updated 22 Aug 2012, 00:00
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Sat, Aug 18, 2012
China Daily/Asia News Network
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China's beauty industry profits from a makeover
by Xie Yu

Shanghai sizzles in the summer. In China's humid south, the temperature can easily climb to 38 deg C by lunchtime. For years, locals have rushed to overcrowded swimming pools and assembled in air-conditioned shopping malls in a vain attempt to avoid the sweltering streets.

But now, there's a new kid on the block for heat-harassed residents. An industry previously perceived as shady, unregulated and downright unseemly, has come in from the cold. China's beauty industry has had a makeover.

Candlelight, fragrant essential oils and soft Zen music are rapidly becoming the order of the day, helping to calm frazzled minds, while therapies tailored to individual need and based on the use of natural herbs and spices, provide succour for body and soul.

But the treatment doesn't come cheap, especially in a country where salaries are still relatively low. An hour at a spa costs 900 yuan (S$177.47) on average, that's around one-fifth the monthly salary of a junior white-collar worker. Even promotional packages can set the customer back more than 600 yuan a visit.

The cost doesn't seem to have dampened enthusiasm, though: "We are absolutely packed all the time," said Carolyn Zhang, assistant vice-president of China Spa Business Development and Corporate of Banyan Tree Spa, a luxurious Shanghai health centre.

"I often treat myself to this luxury," said Sherry Guo, 25, who works in the human resources department of an international home appliance company. Gao earns about 6,000 yuan per month and although that's not a huge amount, she spends freely on facials and body massages. She calls it a "reward" to herself.

"I usually search online to see if the high-end places have special offers. I would rather spend money on this than on food. After all, I don't gain weight by indulging in the therapy, and it's good for my health," she laughed.

Beauty salons featuring spas, massages and decompression treatments have sprung up across China in recent years, leaving industry insiders excited by the rapid expansion. The industry's market value has already surpassed 400 billion yuan per annum and will reach 600 billion in the next three to five years, with an annual growth rate of more than 15 per cent, according to a report published in June by ChinaVenture Capital and Private Equity Association, a leading investment consultancy.

Unseemly image

The industry's recent success is a far cry from the situation 20 or even 10 years ago. "I never expected it would flourish in this way," said Zhou Yanli, a 30-year-old senior facial therapist at Palai Spa, which has 40 salons across China, including three in Shanghai.

After graduating from technical secondary school in 1998, Zhou tried many different jobs, but the thought of becoming a beauty therapist never crossed her mind. After years working in jobs as varied as hotel waitressing and sales, she read an advertisement for Yue-Sai beauty school in 2003. "Yue-Sai is a household big brand in China so I thought the school must be aboveboard," she said.

"Previously, the industry was nothing like it is today. The image was so bad that parents were worried their children would be exposed to loose morals if they worked in beauty salons," she explained.

Even in the late 1990s, most beauty salons were simply small booths hidden away in the backstreets. They mainly offered facial massages and simple plastic surgery procedures such as eyelid blepharoplasty (surgical modification of the eyelid and surrounding areas.)

But those establishments, with their shaded lamps and handwritten signs advertising "beauty salon" or "massage parlour", sometimes offered other services and, warranted or not, the women who worked in them earned an unenviable reputation. "Many people considered women who worked in beauty salons to be promiscuous or, at the very least, they were not seen as good women," said Zhou.

The salons have also benefited from societal changes over the past few decades. "You have to understand that in the past, people actually despised the pursuit of beauty," said Shan Xiaoli, a 55-year-old who frequently visits beauty salons.

As a young woman, Shan wore the same dark-blue jacket and trouser combination as everyone else and even after China instigated its reform and opening-up policy in 1978, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, it still took time for people to accept that an interest in makeup, attractive clothes and the acceptance of beauty as a concept did not automatically mean a person was decadent.

"When I was younger, a girl who cared much about her appearance was seen as shameful," said Shan. "I only dared wear lipstick in my bedroom and quickly wiped it off when I left the room," she said, adding that cosmetics were rare in those days and that she was given them by an aunt who was visiting from Hong Kong.

