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I Went to a Bathhouse to Figure Out Why Bathhouses Still Exist

The naked man sitting across from me has slicked-back hair and Ric Flair's skin. I am trying to figure out the appeal of the Hastings Steam & Sauna.
March 9, 2016, 9:15pm

Photo via Hastings Steam & Sauna

I'm nude, sitting in a men's only public sauna in downtown Vancouver, trying not to pass out from the extreme heat. In the hazy room are a handful of relaxed young dudes, an old, tattooed man, and an Eastern European with slicked-back hair and Ric Flair's skin. He lifts his feet up on the bench, spread eagle and unclad, and begins a rant about the fabled "crazy Russians" who also frequent the Hastings Steam & Sauna. They wear wet towels around their necks and drink hot tea so they can sweat like Ted Striker in Airplane! He proceeds to glare right at me, sensing I'm a rookie, and tosses more water on the rocks to challenge my ability to take the heat. It's too hot. Like way too fucking hot. I feel no sense of emasculation despite his efforts. I get up and leave, listening to his laugh being swallowed by the steam. Outside the sauna, the showers are dingy, poorly lit, and the tiles are falling off the walls. It's an aesthetic that's oddly fitting, considering the sauna finds itself down the street from sketchiest corner on the East Hastings strip.

When someone mentions "East Hastings" to a non-Vancouverite, it usually brings to mind drug dealing, the notorious junk market, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. There's something almost apocalyptic about the Downtown Eastside, which has become the Canadian poster child for urban decay and given rise to much controversy in recent years. It's not a place most people consider when looking to chill out for a few hours. Yet just five blocks from Vancouver's skid row is the Hastings Steam & Sauna, sitting in the same place it's been for 90 years.

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The Hastings Steam & Sauna is now time-worn and well past its prime, but it stays committed to its nine-decade promise of stress-relief and detox health benefits. It's the kind of place your weird dad would bring you on your 13th birthday, because nothing says rite of passage like sweating in a room full of naked dudes. Despite being one of the longest running businesses in Vancouver, it remains a hidden, albeit sordid, gem. Looking into the history of the steambath, there was almost no public information readily available. I sifted through the Vancouver Public Library newspaper archives, interviewed the business manager, and went in for a way-too-hot public steam to meet the regulars and uncover nine decades of Hastings Steam & Sauna history.

The unassuming "Finnish-style" sauna is hidden among dead hotels and unspecific storefronts. It's far enough from the infamous Main and Hastings intersection for outsiders to venture to it, but it's not far enough to escape the local aesthetic. Several homeless people amble out front, seeking shelter from the rain under unoccupied awnings, and the storefront itself is easy to miss, looking more like that cheap hostel on the last leg of your Eurotrip than a sauna. But it wasn't always like that.

When Finnish immigrant J.P. Wepsela founded the Hastings Steam Bath at 766 East Hastings in 1926, the area was the heart of the city, known as the Great White Way. In its heyday, Hastings was the entertainment district where people would catch Chaplin shows at the Pantages theater, then head out for a drink at one of the countless bars that lined the strip. The Hastings Steam Bath had found a perfect location. Customers at the time were mostly local miners, loggers, and fishermen who would roll in from the docks looking for a deep-cleanse after traveling the coast for months at a time. Having sweated in the dingy, poorly lit basement that still has the original blue tiles, it's easy to picture the place packed with coal-covered bodies and reeking of a dank fish smell. Often, these shoremen would stay in one of the many now-derelict hotels along the strip, like the famous Astoria, founded only three years prior, which now functions as a hip club. Current Hastings Steam & Sauna manager Hoily Fung tells me, at the time, heat and plumbing were an issue in hotels, but people "always knew they could come to the sauna to warm up."

Then the depression hit, followed by WWII, which began the fucking up of the Downtown Eastside. As a result of money-woes and unemployment rates, the hotels and bars became cheaper, which attracted a more demographic centered on drugs and alcohol. While most of the other classic-style saunas in Vancouver closed, Hastings Steam & Sauna remained open 24/7 (back then anyway), just in case you needed a 3 AM sweat session.

