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    Amid Surge in Massage Chairs, China’s Travelers Feel the Squeeze

    In response to public outcry over crowded waiting areas, authorities have now limited massage chairs to 20% of total seating in railway stations.

    Chinese railway authorities have launched an inspection campaign targeting the installation and use of massage chairs in railway stations. The move comes in response to mounting public criticism regarding the encroachment of these chairs on seating areas, particularly in crowded waiting areas.

    In a notice Thursday, China State Railway Group, the national railway operator, directed all stations in the country to assess the number of multifunctional chairs and take corrective measures where necessary. 

    The directive specifies that massage chairs should not exceed 20% of the total seating capacity within stations, particularly at locations short on space or dealing with a high number of passengers. Officials also instructed stations to prominently display labels indicating that passengers can sit on such chairs for free but utilizing the massage function would incur a cost. 

    Offering a 30-minute massage for between 15 yuan and 25 yuan ($2 to $2.75), pay-to-use massage chair services have gained momentum across China since 2017. The following year witnessed a substantial surge, with over a million massage chairs being deployed nationwide. 

    Soon after, industry giants Lemobar and Momoda unveiled ambitious expansion blueprints, targeting transportation hubs as the focal points of their growth strategy.

    Yet the sharing service, which is now widely available in shopping malls, airports, and railway stations in cities, has drawn a wave of public criticism in recent months, with many complaining that the service had reduced the overall seating capacity. 

    In an incident that sparked widespread public debate last week, passengers expressed their frustration on social media over having to sit on the ground due to a shortage of available seats in a railway station located in Tai'an, situated in the eastern Shandong province. 

    While domestic media reported that 90% of the seats were massage chairs, officials, however, said that the actual figure stood at approximately 60%.

    Last month, similar complaints arose in a railway station in Yueyang in the central Hunan province. Passengers claimed they couldn’t find seats since most had been replaced by massage chairs. However, the local operator denied the allegation, and stated that massage chairs accounted for only 14% of the seats in the waiting hall.

    Safety concerns stemming from mismanagement have also plagued the service. In the southwestern city of Chongqing, a passenger’s hair became entangled in a massage chair due to inadequate machine maintenance earlier this month. Similarly, in June, a passenger lodged a complaint about a dirty massage chair at Guangzhou South Railway Station, claiming bugs could be seen in the crevices.

    The dissatisfaction with massage chairs extends beyond railway stations, and now includes cinemas as well. On Weibo, a related topic gained considerable attention, with many users sharing their negative experiences of such chairs, ranging from feeling uncomfortable in their seats to the distractions caused by the noise made by massage chairs.

    Editor: Apurva. 

    (Header image: VCG)