Big, bland and beige, the Swan Lake is geared more towards handling large social gatherings than treating individuals like royalty. The Air Garden on the top floor is a surprisingly lovely setting for a wedding banquet, and the performance hall would certainly help pass a long Sunday with the grandparents. For the individual though, there isn't much to recommend the facilities; the baths are large but nothing special, scrub down treatments are slightly half-hearted, the disposable razors couldn't cut butter and the post-bath massages are limited to expensive private rooms with suggestive photos to illustrate each "plan." The most interesting aspect of the experience was a milk and honey body treatment, after which we were advised to sit in a "salt bath" steam room for as long as we could stand it. In this festive season, what better time to see what it feels like to be a Baked Ham? James Creegan
Special treatment: "The Christmas Ham"- honey and milk body lotion followed by a bake in a salt steam room
Address: 3098 Hechuan Lu, near Wuzhong Lu, 5422 0808
Open: 24 hours
Permits, Hygiene and Cleanliness
Wine Flu, Swine Flu, H1N1 Flu, Foreigner's Flu... the fear of catching whatever the city's latest infection mania manifests as on the streets is, we concede, something not be sniffed at. And that goes double when dealing with public bath houses.
China may have a four-figure history of bath house culture, but the National Spa Association is only now trying to improve cleanliness regulations and secure international standards of hygiene across Shanghai, and the country.
New operational directives were issued earlier this year, as was a five-star rating system. It is reported that for any Shanghai bath house to gain a five-star rating, it must have lockers for personal valuables, accept bookings in advance and offer at least 20 single massage rooms. This may seem obvious, but keeping tabs on the city's myriad bath house operations has proven to be tricky and tiresome.
The new regulations state that all city bath houses must display visible signs (at present, mainly in Chinese) that detail the establishment's health and hygiene procedures and rules.
They must also show how the bath house is cleaned and disinfected on a daily basis. And they must also produce evidence that show the regular cleaning and disinfecting of crockery, cutlery, towels, bathrobes and slippers.
So lockers should be disinfected at least twice a week, whereas the main pools and massage rooms must be disinfected every 24 hours. Bath water, naturally, must be replaced "promptly" and eating utensils after every usage. Sanitation, of course, is always the top priority.
It has also been reported that the National Spa Association is keen to crack down on false advertising, unfair competition, lawbreaking and illicit trade. Jake Hamilton
Da Lang Tao Sha
Sauna? Tick. Steamroom? Tick. A plethora of pools in which to plunge? Tick. Hell, Da Lang Tao Sha even boasts a signature warm jade floor, but we were here for another of its curiosities: a pool full of Doctor Fish (men's section only we're afraid, ladies). These are the scaly, sub-aquatic dermatologists that make a meal of your dead skin, and no sooner are you settled into the dim-lit water than they begin to take tentative nips at you. It's an unnerving sensation being gorged upon by this half-seen hungry shoal, but if you can resist the temptation to flinch, and grit your teeth to tolerate the tickling, they fast launch into a full-on feeding frenzy. And they get everywhere – everywhere – only some steadfast swatting preventing them from pecking at your privates. We were out of there! As Groucho Mark might have said: "I don't care to belong to any tub that wants to have a munch on my member." Quite. Ned Kelly
Special treatment: The fish – they're free and you've got to try everything once
Address: 588 Guilin Lu, by Qinzhou Bei Lu, 6408 8888
Open: 24 hours
There are a few surefire ways to know you've made it in this world. Smoking Zhongnanhai cigarettes in the Jacuzzi at Ri-Star is one of them. Aimed at the elite and boasting a host of celebrity members, this gaudy Xiamen-based chain single-handedly keeps China atop the world's league table of marble quarriers. In truth, their bathrooms are rather dingy, lacking windows, attentive staff and any sense of fun. Worth it, perhaps, for the chance to spot Zhang Ziyi, but otherwise one to miss. Ric Stockfis
Special treatment: Entry fee includes a free half-hour body scrub.
Address: 1030 Hongqiao Lu, near Zhongshan Xi Lu, 6295 9898
Open: 24 hours.
