Foot massage parlors are sprouting up all over China. In Beijing and other big cities there are shops on many street corners, and foot massage chain stores employ thousands of workers. This mushrooming industry is producing thousands of new jobs for the blind, who traditionally in Asia have been trained to do massage.
The Chinese government says more than five million people work in the foot massage trade. Most of them come from poor rural areas, and getting jobs in the city rubbing other people's feet offers a way out of poverty.
Workers at some shops have only minimal training, leaving them wide open to competition from highly trained blind massage therapists, who promise to deliver medicinal benefits at a competitive price. Cao Jun has been blind from birth and he owns three foot massage parlors.
"We have an advantage in terms of touching and feeling, so we are very confident that we do a better job than ordinary people," he says.
Massage has traditionally been considered a profession for the blind in China, Japan and other Asian nations. Now the Chinese government is encouraging the blind to take up massage as an occupation that will allow them to live independently. Special massage schools have set up four-year programs, giving sightless students far more training than their sighted counterparts.
Cao says his 10-year-old business is strictly for medicinal massage based on ancient Chinese theories of reflexology, which say that points on the feet correlate to parts of the body and that specialized foot rubs, which hit the different points, promote overall health.
His massage parlors employ 32 workers. One of them is 23-year-old Guo La, who lost her sight at 17 in a bicycle accident.
"When I first lost my eyesight, I lost hope," she says. "But after I studied the massage skills, I find my life is coming back again."
Cost of an 80-minute massage: $7.50.