Pearl-white complexions or Western-style suntans?

One of the first things that a newly arrived expat notices in China – especially in HK and Taiwan and other places where the sun shines bright and hot – is the ubiquitous use of umbrellas, or “parasols,” by women of every age in an obsessive battle to keep rays of sunshine away from their skin. And we’ve all seen the skin whiteners everywhere. So it was surprising to read this article (BBC, so blocked here in the motherland) on how tanning salons are growing in popularity here. Long considered a status symbol in the West, many in China are apparently feeling the same way, skin cancer be damned.

Foreign firms like Nivea, Loreal and Estee Lauder make up half of the Chinese face cream market. With more money in their pockets, young Chinese women – and some young men too – are prepared to pay extra for foreign brands.

And foreign attitudes to tanning are also taking hold. Flicking through the pages of the February edition of Elle magazine, senior beauty editor Helena Hu points to the latest fashion spread. The pages contain a bronzed Chinese woman with a deep tan.

“This girl had just finished her vacation in Thailand so her skin was very, very dark,” she explained. “More and more models will tan their skin to make their looks more international; darker skin means healthier body, it’s sexier,” she said.

Dark skin in Imperial times was associated with labouring in the fields. Even today it is China’s migrant workers, who work on construction sites across cities like Shanghai, that have the darkest skin.

But for a growing number of young Chinese people, dark skin now means having the money to afford foreign holidays or Western-style glamour. The customers at MH Tanning in central Shanghai agree. The first in China, according to its manager Huang Tong, the salon is popular with the city’s young upwardly mobile set.

“Our customers are mainly… white collar workers, entrepreneurs, people who’ve been abroad, or fashionable people like singers and actors. ”

It’s their choice, of course. Personally, I see the tradition of sitting in the sun with the goal of charring one’s skin with a 1-st degree burn one of the most foolish and ill-advised pastimes ever conceived, and I always wondered why we in the West saw this as a status symbol. I hope this is one of those fades that dies on the vine in the burning sunlight.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

UV from the sun is harsh and dangerous and turns you into a wrinkled peasant crone suitable only for hoeing drought-stricken rutabaga patches in Anhui. UV from tanning booths is sleek and modern and will turn you into Gisele Bundchen, only Chinese.

Marketing. Same product, different packaging. Gotta love it.

February 14, 2007 @ 7:13 pm | Comment

This is just a continuation of the Westernization of the Chinese.

February 15, 2007 @ 1:26 am | Comment

Anyone ever notice that enough whitening cream makes and asian woman look like a caucasian corpse or at least have severe TB/influenza?

February 15, 2007 @ 1:38 am | Comment

I am skeptical of this as an attempt by the beauty industry to start a new and expensive trend. Visits to the tanning salon cost more than a bottle of whitening cream, plus future earnings from selling anti-wrinkle creams and plastic surgery to thirtysomethings.

The Korean beauty industry took note when bronzed gyopos (Korean huaqiaos) started showing up in upscale Apgujong cafes. Happily, tanning has never caught on with Korean women.

When I was a teenager, I cursed my pale Irish complexion that would not tan. After lying out for a week, I’d give up and retreat inside the house for the rest of the summer. Now I am thankful that I was never a sun-worshipper. Almost all the women in my age bracket have had work done, while I don’t even have crow’s feet yet.

February 15, 2007 @ 10:02 am | Comment

Why do people roast themselves dark? Conspicuous consumption, of course. Same in the West as the effect noted in the article: being dark (forget African slaves, ok? this goes much farther back) means you had to work in the sun. No Roman wanted to be well tanned, and the same applied for another thousand-plus years. Till people spent more time indoors, and vacations to sunny places became a sign of wealth for northern Europeans.

If China is finally catching up, it’s no surprise. But how does all this emulation of Europeans fit with the cultural chauvinism and the Five Thousand Years of Civilization? That’s a mystery.

February 17, 2007 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

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