Shanghai Clearwater Bay Entertainment
Before entering we explore around the back. The electric blue lighting of the bath house illuminates swaying palm trees and a small marina formed from a bend in Suzhou Creek. Inside the bathing room it's all mosaic and mirrors. The aesthetic is decidedly pink – pink flowers hang from the ceiling, pink tiles line the walls, the smell of rose-scented shampoo is overpowering. We start fantasizing about cranberry cocktails. The tubs themselves are disappointing. There is one long rectangular pool with sculpted seats to lounge on. The ayi asks if we want to turn on the jets. The result is unreliable – a sputtering of cold water builds into a full-on geyser. My companion steps out. "It feels like a bad date," she says. There are separate milk baths that you can fill yourself (a great feature if you are bringing the kids) but at an extra RMB58 they don't seem worth it. We opt for the scrub instead. After a vigorous rubdown I've shed a layer of green crud. Extra options are limited to milk and honey. A carton of Mengniu sits on the table. I go for the honey. The health benefits are no doubt debatable. Nevertheless – and somewhat surprisingly – having the sticky and sweet liquid massaged on your body feels pretty great.
The Barbie-esque look of the spa is augmented by a 1950s sci-fi feel. Showers are equipped with personal TVs (all of which are broken). A multicolored light illuminates the elevator. The high tech obsession reaches a climax in a small inset room near the baths, which is equipped with three pink pods. The machines labeled "mini spas" look like they are designed to blast off. Inside each is a vibrating chair. When the hatch is closed you can see the control pad at the front. There are lots of buttons. Water is poured in the back, which eventually transforms into absurdly hot steam. Soon our body parts are scalding. We escape long before the allotted 15 minutes are up. We linger for a while in the nicely designed sauna (though the heat escapes through the glass door).The steam room smells like sour milk (not surprising given the empty bag laying on the table). After we are sufficiently steamed, soaked and scrubbed we put on our standard issue pajamas and wander in the near empty halls. The bath house is on four floors with private rooms for massages (rumors that this bath house offers 'special' massages' are reinforced by the fact that condoms are displayed like mints on the lobby desk). On the top floor is a VIP bathroom that costs RMB198. It looks a lot like the cheaper baths downstairs. The second floor is filled with comfy white lounge chairs that you can control with a remote. The main attraction, however, lies past the buffet restaurant with its aquarium design. Here the performance hall is filled to capacity. Men and women, all in blue and pink pajamas, sit in stuffed chairs drinking tea or booze. On stage is a vaudeville show featuring a guy in drag with balloon breasts. She is greeted with raucous enthusiasm. The crowd goes wild waving their plastic hand clappers. It's time to go home. Anna Greenspan
Special treatment: Mini spa machines
Address: 1495 Kaixuan Lu, 5268 8888
Open: 24 hours
Manners in the Mist
It's rather hard to offer a firm set of rules regarding etiquette. Hard, in fact, to imagine what you could do inside a bath house that would be considered inappropriate. Cellphone call in the shower? Push-ups in the sauna? A self-applied sack and crack wax? To judge by behavior spotted on recent visits, seemingly all perfectly acceptable.
Inevitably, the most uncomfortable part of the whole process for the first-time visitor is the part where you have to get naked with a bunch of strangers or, worse, your closest friends. It helps to remember that the one thing none of them are paying for is a peek at your privates. And the combination of hot steam and cold water is a great leveler: no-one looks good all pink and shriveled. So there's only a couple of things you really need to think about. One, if you spot a member of the opposite sex and you're not wearing any clothes, you've taken a wrong turn – head immediately back the way you came. Two, if someone offers to touch you for money, let them. You'll feel better for it.
