I’d saved my feet up for this especially. No pumice stone, almond oil or lick of polish had graced my tootsies for the past two months. This is very unusual for me: I spent 15 years of my life as a devoted ballet student and, subsequently, have developed perhaps a slightly unhealthy obsession with the state of my feet and, in particular, my toes. Six-weekly pedicures are a fixture in my diary, and even in my borasic student days, I would rather have lived on baked beans for weeks than miss my time at the toe spa. No cheese-grater heels for me, thank you very much.
The art deco stained-glass door
But this was different. This was The Mandarin Barber at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, and the legendary Shanghainese Pedicure. Feet here are a serious business, with those in the know booking an appointment months in advance. Front-row fashion editors are notorious for insisting on stopovers in Hong Kong during trips to mainland China – just so they can have their toes tended to here.
Walking into The Mandarin Barber is an experience in itself. With its resplendent art deco stained-glass doors, dark mahogany fittings and luxurious deep and comfortable leather chairs, the effect is more Thirties Shanghai gentlemen’s club than clinical foot doctors.
A third-generation shifu (master), Mr So is a man of few words; but they’re all the right ones
After a perfectly pitched double espresso, I am led into a small private room replete with squishy chair, TV and a selection of magazines, and am introduced to Mr Samuel So. A third-generation shifu (master), Mr So is a man of few words; but they’re all the right ones: are my feet squished into inappropriate shoes? Do I change into slippers once I get home? (Yes and no.) While asking these questions, he instructs me to sit in a chair and plunge my feet into the soap-sudded hot water in the butler sink below.
Mr So then pulls open his draw, and out a corner of my eye I catch the glint of what can only be described as a heart-stopping arrangement of worryingly sharp scalpels. There are 10 of them in varying sizes laid out on a towel and they are sharpened daily, according to Mr So. There was not an emery board, pair of nail scissors or foot slougher in sight. Nobody had mentioned this. But, as Mr So confirms, this pedicure is performed entirely with blades.
A Shanghainese Pedicure by Mr So
I decide to distract myself with the TV and vow not to look down until this is over. But a funny thing happens. As Mr So deftly wields his instruments, I feel not a thing. As he slices off my dry skin, trims my toenails (yes, with a blade!) and rights the many wrongs of my hard, worn heels, I am spellbound and can’t take my eyes off him.
Mr So has been doing this for over 17 years, so one expects a degree of expertise – but this is art. Reassured, I settle back into my chair to enjoy the experience. After 20 minutes, I look up to see his steady hand painting my nails with OPI Malaga Wine, my favourite. I reach down to feel my feet, which are as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom. As we shake hands and say our goodbyes, I vow to put his tips into action when I am back in London.
Slippers at home and feet up after moisturising – I’m now a fully paid-up member of the Shanghainese Pedicure fraternity. Ah, Mr So… So near yet So far.