spa, he stressed, is determined to set a new standard in an area that, until now, has been less than fussy about standards of any sort.

‘My boyfriend has always worked in this industry,’ An begins, talking us through the couple’s journey from struggling to survive in the cutthroat world of Beijing’s health and beauty business to their emergence as a major gay success story. ‘We felt Beijing was a tough town,’ he remarks, before explaining why a sense of alienation among his gay friends became the spark that would eventually evolve into An Spa.

With An An having recently graduated, and his boyfriend already having run several massage enterprises, they decided to establish a place that would not only be gay-friendly, it would mould itself around dispelling urban isolation for its gay clients. They found an investor – another gay man who believed in their enterprise – but they knew the people around them weren’t too hopeful. An An didn’t even tell his mother that he was trying to start a spa business.

‘Even our lawyer was reluctant; he asked me, bluntly, “You’re just a Beijing kid, if you can’t make this work how will you pay the money back?” I didn’t think too much. I was doing this for love.’

The leap of faith paid off. What would become An Spa opened its first outlet in Chongwenmen – already home to a cluster of gay-oriented businesses ranging from the mostly legit to the downright debauched.

‘It was tiny!’ An An laughs. ‘In one of those old residential communities. It didn’t work out, but before it closed, I’d already opened another branch on the ninth floor of Yongli International. Then we moved up to the tenth floor, and, finally, the 16th. We’ve relocated four times because our clients have demanded it – we had to keep upping our game.’

The rise and rise of An Spa has been figurative as well as literal. On the day we arrive for our interview, the entire business had relocated only ten days previously, yet everything is in place. The vaulted space is bright and airy, the sound of running water and scent of aromatherapy oil fills the lobby, and the brilliant white décor sets off the well-fitted, black uniforms of the staff. An Spa’s list of treatments is a cookbook-thick tome bulging with a comprehensive array from the familiar (essential oil and hot stone massages) to the lavish (red wine baths) and head-scratching TCM treatments based on recipes from ancient materia medica (medicinal smoke enema, vicar?).

An An knows his market, and Beijing’s queer community has responded well. ‘80 percent of our clients are gay men,’ he enthuses. ‘You need to know what people are looking for – what flavour of “dish” you’re serving up,’ he continues. ‘If you’re going to change the menu, you need a good reason.’

One aspect that An Spa gets precisely right is the warm welcome. The staff are Chinese gemenr – bros. Nobody’s pretending to be a diffident Swede. The good-natured horseplay between the fresh-faced staff would seem out of place in a five-star hotel, but dovetails seamlessly with An Spa’s cosy vibe. Even the standard greeting of ‘Welcome home, dear,’ which rings out whenever a client walks in, is very Chinese, and all the more endearing for it.

An An is careful about who he hires – not least because, in his line of work, ensuring nothing illegal goes on in your place of business can be a matter of life and death in China. He is highly protective of his staff, providing a deft bulwark against their exploitation by over-eager clients who might feel empowered to blur the lines once the door is closed. ‘My aim is to build a respectful and respectable business. Our understanding and our care is available to you – but our bodies aren’t up for sale.’

Hear that, gentlemen? Look but don’t touch.

  • 4 out of 5 stars