The exact procedure varies from venue to venue, but typically you leave your shoes at the door, your clothes in the locker room and your dignity on the scrubbing table. You pay for everything when you leave, and sign chits for whatever services you avail yourself of while inside. (Be careful when it comes to the body scrub: the accoutrements you'll be offered – milk, honey, mineral salts – all cost extra.) Outside the bathing area, whether you're at the bar, in the KTV lounge or down the gym, you're expected to wear the complimentary asylum-styled white robes, not your own clothes. But half the fun of these places is bumping up against your own prejudices and learning from your mistakes. No one's going to shout if you get things wrong. Just remember the three-nos policy: No Clothes, No Shame, and absolutely No Reciprocation. Ric Stockfis
Hai Kuo Tian Kong, Shanghai Sea and Sky Bath Pastime
Right across the street from Bridge 8 Phase II, a new design hub in the city that leads directly to the World Expo site, is the Shanghai Sea and Sky Bath Pastime. The exterior is designed in a faux European style with Greco-Roman pillars and statues of knights. The lobby is furnished with overstuffed golden chairs.
This eccentric decoration extends into the dimly-lit bathing room where shower stalls are equipped with elephant-shaped stools. In the center of the room a beaded curtain surrounds one large circular jade-rimmed tub that is warm but not hot.
The large sauna is kept at the same mild temperature. The steam room was too grim to explore. Upstairs are four floors of bath house-style relaxation, including private guest rooms, a vast buffet restaurant, a bar with a pseudo-tropical theme, a performance stage, ping pong and pool tables, a computer corner and countless lounge chairs where guests tune into their personalized TVs and choose from a menu of massages. A scrub costs RMB38. Beware of the extra RMB15 fee for a small towel that you don't really need. Anna Greenspan
Special treatment: Have a cold Tsing Tao at the tropical bar
Address: 457 Jumen Lu (near Xietu Lu), 5307 8800
Open: 24 hours
Orient Rome (the name says it all) takes the bath house aesthetic to its natural extreme. Outside are massive gold pillars, giant statues of angels, Greek gods and goddesses and a warrior on horseback. Inside it's more of the same – a full side wall aquarium, random portraits of what look like British aristocrats, spiral staircases and plenty of chandeliers. The facilities are pretty typical. A bathing room with a large two-sided pool, sauna, steam room and scrub room, a restaurant complete with performance stage, a bar, movie hall and internet corner, plenty of lounge chairs for enjoying a massage and, at the top, VIP guest rooms, each designed according to their own foreign theme. Anna Greenspan
Special treatment: Stick around for the evening performances
Address: 1420 Jiangning Lu, 6660 0666
Open: 24 hours.
This cyclopean neo-classical temple to the scrubdown and rubdown must stake a claim to being Pudong's gaudiest-grandest. Passing between colossal Corinthian pillars one is swept through the vast marble lobby, in through the changing rooms, and to the bathing area. The sauna is huge and hot, as is the 44 degree "Pool of General Flowers" (we think he must have followed a scorched flesh policy), so we elected to soak in the slightly less scalding "Traditional Chinese Herbal Bath." The meaty massage men get stuck into you with Herculean labor, and once you're done in there four floors are yours to explore, with everything from pool tables and ping pong to a restaurant, a movie hall and darkened rooms in which to snooze. For those with footballers' feet like ours we'd recommend you take advantage of the fine art of foot shaving on offer. This involves some poor wretch shaving huge scrapings of calloused and dead skin from the soles of your feet with a huge metal scalpel. The guy must have seen some hideous things in his line of work, yet he was still visibly harrowed by the state of our yellowing hooves. Which only goes to show how much we needed it. Ned Kelly
Special treatment: A half hour body scrub will set you back RMB38, or of course there is the foot shaving, also RMB38
Address: 8 Dongfang Lu, near Pudong Da Dao, 5887 6999
Admission: RMB58, Open: 24 hours.
