Cosmetics in the days of Maoist China were regarded as a bourgeois luxury. A woman wore no cosmetics, even for her wedding! Shampoo and lipstick were regarded as tools of a capitalist lifestyle. A woman’s hair was short and could not be long or plaited. If it were, that was a sign of a bad way of living. As I recalled, the only people who could use lipstick were actresses.
Such attitudes began to change since 1980s, when US personal-care product giant P&G established a joint venture in Guangzhou in 1988. Direct sellers such as Amway, Avon and Mary Kay have also entered the market, recruiting thousands of people to sell their products door-to-door.
China is jumping on the cosmetics bandwagon in a big way. The entrance to nearly every shopping center in Shanghai opens into the cosmetics department with diversified products to beautify skin, hair, hands and feet, of the big names like Chanel, Lancome or Christian Dior. In general, the international brands use the same models they do in their Western campaigns. Chinese cosmetics companies certainly can’t afford to compete with global mammoths like L’oréal that acquired Mini-Nurse and Yue Sai.
Today, women not only compete in their professional skills, but also in their personal images by wearing more makeup because it could directly affect the first impression of future customers. Well-to-do Chinese women can spend as much as half of their salaries (or more) on cosmetics and beauty that will turn an ordinary woman to a fair lady. A young generation of Chinese, born around 1978 when the country began its reform and opening-up, are better-educated, better-paid, and pay greater attention to fashion and the personal image than their parents.
Cosmetic surgery is also on the rise here. Though not as popular as in Korea, it is certainly catching on, considering the continual economic growth and the trends in beauty. With medical skills improving and costs still low, Shanghai has become a destination for people seeking plastic surgery, as beauty seekers from Korea and the nation’s best-known man-made beauty all choose the city to get a little nip and tuck.
With their sculpted bodies, moisturized skin and fitted suits, Chinese men are taking an increasing interest in their looks and in fashion, urged on by their womenfolk. The manufacturers of cosmetics products don’t want to miss out – the shelves of department stores are heavy with moisturizing creams, aftershaves and shampoo "for men". But the urban Chinese man’s concern about his appearance has not stopped with cosmetics – more and more of them are turning to plastic surgery. The most sought after operations are facelifts and ones to reduce the size of bags under the eyes or inflate the size of chest muscles.
In the past, when you visit Hong Kong, you would take a long list of cosmetics and perfumes with you. But now, Sa Sa, a well-known cosmetics retailing giant in Hong Kong, has a solely owned store in Shanghai!