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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

The Price of Beauty

Asia is obsessed with beauty. And the region's newly affluent are prepared to pay whatever it takes to keep -- and improve -- their looks. But does it mask what is really important?

By Alison Dakota Gee


CALL IT A STORY of how beauty conquers all. A wealthy Fili-pino in his 60s took his mistress to a plastic surgeon. He said he wanted her to look like another woman -- namely his wife. And, specifically, his wife when they got married. "Men tend to go for one type of beauty," explains Dr. Cora Jose, president of the Society for Cosmetic Surgery of the Philippines.

As fate would have it, the man's wife ran into the mistress at the same clinic. Because she had long known about the "other woman," the wife figured out what she was up to. She decided to fight for her husband -- not in the courtroom, but in the operating room.

She underwent a total "renovation" job, meaning a complete facelift. At the end of her month-long recuperation, she had re-blossomed as the great beauty she had been before age and a philandering partner had taken their toll. "The husband fell for her again," says Dr. Jose. "He left his mistress and went back home."

But problems arose when the husband, initially buoyed by his wife's physical rebirth, began to feel insecure about his own aging looks. The solution? He, too, went under the knife for blepharoplasty, or eye-bag removal, a cosmetic operation second only in popularity in the Philip-pines to rhinoplasty -- known to the world as a nose job.

It sounds more like an urban myth than a true-life tale, but Dr. Jose swears that is what happened. She was the doctor who operated on the wife. "I've saved many marriages," she says matter-of-factly. "And sometimes all it takes is a mini-facelift." So maybe this is more a story of how plastic surgery conquers all. But, whatever it is, the message remains the same: in Asia, beauty mesmerizes.

The region's newly affluent have become increasingly aware of what good looks can secure them in terms of love, money, status and job security. Says Tina Liu, director of Hong Kong's Image Workshop: "No other credentials are as visible as your looks." As if to prove it, Asians are now spending billions of dollars on beauty products, treatments and surgery -- while enduring pain and sometimes taking serious health risks.

None of this concerns such natural-born beauties as Thai supermodel Yui. She is one of the few Asians to break into the international field. For the past two months, she has been in New York on jobs that included modeling for Chanel. For others, though, there is help where Mother Nature is judged to have done an inadequate job.

Tokyo's Takasu Clinic offers every cosmetic surgical procedure imaginable -- and a few that are a challenge to the imagination. Worried that nobody could ever love you because your armpits smell? A $1,390 gland treatment will change that. Convinced that the hair on your private parts is a little too thin? A pubic hair transplant starts at $5,560. With that one, it's not just the fee that hurts.

But the Asian pursuit of beauty does not start with the scalpel and end with the suture. Many aspire to alchemy, hoping to turn tonics and potions into physical good looks. Elaine Sung Biancone, who won the Miss Hong Kong pageant as a 17-year-old in 1973, is convinced she has found the Fountain of Youth -- or, perhaps more accurately, the Swamp of Youth.

When she became concerned about the fine lines that began to appear on her wrists, Sung Biancone began to search for an antidote to time. Now, every morning, the 40-year-old drinks a Shanghainese elixir concocted of 60 different ingredients. Among them: boiled mule skin, 20 silkworms and ground-up lizards. "It tastes awful. And, yes, it's hard to drink a pot of glue every morning," she acknowledges, making a not-so-beautiful face. "But when you think of all the good things it does for you, you just drink it."

Throughout Asia, sales of skin-whitening products have provided a huge source of revenue for Europe's cosmetic houses. The biggest users are in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Sing-apore. There and elsewhere, fair skin still symbolizes radiance, refinement and class. It is what separates the privileged from the peasants toiling in the fields.

In Japan, salons offer full-body whitening treatments, particularly for brides. On her wedding night, the bride's skin will glow with a child-like purity. The effect lasts about four days. The whitening is brought about by the customer being coated in a solution of vitamin C derivatives, licorice extracts and mulberry roots. Dr. Takasu Katsuya of the Takasu Clinic says people have their skin "bleached" to improve their career opportunities. "Many Japanese women believe a white face is better. And if a woman looks better, she increases her chances of getting a good job."

Rowan Sham, 32, a materials merchandizer in Singapore, had dark-blue lines permanently tattooed on her lower eyelids. A friend did it with a disposable needle, after applying an anesthetic lotion. "It felt like red ants biting all over," she recalls. "My eyes kept tearing. Half-way through, I begged for a break. I took two Panadols, rested and then continued with the other eye." The tattooing took one hour. Her eyes were swollen for three or four days. "My colleagues didn't dare ask me what had happened." But, two years later, the color has become uneven -- so Sham is considering doing it all again.

