In the glory days of FAO Schwartz, the ne plus ultra of extravagant toys, with its magnificent store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, there was a very expensive doll brand called Madame Alexander (priced upwards of US$180 in the 1980s). The dolls – all big-eyed, Caucasian models – boasted complexions of porcelain bisque accented with cheeks of virginal, blushing pink. Rather than low-class Barbies flaunting their curves, Madame Alexander girls possessed bodies of indeterminate morphology, richly trussed from head to toe in couture. Being imperious, high-born beauties, after all, the shape of their bodies had little bearing on their identity.
And so it is with beauty in Hong Kong.
A cursory glance at advertising in the MTR or any one of Hong Kong’s favourite weekly magazines shows actresses, models and socialites either implausibly blessed with youthful, teenage looks or trying to dissimulate them. Not wanting to shatter this illusion of girlishness, overt displays of sexuality are strongly discouraged in favour of doe-eyed girlishness, explaining why cleavage and décolleté are about as scarce as an empty seat on a train at rush hour. Hello Kitty in a pink tutu sums up Hong Kong’s beauty culture in a nutshell.
Lacking the space to write a full dissertation, I hazard to guess that Hong Kong beauty reflects three different and distinct phenomena: a sexual conservatism dating back to Confucius, which prohibits displays of sexuality; the outsized influence of Japanese culture on Asia; and the need to demonstrate social prestige and superiority through intensive grooming and rich wardrobing.
Sex is and is not a leitmotif of Hong Kong culture. The salacious peccadilloes of the rich and powerful are favourite fodder for Hong Kong’s gossip mill. But show too much leg, breast or, God forbid, the outline of a nipple, and you may as well have “black sheep” branded on your forehead. When was the last time you actually perceived that a woman was not wearing a bra at one of those stiff designer cocktails? For that matter, when has it ever been permissible to suggest that a woman has the prerogative to determine her sexual destiny?
Remember when the X-rated photos of Edison Chen getting it on with various starlets surfaced? Whereas Chen successfully regained his standing in the entertainment industry, many of his conquests lost all dignity and were banished from the entertainment industry forever. That’s because – gasp – we found out they actually was capable of sexual intercourse and were not just some blow-up, teenage kewpie dolls. The last thing we Hongkongers want is a whiff of womanhood belying the pretence of permanent pubescence.
In the same vein, most Hong Kong women, including the middle-aged ones frequently spotted in society magazines, are determined to maintain the illusion of youth. In the worst cases, they channel the waif-like physiognomies of Japanese anime girls with their porcelain-white complexions and saucer-like, double-lidded eyes fringed with preternaturally lush eyelashes. Add to that the Japanese predilection for schoolgirl uniforms, misinterpreted by Hong Kong’s prim socialites, and you have the makings of a truly monstrous cultural phenomenon: the middle-aged Lolita who’s pumped, primed and filled with the faux nubility of collagen – but without the knowing wink of ironic subversion. Rather than kinky Lolita, in Hong Kong, we end up with a unique transmogrification – Lolita with a blow-out. It’s about as sexy as Nancy Reagan doing porn.
In a society that admires wealth and artifice over substance and merit, these socialites cultivate the blush of youth the same way they shop for foundation. Rather than adopt the salubrious fitness regime required for glowing skin and a toned body, skin-deep is definitely good enough. Why trade that champagne flute for a water bottle when you can just starve once in a while and visit the dermatologist -– or at least cover up that perfectly skinny (but totally flabby) body in the latest designer outfit?