BANYA AND CHINESE CULTURE

It was Chinese New Year on February 10th, and it is now the Year of the Dragon. There’s a common thread between the banya and the Year of the Dragon as both symbolise warmth.

A well-known and moving Chinese film called “Shower” made in 1999 celebrates the joys and warmth of bathhouse culture. It makes the point that a bathhouse is not just about cleansing the body, but also about coming together and finding community.

In an old district of Beijing, Old Liu and his son Erming run and live in a traditional men’s bathhouse. It offers an array of services, from haircuts to massages, drawing retired locals who while away their days playing checkers and talking about their lives. Liu acts as a friend, guide and therapist to his customers and the bath house helps them to overcome a range of obstacles in their lives. Among the regulars is a man who finds his singing voice only within the bathhouse’s confines, and when another’s marriage is in trouble, Liu arranges a bathtime reconciliation with his wife.

When they learn that the neighbourhood faces redevelopment, emotions run high, and the characters cling to the memories housed within the bathhouse. In the final moments before its demolition, patrons gather for a farewell at the bathhouse. And as one of them serenades them with a familiar song, everyone bids farewell to the bathhouse.

Just as the banya provides warmth and rejuvenation, may the fiery passion of the Dragon bring you prosperity, strength, and joy throughout the upcoming year!

For more discussion of depictions of the banya in cinema, see our blog.  

Aunt Sara then appears with some veniks and “in that steam heat began to birch me, very lightly at first…and then harder and harder…until I began to yelp. More steam came belching up, and she turned me over and began to work on my chest and stomach. I was fairly interested by now, for mildly painful though it was, it was distinctly stimulating”.

I will leave the rest to your imagination or you can search out the book. Flashman concludes that “the Russians have some excellent institutions” and that Sara was “undoubtedly my favourite aunt”.

There is no bad time to visit the banya – you can go alone or with friends, you can celebrate, commiserate or meditate there. I moved to Moscow in 1999 and by this time I was generally using the banya to recover from the night before. I usually visited Kransopresnenskaya banya which was most famous for an incident in 1994 when a notorious Georgian gangster was shot by a sniper as he walked out onto the street. S Legkym Parom indeed!

Wherever I travelled for work in Russia or nearby, I would sample the local banya, from small shacks in the countryside to grand urban complexes like Sanduny in Moscow or Arasan in Almaty. I also began to think about opening somewhere back in the UK and, when I moved to London in my 30’s, I researched the contemporary bathhouse scene. There wasn’t much to get excited about. My favourite was probably the Porchester in Queensway had a glorious kidney shaped pool and beautiful tiled rooms with a range of temperatures ranging from the coolest (Frigidarium) to the hottest (Laconicum), but none of them offered the same rejuvenating experience as banyas in Russia.

 

The Bath Houses of London

At the same time, I learned that London had a rich history of bath houses. These included an opulent Oriental bathhouse opened in 1862 on Jermyn Street by a former British diplomat in Constantinople and a Russian banya on Brick Lane called Russian Vapour Baths, set up by emigree jews who had fled the pogroms of the Tsarist empire for East London.  There were also numerous “bath houses” or laundries where people could go to literally take a bath and do some washing. Look carefully around the city and you will see examples like this one in Kentish Town.

The Bath House – Banya London opened in 2019 and we hope it is a worthy addition to that history.