|Lu Qin works on a customer's foot in her pedicure salon in Beijing. (Xinhua Photo)|
BEIJING, Feb. 25 -- Once mocked as the "girl who plays with stinky feet", Lu Qin has upgraded the Chinese pedicure industry into part of the intangible heritage of "Yangzhou's Three Knives". China Daily reports. Just like Chinese acupuncture and traditional massage, pedicure has a long history in China, originating back in 3,000 BC.
These are not pedicures purely to beautify the toe nails. Using special knives, pedicurists help cure people's foot ailments, which are hard to get treatment for in hospitals. However, being a pedicurist was not a desirable job in the past, at least not for Lu Qin when she first learned her trade as a female pedicurist back in the 1980s.
"There were only male pedicurists then," 42-year-old Lu recalls. "Women had to wait along the corridors outside the men's bathhouse if they wanted their foot afflictions to be treated."
Now a famous pedicurist countrywide, Lu's hands have served the feet of many political figures, business tycoons and entertainment celebrities, such as the late media mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, popular star Andy Lau and former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang. Lu grew up in a military family and spent her childhood in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. In 1988, at the age of 17, she moved to Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.
Pedicure is so popular in Yangzhou that there is even a phrase "Yangzhou's Three Knives" referring to the kitchen knife which makes the Huaiyang cuisine, the haircutting knife which was once praised by Emperor Qian Long in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and the pedicure knife which helps relieve sores on feet.
"Yangzhou is my father's hometown, and he spoke a lot about 'Yangzhou's Three Knives' when we were in Xinjiang," says Lu. "I was curious about the pedicure knife because there are kitchen knives and haircutting knives in Xinjiang, but I had no idea about the pedicure knife."
When Lu saw Yangzhou was recruiting female pedicurists, the curiosity from childhood motivated her to apply.
But, there was strong prejudice against girls working as pedicurists. Back then, many women even felt embarrassed to seek pedicure treatment and would rather endure their foot ailments.
Initially, none of the veteran pedicurists wanted to take her as an apprentice. But Lu didn't give up, and thanks to her persistence, one elder pedicurist finally agreed to train her.
Lu also enrolled in a bathhouse run by a State-owned catering company and became one of the first female apprentices of the craft at that time.
"There were lots of people who mocked me as the 'girl who plays with stinky feet', but their jeers just made me more determined," says Lu.
Finally, after months of training and practicing, Lu completed her apprenticeship, and started to work on her own.
Working diligently in the bathhouse, Lu honed her skills and her reputation grew as she successfully cured foot ailments of many customers.
In 1992, Lu received the title of national model for refined craft and good service after four years of working as a pedicurist. Among 200 award recipients, the 21-year-old Lu was the youngest.
Upon receiving the award, Lu was invited to the home of Hu Ping, the former minister of commerce, to give a foot treatment.
Lu felt very proud to provide service to the minister, but what moved Lu most was the minister's recognition of the work of a pedicurist.
"Your work is very valuable," Lu recalls Hu saying to her. "You cure ailments which even doctors cannot deal with, and you relieve people from pain."
Since then, Lu Qin has become a household name of the pedicure industry in Yangzhou.
People learned of Lu's service through word of mouth, and in 2001, Lu was invited by Run Run Shaw to Hong Kong to cure his foot ailments.
Lu's excellent service impressed Shaw and earned her fame among celebrities in Hong Kong. Shaw introduced her to many superstars and political figures, such as Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Andy Lau, resulting in the extension of Lu's stay in Hong Kong. Some of the celebrities even suggested that Lu remain in Hong Kong, and promised to help her develop her business.
"At that time, I was only an unknown pedicurist in a bathhouse, but the trip to Hong Kong made me determined to establish my own business," Lu recalls. "I was very sad when I heard about the death of Mr Shaw. I could not have succeeded had I not known Mr Shaw."
In 2002, Lu opened her first pedicure salon in Yangzhou with the investment from Zhu Yuanzhong, chairman of the Association of Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces Fellow Townsmen in the United States.
The following year, Lu registered the first pedicure trademark nationwide under her own name - Lu Qin Foot & Art.
During the past decade, Lu's pedicure business has expanded quickly with more than 100 franchised outlets across the country and six direct owned salons in Yangzhou and Beijing.
Lu also set up a pedicure vocational school in 2002 to raise the service and skill standards for young practitioners in the trade.
Since its establishment, the school has trained more than 10,000 men and women, and the students include those from overseas, such as Japan, Singapore and Canada, who want to provide Chinese pedicure services in their home countries.
In 2003, Lu was elected as one of the seven deputies of Yangzhou to the National People's Congress. She served two terms until 2013, contributing proposals related to the service and pedicure industry, as well as ways to relieve transport problems during the Spring Festival rush.
In 2009, Yangzhou Municipal Bureau of Culture nominated Lu as one of the representative inheritors for the intangible heritage of "Yangzhou's Three Knives".
"Customers sometimes talk about their admiration of the art of jade and wood carvings," says Lu. "I tell them that we pedicurists are also artists. We make the feet of people better."
In her effort to promote the Chinese pedicure culture in Yangzhou, she lent a set of pedicure tools used by elder professionals to the city archive as part of the project to preserve the city's intangible heritage.
Lu's collection includes three set of pedicurist knives, pedicurist lamps and wooden clogs. One of the lamp shades is about 120 years old.
"We agree to preserve these precious items for Ms Lu, and will continue collecting related items," says Jiang Li of the Yangzhou Municipal Archive. "We are working with about a dozen of intangible heritage inheritors like Lu, and hope to put up an exhibition of 'Yangzhou's Three Knives' later this year."
Looking back, Lu says there were doubts and hesitations in the Chinese pedicure trade.
"When I was 20 years old, I thought I would leave the business in five years; when I reached 25, I swore that I'll only give it another five years. On the day I turned 30, I knew that I could never put down the pedicurist's knife."