Shan said she likes the feeling of being taken care of during the facial massages, which she regards as compensation for advancing years. "They won't make me young again, but they do make me feel more confident," she said.

Meanwhile, the privacy afforded by salons may also offer a partial explanation for the radical change in attitude towards the beauty industry in the past 10 or 15 years. Patrons feel they can let go and unburden themselves during treatment.

The salons don't just provide beauty services, according to Zhou, they also serve as a safe haven for many women, who enjoy the atmosphere and revel in their anonymity. "They tell us their secrets and relate stories about their relationships and families. They realise that we form a different circle than their family and friends and won't have an impact on their lives," she said.

And it's not just women. An increasing number of men are now visiting beauty salons - Banyan Tree Spa said that 45 per cent of its customers are male - but their motivation is entirely different. "Like gyms, the salons are good places to build up guanxi (relationships), you know, and all businessmen need something like that," according to Zhang. The professional requirements of male customers are different, too. Unlike their female counterparts, men prefer body massages to skin care.

Unregulated, unsafe?

In addition to its reputation as a hotbed of sexual impropriety, the industry was also held back by concerns over safety. Although things have improved over recent years, the industry is still affected by those concerns to some extent.

One of the highest-profile cases of recent years is that of Wang Bei. The 24-year-old singer, a contestant on a popular TV talent programme Super Girl, died in an anesthetic accident while undergoing plastic surgery in 2010. Her death garnered nationwide attention and led to calls for more stringent, and better policed, regulations.

One prominent critic, Zhang Huabin, a professor of plastic surgery at a medical school in Guangdong province, said the increasing demand for cosmetic procedures had led untrained medical personnel to jump on the plastic surgery bandwagon, a practice he called "risky and irresponsible".

In 2010, the China Consumers' Association received almost 10,000 complaints about unsafe cosmetics, 20 per cent of which were used in beauty salons. Small and medium-sized hair and beauty salons in remote areas were the focus of the most of the complaints. In its subsequent report, the CCA said the beauty industry still lacked regulation.

Rigorous training

In an effort to reassure the public and bolster the image of the industry, many beauty companies have instigated rigorous training programmes for the thousands of women hoping to enter the industry.

"You have to book early to gain a place on a course to train as a therapist. If you leave it too late, there won't be any vacancies," said a trainer at the Shanghai Beauty Farm School, who declined to be named.

With 18 salons in the city, Beauty Farm offers one of Shanghai's most popular training courses for candidates looking for an entry point to the burgeoning industry. A qualified therapist can easily obtain the license to work required by the authorities, and those with outstanding marks get the chance to work in one of Beauty Farm's salons.

The training regime, which lasts two months and costs each candidate 4,320 yuan, is strict and very demanding. "If you want to enter a Beauty Farm salon, you have to work extremely hard," said the trainer, who pointed out that classes begin at 8am and end at 9:30pm.

Moreover, an aptitude for the work is not the only important criteria. Candidates are required to present an above-average appearance and cracked hands or body odour are definitely not acceptable.

"I love the working environment here," said Vivien Xu, who works as a facial therapist at a recently opened spa centre in the quiet and leafy Jing'an district of Shanghai.

Although the job can be both physically and mentally demanding - therapists require a fair amount of physical strength, and have to remember hundreds of hand positions used in massage, plus all the main acupuncture points - Xu said she loves the Spa's tranquil setting.

She decided to enter the beauty industry after graduating from Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine two years ago. "My academic background wasn't strong enough to get me a good job in a hospital, but I am satisfied with where I am now," she said, adding that she can earn as much as 6,000 yuan per month, and more important, the career path is attractive.

Zhang from Banyan Tree said the company provides its employees with job opportunities around the world, and also operates "fast-track" programs to encourage employees to constantly improve their skills. "For many young women, it's an ideal job. and believe me, they're lining up just to get a chance," she said.

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