It started in Sichuan. Uncontent with the long-pinky-finger method, one of our ancestors invented an eight-piece toolset designed to get all up in there, scooping and tickling out the ear wax. It’s a tradition that lives on today across the country, and of course, Shanghai has it.

But why? Why not ask a medical professional to unblock your ear? The reason is simple: cai er, or ear-picking, is so much more comfortable and quicker. The medical removal of the buildup and blockages in the ears involves wax softening drops and a one-two day wait. The practitioner then uses a medical grade vacuum pump to suck the earwax out. It doesn’t feel great.    

A cai er experience does. It lasts about 20 to 30 minutes. But it’s so much more. It’s like enhanced ASMR with historical background. Each step has a symbolic name that specifies the tool involved: “treasured sword comes out of a scabbard” (a pen-like thin knife) or “after the rain comes the sun” (switch the wet q-tip to a dry one).

Cai er became trendy in Shanghai about 2015, brought here by a young woman named Zhuju (朱菊), who launched a nationwide chain named Weiwei (为为). At Weiwei, the service blends into the more private foot massage and spa world. It is mostly performed by ladies.        


In the name of clean ears and scientific and medical curiosity, I entered the cai er world last week. Instead of Weiwei, I chose its sister brand, Kuanzhai (宽窄), named after the iconic Chengdu alley.

Kuanzhai is among a handful of cai er parlors at Tianzifang. All of them are semi-hidden on the second and third floor of a small shikumen building, accessed by narrow and steep stairs. They don’t look very trustworthy: dimly lit with poor ventilation, kind of sketchy.

Kuanzhai is an exception. It occupies an individual building in Tianzifang. There’s effort in the tongue in cheek décor, with customized artwork re-done to integrate an ear picking theme. The rooms are bright and spacious. The one we picked had bamboo and goldfish. A collection of ancient ear picking tools were on display. It was tidy and zen.



The god of wealth has his ears cleaned

On their digital menu are pages of familiar names of Chinese ancient therapy techniques, such as cupping, gua sha, and foot massage. They also provide an extreme-sounding service called “blade wash eyeballs” (刀锋洗眼). Another popular treatment from Sichuan, it uses a blunt knife to stimulate the whites of the eyeball, “cleaning” the eyes by forcing your tears out. It sounds like the torture scene from A Clockwork Orange. At the cai er parlors in Shanghai, they use needles instead of the knives. The Kuanzhai staff told me it felt amazing. I decided I was not paid enough to risk losing both my hearing and eyesight for one article.

At Kuanzhai, the cai er service is packaged with “ear candles” or an eye massage at a discount price: 188rmb for 70 minutes. Sounds like a good deal. Cheaper than many massage places.


My lady’s cai er technique consisted of nine tools, which were sprayed with rubbing alcohol first: a small pen knife, a tweezer, various types of ear scoops (for us Asians’ dry earwax) , q-tips, two types of feather-tipped picks (cleaned beforehand), and last but not least, the “tuning fork”.

Since my ears are very clean (not to brag), the result wasn’t as dramatic as I expected: there was twirling and scooping, but almost nothing came out. She went deep, but it didn’t hurt. It did make me nervous and squirmy at points. The ear scoops and feathers mostly felt tingly. There was a lot of lovely caressing of my outer ears and temples.



Then came the truly awesome part: the “tuning fork”. She first hit the tuning fork on her thigh, then used it to vibrate the feather-tipped tools against my outer ear, temple, and my neck. It sent shivers down my spine. “That’s why it’s so addictive,” I thought. I didn’t want her to stop.


The eye massage was as comfortable as it could get, though I kept thinking about that tuning fork.

When I left the building, I tried hard to pay attention to any noticeable change with my hearing. Nope. After reading so many reviews on Dianping about people’s satisfying experience, I was a little underwhelmed.  Still, it was a lovely experience. Very ASMR.


Before you go:

Weiwei is the oldest shop at Tianzifang and also the most reviewed cai er parlor on Dianping, but don’t bother. It’s not as good as Kuanzhai, in terms of customer service or the environment. In total, I visited four cai er places in Tianzifang. Kuanzhai is the nicest. Prices are about the same across the board, at 68rmb for 20mins of ears/eyes/nose cleaning. Did I mention the nose cleaning?


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