Inside job: Baby spa water education teacher

Time Out's John Ovans tries a day at Beikaiya baby spa

Now I am on the cusp of 30, I have reached that age where friends are beginning to eject babies into the world at an alarming rate. Everyone seems thoroughly pleased about it, although from what I can determine, after the magical birth and customary coochy-coos, parenthood properly commences as an ugly, wild-eyed battle to keep their precious little squirts quiet.

This is why, I assume, people are devising increasingly elaborate ways to help them do so. So-called ‘baby spas’ have risen in popularity in America and Australia over the past couple of years, and Beikaiya is the first company to launch them in China, in a selection of malls across Shanghai. The long and short of it is that babies and toddlers up to the age of five can be strapped to some inflatables to bob around a tank filled with water and lots of toys – an activity which is thought to improve everything from brain function to cardio health.

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I head to Beikaiya’s newest branch in the Bailian Zhonghuan mall in Putuo district for a day’s training as a shui yu shi, or ‘water education teacher’. The spa itself comprises a row of about ten separate empty ‘tanks’, facing out onto a glass wall for the rest of the mall to see, and a much larger central pool filled with colourful balls and toys that resembles a miniature lazy river. Today I’m shadowing You Laoshi (Teacher You), who immediately introduces me to the rubber stunt baby that I will initially work with before meeting my first client. Given that I’m feeling quite apprehensive about it all – you may have discerned that I’m not much of a baby person – it doesn’t help that even the strong-browed stunt baby, which resembles a Vaudeville ventriloquist dummy that my mother once owned, is extremely unnerving.

To begin with, we place a blanket on the counter, undress the baby and – gulp – clean up its diapers. Thankfully, our stunt baby neither has clothes nor a digestive system so this is a smooth process that bears no resemblance to the literal shit-storm that I understand to be the reality of childrearing. We then do ‘exercises’ which involve stretching the baby’s arms and legs out, which You says is to release tension. This is the moment, apparently, where you are most in danger of getting weed on, which presumably means the baby is more relaxed than you want it to get.

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A tank is then prepared, which involves a scrub with a highpressure, high-temperature steam cleaner, before filling up with water using a touchscreen system. At this point, around 11am, customers start to appear – one of whom is 14-month-old An An. Chubby-cheeked and practically child-sized, he eyes me suspiciously from his mother’s arms and I eye him suspiciously back. I ask You if babies can sense fear; she ignores me because she is already making social inroads with An An.

I hover around awkwardly, unsuccessfully attempting to ingratiate myself to him with a rattle. His mum says I’m the first foreigner he has interacted with, and because my clippers have broken, I’m looking especially scary and foreign thanks to my unkempt ginger beard.


Finally, it’s time for the qicai paopaoyou, which in English roughly means ‘colourful bubble swim’. You carries An An over to the filled-up tank, and slowly ‘rocks’ him into the water in order to acclimatise him. Once in, he immediately begins bawling and staff and parents rally around to distract him with the bounty of colourful floaty things, and he soon quietens down.

Usually, a shui yu shi will stand back to let the parent or grandparent play with the baby, but at this point I am left to fend for myself. I’ll admit, An An and I are an unlikely pair, and a huge crowd has gathered in the mall outside to watch us play.

At first he largely ignores me until I figure out, when he starts to splash water everywhere deliberately, that he is charmingly anarchic. I respond in kind, which proves to be extremely mirthful for him. We continue like this for a while until he starts chucking balls out of the tank and laughing hysterically.

Abruptly, it’s all over when he swallows some water and erupts in tears again, triggering a horrifying chain reaction of howling among the other babies. You swoops in to scoop An An up, and he is taken for a thorough wash (a laborious process I’m made to reenact on the stunt baby later), dry, and weigh-and-measure.

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You tells me that the most rewarding aspect of her job is its preparation for motherhood. ‘I’m not married now, so it’s good to learn these skills so I can be a better mother,’ she says as we wave off An An, who has all but forgotten us. I then remember that I’ve left the stunt baby floating alone in one of the tanks for two hours, and rush over to yank it out by its head. You shrieks in consternation, and concedes that I’m not quite ready for motherhood yet either.

A qicai paopaoyou at Beikaiya costs 110RMB for members, and 130RMB for non-members. For more information or to make a booking, call 6067 2952.