The sauna is huge and hot, as is the 44 degree 'Pool of General Flowers' (we think he must have followed a scorched flesh policy), so we elected to soak in the slightly less scalding 'Traditional Chinese Herbal Bath'
Perhaps it's the location – tucked away on a leafy lane in the north of the city – but this place is always empty. The result? An unbeatable personalized service. Attendants service your every legal whim, checking the temperature of the shower before you step in, stoking the coals in the sauna, fetching cold Cokes while you recline in the pool and later toweling dry the soles of your feet. A nice sideline in restorative stews and soups, all of them free, serves only to make you feel even more spoilt. Private scrub-down stalls seem kind of superfluous – there's no other customers here – but nevertheless spare you the indignity of being spread-eagled in front of the staff. Hardly the nicest way to thank them for their service, is it? Ric Stockfis
Special treatment: Body scrub (half hour) 48 RMB
Address: 321 Luochuan Dong Lu, near Hetian Lu, 5633 5588
Open: 24 hours
Your top layer of gungy skin is vigorously scrubbed off with an exfoliating mitt while you lie naked on a plastic table. This is infinitely more enjoyable than it sounds and you can choose which goodies you want your scrub combined with. The list varies from venue to venue, but usually includes milk, honey, yoghurt, aloe gel and sea salts.
Top pick: We reccommend the Milk Body Scrub and Cucumber Face Mask combo at Xiao Nan Guo. At RMB68 for the package it's the best value treatment out there.
The bath with ingredients
As well as the basic hot/cold water and Jacuzzi pools, most bathhouses jazz up the water with enriching extras such as green tea, milk, or even live fish (see Da Lang Tao Sha review p24) to nibble at your dead skin.
Top Pick: You can luxuriate in your own personal tub at Bosstown, filled with beautifying petals and salts. Rose Petal Bath, RMB88. Very girly, very nice.
The Post-bath Massage
Once you've left the baths and are comfortably settled into the relaxation area, you'll be presented with a menu of massages and treatments. Choose from all manner of services including everything from foot massages to ear wax removal. Best of all a staffer will bring all the equipment over to your lazyboy chair so you don't even have to open your eyes.
Top Pick: Foot shaving (RMB38) at Athen's Palace. It's cheap and those foot shavers really put their back into their work, sending chunks of skin flying. Eww. Helen Elfer
Xiao Nan Guo Tang He Yuan
Occupying a building behind Xiao Nan Guo restaurant, the lobby of this Hongqiao hothouse resembles a five-star hotel circa 1990 with chandeliers, a marble check-in counter and a self-playing grand piano, although the patrons of this five-storey pleasure palace pad around in garish Hawaiian mumus – or zip, nada, nothing. Inside the huge female changing room, women of every ilk are found brushing their long hair, lathering with free bottles of Watsons moisturizer, eating snacks or nursing young babies, while legions of ayis keep the place in order. There are no fluffy bathrobes and the thin hand towels available are hopelessly inadequate at preserving modesty but it's all about stripping down and getting squeaky clean, so stride purposefully to the bathing area shower, before entering the six small baths. All the signage is in Chinese but it's easy to pick out the milk, "green" and large Japanese-style baths. Between dips there is a cold plunge pool, a steam room and an under-heated sauna with a large TV screening local soaps. In the communal scrubbing room, ayis dressed in pink pull on rough gloves and scour every inch of your body. It takes around 30 minutes and costs RMB48. An extra RMB20 earns you a facemask of mashed cucumber pulp or a dousing in a packet of drinking milk. After showering, it's time to towel off, don some fetching purple pyjamas and explore the emporium, where various rooms feature ping pong, snooker, mahjong and karaoke. When hunger pangs hit, multiple cafes serve restorative noodles and dim sum. Finish your exploration at the huge foot massage area where reclining beds are fitted with mini TV screens for reflexology (RMB78, 60 minutes), callus removal or pinching treatments (both RMB38). Good clean fun. Scarlet Taylor
Special treatment: Body Scrub with Cucumber Mask and Milk Treatment
Address: 3337 Hongmei Lu, by Yan'an Lu, 6465 8888
