My, what big eyes you have: Young Chinese drive Korea's plastic surgery boom

As incomes rise in China, young people are more focused on beauty, and more of them are coming to South Korea on beauty tours in search of that 'get ahead' look.

Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters
Director Wang Xiaoshuai (R) poses with Chinese actress Fan Bingbing (2nd L) during a photocall for the film "Rizhao Chongqing" (Chongqing Blues) at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival May 13, 2010. Fan Bingbing is one of a growing number of young wealthy Chinese who have undergone plastic surgery to enlarge her eyes.

On the streets of Apgujeong, the Seoul neighborhood that is ground zero for plastic surgery in Asia, there are new faces looking to get lifted. The latest boost to South Korea’s booming beauty industry? China's wealthy.

“As incomes rise in China, people are more focused on beauty, and more and more of them are coming to Korea” in search of it, says Sung Min-yun, head of a consulting firm that specializes in the cosmetic surgery industry here. In 2010, he adds, the number of Chinese clients leapt nearly fivefold from the year before.

Take Su Hong, for example. A vivacious student from Beijing, she was visiting the “ID Clinic” here one recent afternoon to see about her jaw line.

It is too square, she worries, and she is ready to spend more than $4,500 to have it smoothed out. A more oval face, she says, will get her “a better job, a nicer boyfriend, and a reflection in the mirror that I will like more.”

Her mother, she explains, will pay for the operation. “I inherited my jaw from my mum, and she hates hers, too,” says Ms. Su. “She is happy to help me.”

South Korea has been famed for years among Asian women for its plastic surgeons, but their business is different from the US industry in one key respect: While most cosmetic surgery patients in the West are middle-aged, most here are in their 20s.

“It’s survival surgery,” says Park Sanghoon, the doctor who founded the ID Clinic, and who has seen his Chinese clientele jump from 3 percent of the total to 15 percent in three years. “Life competition is so stiff in Korea and China, people who want to survive that competition come here.

“They have their own very concrete purposes for surgery,” he adds. “It’s the means to a particular goal.”

And “we know what they want,” says Dr. Park. “Asian people share the same cosmetic goals so it is easy for us to communicate.”

Nearly half the Chinese women who come to the ID Clinic nowadays, says Park, come brandishing photographs of two ragingly popular doll-faced Chinese actresses whose chins they want copied – Fan Bingbing and Angelababy.

They embody the fashionable ideal in Asia of “big eyes, a high-bridged nose, and a small face,” explains Zhao Ting, a doe-eyed Chinese woman whom Park hired two years ago to look after his growing Chinese clientele.

The women who come to Korea “know that Angelababy had plastic surgery herself,” says Ms. Zhao, “and they think if she can go from ugly to beautiful, why can’t I? They think they can make their dreams come true.”

Increasingly, say industry analysts, simpler operations such as nose jobs, eye enlargement, and a popular procedure to put a fold into flat Asian eyelids are being done in China by Chinese plastic surgeons.

Mr. Sung, the medical industry consultant, says he is advising a Chinese firm that plans to roll out a franchised network of 100 plastic surgery clinics across China over the next 12 months.

But although Chinese doctors “are getting the technical skills, they don’t have the aesthetics” of their more experienced Korean counterparts, Sung says. “It will take them another five or 10 years to catch up to today’s standards in Korea, and techniques here keep improving,” he adds. “The prospects for this market here are bright.”

They have been brightened, tragically, by the accidental death of a young Chinese singer under a Chinese plastic surgeon’s knife last November. “I’d heard about her,” says Su. “I put safety first so I came to Korea.”

“The market in China is still young and still big,” says Zhang Nan, a Chinese woman who runs Seoul operations for “Korea Beauty,” a Shanghai-based travel agency that specializes in plastic surgery tours to Korea.

She says she plans to double her business this year by targeting smaller Chinese cities in the interior. “There are a lot of wealthy women in those towns,” says Ms. Zhang. “Some of them will save for a Louis Vuitton bag. Others will save for a new jaw line.”

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