Written by Hu Fang
I was drawn unconsciously into a wonderful place. Room after room appeared from the shadows. Five doors opened in succession, divided into five different colours, five different worlds. I can still remember today the astonishment that I felt at the time. In the overcast cities in which we live today, it is rare to see such a fantastic scene.
Room 1: Red
The four walls of the first room are painted fire-red. Different size sand bags are stacked up in one corner of the room, and in the centre there is a boxing ring. According to the coach, the main benefit of painting the room red is that members are not as easily affected if they spill blood while training – the colour of their blood quickly merges into the red surroundings, and so they do not feel as much shock. As a result they are able to reach a higher level of training. It is also easier to clean up. The coach emphasised that training in this space is entirely voluntary. Members have every right to enter or refuse to enter the training room. But once they have entered, the atmosphere is too much for any of the team members to resist.
Room 2: Blue
The four walls of the second room are covered with blue ceramic tiles. In the middle of the room is a swimming pool with water as still as glass, reflecting the four walls as if reflecting the sky. Members train in water polo, swimming and aqua-aerobics in this room. Moving from the fire-red boxing room to this blue pool feels like nothing less than going from fire to water. The coach described the transition as similar to putting a piece of freshly smelted steel into icy water. Imagining the sound of the burst of steam is enough to quicken the heart.
Room 3: Black
The four walls and floor of the third room are black. Through the dim lighting you can see the three running machines lined up, with minute rays of light reflecting off the silver handles. The black running strip and the main body of the running machines blend as one with the background. “This is where the members can become close with the earth”, the coach explained, “What you are stepping on is the true earth. We want to help the team to appreciate the scale and power of the earth, thereby augmenting the power of the body itself. Running in this room, especially long distance running, can give the body unlimited benefits. Because of property development there are no places left to go jogging in this city. Running in this room is like leaping through boundless lands.”
Room 4: White
The whole space in the fourth room is painted white. It looks as if it carries on endlessly into the distance like the snow-white surface created by high speed freezing. The coach explained that there are no longer such winters in this city because of global warming, but here, in this room, members can ice-skate, ski, and enjoy the pleasures of winter. They can also learn survival skills in the snow. According to the coach, this is the most popular of the rooms. Many non-members have heard about it and want to see inside, but this is not allowed, because all of the facilities here are for the use of members only.
Room 5: Colourless
The fifth room is made of glass, and is higher than the other rooms by about 1.5m. The team must go through a Plexiglas stairway to get to the room. The last room that the members enter, this empty steam room makes people feel extremely relaxed. In the steamy atmosphere you cannot see who is opposite you – you cannot even see yourself. The self is lost in the steam, completing the process of sublimation from all to nothing, from real to intangible, from fullness to emptiness.
Facing the Elements, Facing Yourself
From fire to water to earth, from ice to air, the spaces that the club has designed not only benefit the body, but also help the development of the team’s ways of thinking about the origins of the world. The coach asserts, “These five rooms are the epitome of the world, and in the end the club will change the world views of its members.”
Today, these leisure centres and clubs are spread all over our cities, and are like a system for the propagation of the self. It is more appropriate to talk of meetings between the self and the embodiment of the self than meetings with other people in these worlds. People with similar life experiences and desires come together to share their existences, aiming to make a breakthrough, to reach a higher level. As they make their way home, they will return with the warm embrace of the self – this is the prize that members can hope to achieve from their time in these spaces.
These enclosed, self-sufficient spaces create ideal, pollution free worlds that come together to make a semi-utopian system. People step into these worlds to strengthen their resistance against the cruelty of reality. Because of this, every such space provides its members with an ideal experience that differs from everyday life. In Life in the Metropolis – Crowd Culture Rem Koolhaas describes an indoor golf course in a sports club in a New York suburb as “An indoor environment that is made up of a blossoming mountain scene, a stream running through the grass (real grass), a bridge… a mural landscape continuing into the dim horizon. But the lighting on the ceiling makes it hard to avoid the fact that this place is actually man-made.”
Looking for Adventure
Working people are especially drawn to this type of risk-free adventure, where they can develop individual will and the power of self-government. The emergence of members-only clubs based on the theme of ‘survival’ reflects the intense desire of people to model the self and strengthen their competitive edge. This acting out of survival situations involves camping, canoeing, diving and mounting climbing scenarios. Unlike the indoor golf course, this type of activity creates the illusion that nature is only a step away…
Back to reality
The appearance of ‘reality television’ series such as Survivor have provided a media platform for participation in the popularization of these spaces. Growing in parallel to ‘survival’ spaces are ‘healing’ spaces. With all sorts of rich and traditional South East Asian names such as: The Place of Enlightenment (Da-sheng Tang), The Garden of Yoga (Yu-yi-jia Yuan) and The Place of Raising Life (Tuo-sheng Gan), these spaces are centered on ‘improvement from the inside out’, ‘the benefits of movement’ and ‘prevention’ along with a combination of the philosophy of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, Indian yoga, modern nutritional science and psychology. These health centres provide an all-encompassing service, returning to the route taken by their ancestors in which the maintenance of a healthy body and a healthy mind was seen as way to ensure a happy family, a well-governed country and a peaceful world. Survival spaces and healing spaces share an ethos of ‘breaking away from reality’, allowing oneself to temporarily enter a different world in which you can be ‘yourself’. People who ‘love themselves’ are invited to ‘be themselves’.
“After the night in the Fight Club, the trouble of the real world melted into thin air. With nothing left to trouble you, your word becomes the law. Even if other people break this law or question you, you will not be angry.” Back in the real world, the hero of Chuck Palahniuk’s writing has to return to his identity – a commercial representative for a company selling shirts and neck ties, sat in a tiny bleak room dreaming of changing the world. In the ‘fight club’ space in the middle of the night, his dream had almost become a reality.
Just as ‘reality television’ will never become real life, the games acted out in survival clubs can only provide self-comfort within those spaces. Although many people understand this, they still use the money they earn from real life to pay for membership of the clubs. Another truth that is a little more painful for people to accept is that those who ‘love themselves’ cannot become ‘themselves’ without letting go of their attachment to these spaces, or unless they ‘kill’ the ‘self’ they perceive within themselves whilst in such clubs.
Survival clubs and their members might be considered analogous to artists in the Chinese art world, as some of the people trying hardest to ‘kill the self’ today are artists.