The area continued to decline through the 1950s, and drug use became rampant along the strip. In her book Jailed for Possession, Catherine Carstairs claimed that about half of all Canadian drug-related convictions between 1946 and 1961 occurred in Vancouver. Most of this happened on the uncontrolled strip, which was becoming a heated national issue. But yet again, the Hastings Steam Bath survived and was handed off to the second owner, another Scandinavian family, to continue the tradition. Oddly enough, Fung says that the steam bath began hosting a lot of women in this period, a trend that would continue into the coming decades. He explains that women had more time on their hands back then, and they were generally more concerned about their skin and health than men.

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By the 60s and 70s, drug use and alcohol addiction were the norm in the Downtown Eastside and skid row was in full swing. There were over 25 bars and liquor stores in the area, making access insanely easy. Streetcars stopped running through there, and Eatons department store moved its central location away from Hastings, while new developments moved the city center farther west and, as a result, the increasingly seedy neighborhood would lose thousands of visitors. In the 70s, local artists started taking advantage of the cheap rent, and they would hit up the baths, both as patrons and employees making minimum wage. It was in this decade that the sauna's clientele began to really diversify, taking in all ages, cultures, and classes.

Hastings Steam & Sauna as seen from the street. Image via Google Streetview

Enter the 80s, when cocaine became a thing in the Downtown Eastside, leading to many of the remaining businesses packing up and leaving the area. Except the rebranded Hastings Steam & Sauna. In 1987, current owner Tej Purba purchased the business from his family friend and renovated the space to match the trends of the decade. The lobby was decked out in "flaming pink chairs," a hot purple carpet, and tropical green walls.

Purba explained in a 1989 interview with the Vancouver Province that he was surprised to see that up to 70 percent of the clientele were women when he took over. Through the 80s and 90s, the sauna saw an even more eclectic customer base, apparently hosting Canadian pop acts The Parachute Club and k.d. lang before winning her Juno, along with an old pizza chef who would drop in to steam out the flour that was stuck in his pores. It was also during this period that Purba made the public sauna for men only, and introduced the massage option to the business, though he did so reluctantly, as he was scared of "encouraging the seedy massage-parlor image." Neither the service nor the clean image lasted long.

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On a call with Fung, I ask about the history of the Hastings Steam & Sauna, but before I finish my first question, he says, "Well, there are gay men who come in. It's true." I assure him I'm just looking for information about what it was like back in the day, and he responds, "Well, we just don't discriminate. The public bath is open to gay and straight men, and because of that, it's gay friendly," he says. "I imagine it was straighter in the old days, like back in Victorian times or whatever."

The seedy image the sauna tries to avoid seems inevitable given the area in which it's situated. Aside from the public bath, there are the far less dingy, luxurious private rooms that are often rented out by couples. But the venue has also tried to roll with the times, even hosting an edgy nude theater performance in the public sauna called "Body Plural" as part of the Live2009 Biennale Festival. Fung explains that while it's got a sleazy image to some, he still sees "all walks of life coming in throughout the year."

I ask Fung how the Hastings Steam & Sauna survived through nine decades in an area that most people are scared to visit, and he chalks it up to cross cultural appeal. "Every culture has its own version of a steam bath. Whether it's the Russian association with the Banya or the natives and their sweat lodges. It's all based on the same idea across history and cultures." As for why it's still around today, an old man with faded tattoos and a graying goatee says it best: "It's the last place in the city where you can really steam."

Unfortunately, the business hasn't been doing so hot recently, the benefits of prolonged sweating being lost on younger generations who "go to community centers or gyms now. They're just the cheaper, more accessible options," Fung admits. "But ours is the hottest." And it is really fucking hot. It's so hot in the public sauna that sweat continuously flows out of your pores, each one a tiny faucet. I felt like a dirty towel being wrung out, and despite the sketchy aesthetic and rusted pipes, I also felt those promised detox benefits.

The Hastings Steam & Sauna is an important vestige for the bustling city center that used to be, while simultaneously representing the present state of the neighborhood. It's a shabby place with character and grit. It's a place filled with memories that takes change as it comes. Fung says the Hastings Steam & Sauna is currently up for sale because Purba wants to retire; he already spends half the year in Vegas. As the old, tattooed man says, "They're just waiting for the right offer to come along" before it becomes another bygone Vancouver staple.

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