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Body shop ... in China

... and JYOTI PUNWANI looks at why here too, beauty is big business.


Miss China ... hardly made an impact.

BOYS on sidewalks hand out graphic fliers offering large breasts for 4,000 yuan (5,000 for a U.S.-made injection), dimples for 600 yuan each, "double eyelids for 1,280 yuan.

Two women have already followed the example of Hao Lulu, China's first woman to change her entire appearance through 10 operations over six months of plastic surgery. A third is awaiting a sponsor not just to transform her face, but also for a bone extension in her legs which would make her "grow taller".

So was China then the perfect setting for the Miss World finals, despite the shocking sight of the Red Flag fluttering next to half-clad contestants? What happened to the value system which for 30 years saw women as "holding up half the sky", when, recalls senior journalist Li Xing, "beauty was too bourgeois to be socially acceptable"? Had it been completely wiped out by 20 years of "opening up" to the West?

Not quite. There's a deep ambivalence about hosting the international beauty competition in once-Communist China, evident not just in the confused response to the pageant by the official women's federation.

China first entered international beauty pageants only two years back. But it has already hosted one such pageant and is set to host the next one too. Yet, neither Wang Xin, a 20-year-old waitress in a Western-style cafe, who teaches Chinese to English-speaking foreigners in her spare time, nor Huang Yao, a 24-year-old software designer whose work often takes her to Hong Kong, even knew what "Miss World" was. Both surf the Net for fashion tips, spend a considerable amount on chic accessories and live on their own in Guangdong.

Sandwiched between hedonistic Hong Kong and Macau, Guangdong was the first province to open up to the West in the early 1980s, and Shenzen its first city to do so. But Wen Fa Lang, an executive who prides herself on living in one of the three most modern metros in China, wasn't aware that her country was to host the Miss World finals. It's not as though these women don't read the papers. Chinese newspapers simply didn't think the event made for Page 1 news, not even after Miss China was declared second runner-up.

Despite this official ambivalence, beauty contests are serious business in China. At their most innocuous, they are what Li Xing described: "a way for young women to savour and to learn about beauty, even though some may admit that beautiful faces are only the facade." But then there's Wen, who like Li, completed her education in Mao's closed-door China. "Hosting Miss World shows that China is improving in more and more ways. It's being accepted and respected by the whole world," said this 40-year-old, who left her job as a school-teacher to join a multinational. "Showing the world that we can travel in space is one way.

Hosting Miss World is another way to show how powerful we have become." Even those who grew up in the "reform" years, and have no memory of life without CK, spoke of the deeper relevance of the event. Said receptionist-secretaries He Xiaohong (29) and Zhang Jie Yu (23): "People like to watch beautiful girls from all over the world. All of them will come to know about China. This event will improve Sanya's economy." Even 31-year-old teacher Xu Qin, severely critical of her compatriots "mindless pursuit of external beauty", conceded that the event could turn the seaside city of Sanya into another Bali.

In China's metros, beauty is big business. An "industrial park" may sometimes conduct a beauty contest to promote packaging technology (with participants dressed in paper), inaugurated by no less a personality than the mayor. For the participants, these contests are a legitimate stepping stone to a career in modelling or showbiz, and to instant fame and success.

Miss China's declared aim was to be "world-famous". And Guan, the latest aspirant for "plastic beauty", hoped to make a movie or write a book about herself. "Fame can take you to a level where you can choose what you can do," said 40-year-old Sun Lihong, who chose to teach in an English school rather than work for a multinational, only to escape the "competitiveness among women" in big companies. "Most contestants are university students; they don't think excellence in academics will bring instant success. Elders cannot influence them, as most of them live on their own."

Hordes of girls aged 16 to 20 from the interior, most of them equipped with only the compulsory middle school education (till standard nine), throng China's metros for jobs. Most find themselves trapped in a 10-hour-seven-days-a week grind as waitresses/shopgirls/factory workers.

Living on their own in dormitories, surrounded not just by the seductive aura of the world's leading beauty and fashion products, but with excellent fakes at throwaway prices, it is hardly surprising that some of them become what 23-year-old Lu Xing described as "addicted to looking perfect".

Hao's goal was to "perfect myself", even while knowing that perfection would last only five years. Lu Xing, who teaches English part-time, wants a full-time job, but is wary of joining a big firm, for it could entail wearing suits with stylishly short/slit skirts. Twenty-five-year-old Zhang Ling, who majored in management, considers herself lucky that she found a job as an administrative assistant in a small school, which allows her to "be a free soul, instead of having to dress up to please others".

Are these the exceptions, or is Hao Lulu the odd one out? After her widely publicised multiple plastic surgery, (costing 3,00,000 yuan, paid for by a plastic surgery institute in return for her becoming their spokeswoman), a Shanghai tabloid offered 1,00,000 yuan for a "three-week marathon" which attracted 50 applicants. And just this month, a Beijing high school student was rewarded with a "double eyelid" procedure by her parents for her academic performance.

But another academic topper, Shenzen's three-year-old Wen Di Yu, who knew the exact height of the last Miss World, and felt Miss China was a "certificate" for her country, told this paper that she hoped the Miss World contestants would be judged first by their intelligence, then on their "open-mindedness" and lastly, on their looks. She could be as good a representative of China's new generation as any.

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