Samuel Khor: Blind Masseur Extraordinaire

If you want the full works from Samuel Khor, you’re going to have to take off all your clothes first. However, Sam’s clients are rarely shy about doing so. A blind masseur, Sam practises his art in the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur. There, you can find him in Little India, where 18 units on one long street compete for the attention of clientele.

It is while sitting in a small restaurant on Jalan Thambapillai, feasting on hot rotis and spicy mutton curry, that we first notice the abundance of ‘blind massage’ parlours down the road. Driven by curiosity tempered with trepidation, we climb up a set of narrow stairs into an apartment block to find the Eastern Traditional Blind Massage Centre. (We choose this one because the name doesn’t sound like a euphemism, promising other, more risqué services.) A tinkling doorbell announces our entry. Across from the small reception and waiting area, two doors lead into rooms where multiple beds are separated by thin curtains. The space is spartan but clean.

Sam: Wishes he had got into the business much earlier

It is here we first find Sam. He practises a form of acupressure and says he learnt his skills from training courses held at the Association for the Blind in Kuala Lumpur and from friends in the same field. Now Sam has his regulars and new clients can be tricky – beginning with locating them in the room.

“Normally, we will roughly know where he is lying down by the sound of his voice. Those who are quite at home with blind people will let us know they’re already on the bed.” Sam will discreetly feel his client’s legs to ascertain whether he is face up or face down, and then will launch into a general “rub down” before he zeroes in on a problem area. “We try to help them to relieve any pain,” he says of his clients, adding, “with a little bit of luck, we help them to get rid of it completely.”

He gives a great massage, but his most attractive trait is his bedside manner. His deep tones and fluent English single him out. It’s an advantage when dealing with tourists such as us but such walks-ins are few and far between. “I work seven days a week,” says Sam, explaining that various massage parlours keep him on call. He goes wherever he’s needed. Still, times are hard for Sam and others like him. He never knows how many clients a week will bring.

“It all depends, la, it’s up and down,” he tells me philosophically. Still, as far as he’s concerned this is one of the better jobs for the visually impaired.

Sam says he has been blind from birth. “I was born at home,” he says. In those first days, an infection appeared to take hold and his eyes began to ooze. “We Chinese believe it could either be due to the heat, the cold or the wind. In my case, my grandmother concluded it was due to the heat. Six months down the line, my eyes still could not open and they sent me to the hospital.” Unfortunately, the infection was entrenched and the doctors could do nothing for their young patient.

As an adult, Sam would find it hard to find gainful employment. Before this, he worked in a call centre, located off the island of Penang, but found himself replaced by an automated operator. Having met his wife, who is also visually impaired, by then, he now had a family with two children to support. At 50 he found himself looking for new employment and he found it as a masseur. Sam will turn 60 this year and says he wishes he had got into the business sooner.

“It would have been a better idea, la…those days times were good, being a masseur was good. Now everything is becoming tougher and tougher.” Sam takes a 60% of the fee charged by the parlour – typically 40 ringgit in this part of town – but some of the competition charges even less. Immigrants coming into the country undercut these rates. “We are not only competing among ourselves, we are competing with people with sight,” he says. Still, Sam feels blind masseurs have an advantage. “I think we are working not only with our hands, but we are working with our hearts. I always tell the younger chaps [to do this] and then people will feel the difference.” (Some of his colleagues are as young as 22, others as old as 70).

“My daughter has been asking me to prepare myself for retirement,” he tells me, “I told her, no retirement, no girl. But when she graduates, I might consider it. She’s going to be a dietician,” he adds proudly. Despite all its challenges, Sam enjoys what he does. “I enjoy meeting up with people. Another aspect is that once the session is over, if I hear the client say,’ ah that feels so good,’ it’s like music to my ears.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on June 24, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

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