The quest for good looks now seems to begin earlier in a person's life. During a summer break from college, a 22-year-old Filipino woman underwent surgery to create a crease in her upper eyelids. Called a "double eyelid anesthetic operation," this is a popular procedure among Asians. "Mommy made me do it," she says. "She thought I'd look better." In the end, the mother made appointments for all her daughters.

Increasingly, the pursuit of beauty is great for both sexes. Marco Protacio, 28, the manager of a Century International Hotels property in the Philippines, happily acknowledges he spends $300 a month on beauty products. He has also had three rounds of plastic surgery to redefine his eyelids and his nose and to remove his eyebags. He is now planning to have liposuction. "It's a physical world out there," he explains. "I have surgery and take care of my looks because it helps my career. It's mostly psychological."

"In Asia, beauty is about survival," says Cassandra Dean-Rankin, the sales director of the Philip Wain chain of health and beauty clubs. "There are no women in the world like Asian women. They are focused, very conscious about how to preserve their figure and the quality of their skin. They spend a lot of their leisure time at the beauty parlor. They don't see it as a luxury. For them, it's a necessity."

One of the reasons, she suggests, is the danger of losing their man to a rival. "Women in other parts of the world just think 'Oh, my husband loves me. He'll stay around.' But in Asia, women know better. Beauty is a matter of pride too. Women want their husband to be proud of their looks. If not, they won't blame him for finding someone more beautiful."

Crystal Kwok, a 30-year-old former Miss Chinatown USA who now hosts a top-rated Hong Kong radio show, sees Asia's quest for beauty in similar terms. "You use your looks to get what you want," she says. "If you don't work at it, you lose out." Hong Kong actress Michelle Reis says that to leave the house with anything less than deftly applied "natural-looking" makeup "is an eyesore to other people."

Midori Kato, beauty director of the Beauty Sciences Institute of Shiseido, a company which claims some 25% of the Japanese cosmetics market, argues that it is no coincidence that her country's women are both the most beauty-conscious in the region and the richest.

In Singapore, Kenneth Tan, director of Acorn Marketing and Research Consultants, agrees. He says spending money on beauty products and treatments is "related largely, if not totally, to affluence. Once subsistence is taken care of, people will take an interest in how they look."

A mainland Chinese newspaper reported last week that more than 10 cosmetic surgery parlors have set up in Shanghai in recent months to meet a booming demand. Shanghai Huaau Beauty Parlor reports having operated on more than 500 patients in its first six months. The oldest were an 82-year-old couple who both decided to have their sagging lower eyelids removed. Teenagers with the necessary cash have had their faces remodeled to look like their Hong Kong idols, Andy Lau or Leon Lai.

But when over 800 beauty parlors opened in Sichuan province's capital city, Chengdu, the municipality staged a crackdown. Why? Maybe it had learned from its Asian counterparts that undivided focus on external attractiveness obscures a more important quest: developing a more profound appeal. Says talk-show host Kwok: "In Hong Kong, intelligence and character are neither valued nor expected."

Falling prey to idealized images of beauty has also led to copycatting Western values. Two of the most popular cosmetic surgical procedures in Asia are the "double-eyelid operation" and nose-bridge surgery, in which bone is shaved from a patient's hip or rib and piled on to the existing nose bone. Both are usually in-tended to make a patient look more Western.

"I think we underestimate how much power the Western media still have on the East," says Michael Lu, the president of Elite Model Management, Hong Kong and Singapore. "In almost every movie you go to, the star is Western. You establish in your mind that they are more beautiful."

"It can be seen as a form of Western imperialism -- an undermining of Asian identity when it comes to perceptions of beauty," offers Chew I-Jin, a member of the executive committee of the Singapore-based Association of Women for Action and Research. "It's unrealistic for an Asian to attain Western beauty. Paranoia about one's looks and the struggle to gain acceptance can damage a person's self-esteem."

Malaysia has confronted this by banning foreign commercials on local television. The result is that all ads have to be remade, using Malaysian talent whenever possible. "It's a way of safeguarding their own culture," says Elite's Lu.

But trying to gain acceptance through beauty can damage more than a person's self-esteem. Witness the case of Janet Ang, a 36-year-old Philippine air stewardess. In February, she died on the operating table of a cosmetic surgeon. While undergoing liposuction, she went into irreversible shock, which occurs when a patient experiences severe pain. It can cause cardiac arrest. Unknown to the surgeon, Ang had taken prescription drugs before the anesthetic.

For the stewardess whose quest for beauty took her to the grave, there was one last cruel twist that was not lost on those who think the obsession with looks has gone too far. Her doctor had removed the fat on her right thigh, but was only beginning on the left.

With reporting from Beijing, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Singapore and Tokyo


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