Ten things that New Star do differently to everyone else: (i) rub you down with pink-packeted volcanic mineral salts that leave you smelling like caramel; (ii) mount head-high, infra-red body sterilizers on the wall of the changing rooms; (iii) trap the sun in the outdoor swimming pool area around the back; (iv) serve the best dduk bok kee (tube-shaped ricecakes with a kimchi kick) in town; (v) set their ice showers on ten-second tough guy timers; (vi) build little hobbit homes to house their mixed-sex heated kilns; (vii) offer sound-drowning tombs for you to sleep in; (viii) put speakers inside the saunas, meaning that you can still hear MTV playing on the screens outside; (ix) heat the floors so you can walk around barefoot; and (x) freeze their glasses so you can drink your draft beer cold. None of those wonders, though, speak to the very best thing about New Star, that which pushes it into greatest bath house in town territory: it's a real community place, frequented by families from the surrounding lanes of Koreatown and lively even late into the night (there's even a branch of Seoul's oh-so-aptly named Woori Bank right across the street.) Places like this are big in Korea; talk to a few of the regulars here and they're quick to clue you in on the difference between a mogyoktang (a no-nonsense bath house frequented just to get clean) and a jjimjilbang (full-service, all-day all-night complexes just like New Star), on the merits of ondols (those heated floors, believed to cure all manner of aches and pains when you lie on them) and the benefits of studding your sauna wall with jade or amethyst.Thankfully, you don't need to know any of that to recognize how great the place is. Just hand your shoes in at the door and don't plan on leaving until tomorrow. Ric Stockfis
Special treatment: Half-hour body scrub with milk, honey and mineral salts (122 RMB)
Address: No.1, Lane 258, Jinhui Nan Lu, near Hongquan Lu, 3432 0777
Open: 24 hours
Bath Houses on the Silver Screen
angerous places to be. Not only are they the bug-free meeting place of choice of many a mafia boss, they are also where the Jackal goes to hide in The Day of the Jackal, knowing all Parisian hotels are being watched. He is forced to kill the man who picks him up in there when the gentleman in question recognizes his new-found friend for the deadly fugitive assassin that he is. They are also a recurring theme in James Bond – first he locks Count Lippe in a Turkish Bath in Thunderball, causing him serious injury and delaying the dastardly SPECTRE scheme in which he was supposed to play a part, and then 007 gets a taste of his own medicine in Goldeneye, when Xenia Onatopp tries her deadly line in seduction on him in the sauna of the Turkish Baths of the St Petersburg Grand Hotel. But the undisputed steam room show-stealer comes courtesy of director David Cronenberg in his Eastern Promises, whose naked bath house knife-fight scene is not merely spectacularly gruesome, but among the most exhilaratingly visceral pieces of cinema ever made. Ned Kelly
Qing Yun Xian
This tiny building, tucked down a dank alley in Jing'an, is just a small step up from the kind of neighborhood bath houses that were once a focal point for local communities. Most of the old yùshì have gone now, replaced by hot running water in modern apartment buildings, but the few that are left provide a glimpse into Shanghai's past. Facilities are basic, but it still ticks all of the same boxes as a big spa. The wet area is a one-pool affair; just about small enough to pass as the master bathroom of a huge mansion. Providing of course that the owner of the mansion wanted to shower with eight other guys, with jets of water shooting out of the walls and a glass-walled steam room. There are a couple of benches to enjoy a basic scrub down (RMB25) but don't expect to be upsold milky smooth after-scrub lotions or a cucumber facemask – you're at a noodle stall, not a fancy restaurant. This isn't really a mixed-gender sort of place. The women's bathroom only includes showers, no pools, and it's only the men's changing room that leads up to the relaxation floor where pushy middle-aged women offer 'massages' in private rooms. Regardless of the slightly seedy feel of the place, Qing Yun Xian is clean where it counts and still retains some of the community feel of the old public baths. Besides which, the big compounds of One Park Avenue and San He Hua Yuan are just around the corner and you never know when your old boiler could break down and you need a few home comforts. James Creegan
Special treatment: Tea in a plastic cup scrub down
Address: Changde Lu, Lane 545, No. 146 (between Xinzha Lu & Wuding Lu), 6255 5561, ext. 800
Open: 24 hours
Shui Zhong Yuan
