Sun-shy female commuters fuel an Asian fad

Part hat, part mask, part visor, it's a new piece of bicycle headgear that only Darth Vader - and scads of Asian women - could love.

They are part hat, part mask, part visor. They look like something out of a 1950s sci-fi flick and have shown up so quickly on the sunny, teeming streets of East Asia that no one even has a good name for them yet.

This spring a strange new headgear began its appearance in Beijing, and is now a huge fad among the bicycling proletariat. The dark visors, cut in the shape of a motorcycle mask, act like a little windshield for the face. They block the dust and the sun, and even keep your hair from blowing out of control.

The masks, which also fend off ultraviolet rays, are worn mostly by working-class women pedaling to and from jobs in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Initially imported from South Korea, they are now everywhere. On very bright days it seems that an army of women welders have risen up at city intersections or on bike paths, pedaling steadily and anonymously beneath the ubiquitous visor - in a fashion statement that Darth Vader or the New York City fire department might appreciate.

The megavisors, which combine several practical elements in one package, were a fad waiting to happen: They are a multifunctional tool for travel, they are cheap, and they quickly captured the popular imagination of women who spend mornings and evenings on the crowded, dusty roads.

"They look like a duck bill, but I think it is a good invention," says Zha Mei, a retired translator. "You don't have to wear sunglasses or carry an umbrella. I am going to buy one."

Once the masks made an appearance in Beijing, everyone wanted one.

"It's windy and sunny when I ride to work," says Li Gui Qing, who rides to work as a housekeeper 45 minutes each way. "I saw a lot of other people wearing them, so I got one."

The hat-masks range between $1 and $5 and are sold by fine and not-so-fine street vendors everywhere. The anti-UV film that makes up the sunglass element of the "mask" is manufactured by Japan's Mitsubishi.

The hats were first marketed in Seoul, and the best visors are sold with a Korean label - but are actually produced in Guangdong, China.

But this being Asia, many women in Beijing are buying the cheaper pirated version, known as a "three-no" product: no factory name, no address, no label on the product. (In many cases, too, there is no quality anti-UV film covering the mask, just colored plastic.)

As it turns out, very few male pedalers in Beijing wear the masks. It is pretty much a female phenomenon - indicating that the main attraction has to do with warding off the tanned face that in China is considered less beautiful.

"Men can't be afraid of the sun, that's not masculine," one Beijing wife sniffed. "But for us it is a perfect replacement for the umbrella."

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