Out of China: Women clamour for a more acceptable face

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WUHAN - It was over lunch that Li Lian Jun asked if we wanted to watch the afternoon operation.

Her 'beauty shop' was just across the road from the restaurant, in Wuhan's busy central shopping district. She had done a couple of eye operations that morning, slitting and re-stitching the Oriental eyelids to create a double lid, and that afternoon a client was coming in to have her breasts enlarged.

The beauty shop was a two-storey building with white net curtains and opening on to the street. As we arrived, Dr Li grabbed a slightly awkward woman who was just leaving the shop and proceeded to explain to the gathering pavement crowd just how the country's economic reforms were going to change this particular face of China.

Dr Li was planning to cut and re-stitch the woman's eyelids, tuck in the bags under her eyes, raise the bridge of her nose, redraw permanent eyebrows, apply permanent eye-liner, remove a facial mole, and reshape her lips. All this would cost about 1,000 yuan (pounds 170), some four months' earnings on an average salary.

Beauty is big business in China. In the search for coveted jobs with foreign companies or in the burgeoning service industries, a pretty face and a smattering of English can these days land a better paid job than a university degree.

Wuhan is far from being a fashion trend-setter for China. Situated right in the middle of the country, this sprawling industrial city of 4 million has only recently started to feel the full effects of China's decade-old reforms and open-door policy. But the beauty business is already well established, with more than 100 beauty shops here.

Most, according to Dr Li, only provide 'light beauty' - the sort of things that can be done without wielding the surgeon's knife. But many also offer the part-time services of hospital surgeons eager to make extra money. State-owned enterprises and government employees are all encouraged these days to establish profitable sideline activities.

Dr Li's beauty shop, for instance, was set up and owned by the Wuhan government's foreign affairs office, and Dr Li herself learnt her trade when she was still in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

On the ground floor of Dr Li's busy salon, a woman was lying flat on a bed, with an intravenous drip, and a cloth over her eyes. Dr Li inspected her morning's work. The patient's eyes were swollen, with some clotted blood along a line of stitches on both lids.

'It's a one-hour operation if it goes smoothly,' Dr Li said. 'The patient usually goes home immediately.'

Two younger women, both with slightly red and swollen eyes, were also in the shop. They had had the eye operation a week earlier and had just had the stitches removed. One, aged 25, who was dressed in a bright-red mini-skirt, had also had the bridge of her nose done as well as her eyebrows and mouth. 'Because now the living standards have improved, everybody likes to be more beautiful and confident,' she said.

Dr Li opened her first beauty shop in the southern province of Guangdong in 1983, when she was still in the PLA. She moved to Wuhan in 1987 when she was demobilised, and claims to have opened the city's first beauty shop. 'I was the first in Wuhan to study beauty systematically,' she said. 'I used to be an actress, and then I trained as a doctor.

'I can combine my two arts. I hope people will be very beautiful. Medicine will play a big role in the way of making them more beautiful.' She said that, all together, she had done more than 10,000 eye, nose and chest beauty operations.

She is the only one who does operations at her salon. Two or three women a day come for the eye operation (pounds 24) or to have the bridge of their nose raised (pounds 24). Chest enlargements (pounds 161) are less common. 'It's like the real one, very soft feeling, very good. Even their husbands have no idea. They think it's from creams or massage,' Dr Li said. 'Some of the women are very brave, they go home immediately.'

The eye operations are the most popular. 'Double eyelids give them a sense of bigger eyes, high spirits and a look full of feeling and affection,' Dr Li said, adding that only actresses playing 'ugly parts' have single eyelids nowadays. Double lids occur naturally among many Chinese, so the operation was not to 'westernise' the eyes, said Dr Li, who revealed that she had even done the eyelid operation on one of her sons when he was 12.

Over many days of asking, few Chinese expressed any misgivings about the booming beauty business. Many said they knew people who had had operations. The only heartfelt complaint was from one Peking man. 'I can't get my hair cut any more,' he said. 'It's so profitable all the barber's shops have turned into beauty salons.'