There aren't any baths in this venue but it's got everything else you'd expect – powerful showers, sauna, steam room and relaxation area. Best of all they have a good range of beauty treatments which are much more reasonably priced than elsewhere. Facials, deluxe massages and scrubs with a long menu of ingredients are all on offer at around the RMB50-100 mark. Staff are easy-going and the decor is cool and modern. Helen Elfer
Special treatment: Body Scrub with Aloe Gel massage
Address: 262 Changning Lu, near Jiangsu Bei Lu, 6252 3452
Open: 24 hours
Shanghai City Legend Aromatherapy Sauna Center
This 3,000 sqm sauna centre wins points for its handy downtown location and impressive city views from the ninth-floor baths – if not for the air of unfriendliness. Catering to man-bag-toting businessmen working in the vicinity of People's Square, the decade-old centre prides itself on its aromatherapy-laced baths, saunas and body/foot massages, and also offers ear cleaning and mani/pedicures. Scarlet Taylor
Special treatment: Aromatherapy Body Massage
Address: 9/F, 98 Huaihai Zhong Lu, by Longmen Lu, 5306 7666
Sky Fortune is perhaps the most garishly over-the-top hotel you're likely to find in Shanghai – with more crimson velvet, gilt gold, high-back thrones and antique-like artifacts than you can poke a manicured pinky nail at. The adjoining Jin Spa costs a whopping RMB188 for entrance and looks like a bathhouse on crack. A small wet area features just one bath and mosaic-tiled rooms for sauna, steam, 'assisted showering' and jet stream massage. Richly wallpapered corridors hung with gold-framed oil paintings, animal pelts and Venetian chandeliers lead through to elaborate dining and massage rooms featuring the Ferrari of foot massage beds covered in red velvet with large TV screens and side tables. There are also private treatment rooms, a hairdressing salon, 68-room KTV parlor, billiard room, indoor swimming pool and rooftop tennis courts. La-di-da! Scarlet Taylor
Special treatment: Foot Massage
Address: 1/F, Sky Fortune Boutique Hotel, 358 Hongxu Lu, by Wuzhong Lu, 6405 3988
Pine City Hotel
Xujiahui's Pine City Hotel may be a towering, shiny hotel with a lobby big enough to hold a baseball game, but it's bath house is the total opposite – and therein lies its charm. Pine City only has three pools and one massage table, as well as the usual sauna, steam room and sit-down showers. Of particular note are the staff, who, unlike in the towering, six-storey epics of Hongqiao and Gubei, generally leave you alone to collect your thoughts and chill out. Pine City also has the benefit of having a cold pool icy enough to freeze your blood. The venue is impeccably clean and nearly always empty – especially in the early evening. It's an excellent place for first-timers and bathhouse aficionados alike. Orlando Crowcroft
Special treatment: This one's no-frills. Hot water and cold water, what more do you need?
Address: 777 Zhaojiabang Lu, near Gao'an Lu, 6443 3888.
I'll come clean. It only took the macho red capitals on black chrome saying BOSSTOWN to make me jump to the conclusion I was not this bathhouse's target clientele. As in, female. Inside my suspicions grew – no floral bathy smells or cucumber-coated faces and indeed, not a woman in sight. In a bath house, once you've established females aren't the norm, well, your mind starts to wander. What is "Super Care" and why is it so much more expensive than other massages? What goes on in the outrageously pricey Boshi Palace Room? And why is the Royal Nursing Treatment in a category all of its own? Is this simply Chinglish, or dear god, is everything on the – laminated – menu a complex euphemism? I still can't answer these questions, except to say the fruit plate was a fruit plate and the green tea was green tea, both free and satisfactory. As for the female bathing area, it was small but extremely lavish. The attendant was helpful to a fault, putting my shower on, offering to dry me afterwards and even solemnly announcing my weight in both English and Chinese when I stepped on the scales. What luxury. I had two small pools all to myself, one filled with those little fish that nibble your dead skin, the other with jets of hot spring water. The recreation area outside the baths is not communal like most bathhouses, but instead dark corridors lead to private relaxation rooms with two chairs and a television, so perfect to bring a client. Bosstown is suffused with Chinese opulence and has really quite lovely facilities. But the verdict? One for the gents. Helen Elfer
Special treatment: We double dare you to explore the Milk Spear Bath
Address: 189 Changning Lu, near Jiangsu Lu, 6240 5050