Beauty Travelogue: Beijing
My thing for Beijing started during the 2008 Summer Olympics. The Bird's Nest! The Water Cube! Since China opened to foreign markets in the late '70s, worlds have collided — East and West, old and new. Beijingers (19 million and counting) are abandoning the dusty brands of yore in favor of newfound luxury. (Alexander McQueen and Dior recently opened flagships here.) Still, they take the whole "beauty from within" thing literally. Traditional Chinese medicine says that our internal energy — or qi — controls how we look. Got acne? Graying hair? Heat your qi up, cool it down, massage it, and you're fixed! Before the West wins the capital city over entirely, I set out to uncover its glorious origins.
Mao's sweet crib, the Forbidden City.
That whole scandal about the Chinese gymnasts being underage — I get it. I find it impossible to guess women's ages here. For millennia, they've been prepping, priming, and whitening their skin, and it shows. From the time of the Qing dynasty to the late 1980s, women relied on homemade remedies like pore-refining masks of egg whites and pearl powder. Now they favor the same pricey imports we use. But their results seem so much better! Something doesn't add up. A quick online search, and I discover that the domestically made Chinese lotion Friendship Cream still has a following. I present an image of it to locals as if it were a flier for a missing cat (Have you seen this cream?). They laugh and refer me to Taobao, China's version of eBay. At a drugstore, the salesclerk is so offended she shoos me down the block. There, I find an elderly man selling the cream, along with tins of snake oils and tiger balms, for less than a dollar atop a cardboard box. I buy one of each. So what if no one under 40 uses them here? Their grandmas did — still do — and they look great.
Long Live the Motherland Beijing, Chen Man, 2009.
I relay my quest for local beauty brands to artist-photographer Chen Man. "They're like panda bears," she explains. "There used to be a lot, now there's a small reserve." Born in Beijing in 1980, Chen Man is part of China's One-Child generation whose world was rocked by the nation's economic shifts. "We used to use hand soap to wash our hair," she recalls. "Something as simple as shampoo was hard to find." Grabbing her iPhone, she shows me a school picture of her, white-faced and red-cheeked like a Chinese opera star — that was all she knew of makeup as a kid. Now she's debuting her own line for MAC Cosmetics in the U.S. this month. The yin-yang palettes and hypercolor lipsticks speak to Beijingers' burgeoning appreciation for a bright eye and bold lip. But they also, Chen Man tells me, have a deep spiritual side.
The pinks and blues represent love and water, respectively or what Chen Man considers the origins of life. "Our bodies are a microcosm of the universe, and that can be reflected on our faces," she says, echoing a tenet of Chinese philosophy. Hmm, that seems like a lot to ask from my morning makeup routine. But then, at 31, Chen Man has the face of a 16-year-old. I resolve to be more Zen with my palettes.
The Chinese ideal: pale, white skin; a pronounced nose; and a soft, round jawline.
I've lost years off my life wrestling with a blowdryer and flatiron to feign the thick, straight hair Chinese women are born with. So when celeb stylist Tony Li tells me, "Asian women don't want straight hair," I have to fight back my fury. His clients, like actresses Ziyi Zhang and Fan Bing Bing, want layers, volume, and texture. Women flock to Tony Studio, his posh chain of minimalist salons, for perms that will give them a hint of messy, untamed waves. Red and chestnut-brown dyes are also a favorite. East or West, we all want what we don't have.
Chinese women don't get fat, yet fitness isn't a priority. "Gyms are mainly frequented by expats," Tiffany Wang, style and living editor at local magazine The Beijinger, says. "It's not unusual to see Chinese people working out in jeans and heels they're only beginning to form ideas of what it means to stay physically fit." But massage, I'm warned, is a workout unto itself. Beijing has entire hospitals dedicated to it, and blind massage therapists are considered the best. (Lack of sight is believed to heighten their sense of touch.) I test the theory at Aibosen Blindman Massage. First, a hot-tea foot bath, then a petite yet impossibly strong blind woman tackles my acupressure points from toe pads to heels. I'll take a deep massage over a weak Western one any day, but this is no joke! Traditional Chinese massage or tui na is vigorous and often uncomfortable. During the 70 minutes, there are moments I swear my arches might be impaled. OK, so the Chinese have a higher threshold for pain. I leave, however, surprisingly nimble, my neck and shoulders relaxed and my feet ready to tackle Tiananmen Square.
Convinced I can hack the full-body overhaul, I check into the Meridian spa for a round of cupping. Chinese women get cupped for a variety of reasons to detoxify, to boost metabolism, to tackle a pesky muffin top. The practitioner moves fast, lighting an alcohol-soaked cotton ball on fire, waving it around inside a small glass jar with tongs and applying the jar immediately to my back. As the jar cools,it sucks my skin up into unsightly purple mountains. The darker the mounds, the more toxins are in your body. Mine look like hickeys on steroids, and the bruises last for a week. But I'm proud of my new souvenirs. My muscles ache in that best-workout-ever way, and my lungs are wide open. When I get dressed two hours later, I swear my pants are bigger. Cupping just might be my new alternative to crunches.
With roughly 40 percent of their health care based on traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese women use herbs like we use prescription drugs. It's like big pharma minus the hefty price tag. At the Z'an Medical Clinic, herbologists prescribe me a brew of ginseng for energy, rosebuds for circulation, and tian ma to aid sleep.
A traditional tea ceremony at Z'an Medical Clinic.
It all sounds like my daily Yogi tea, until they get to what look like bars of chocolate. My sweet tooth starts to ping. Actually, I'm told, it's dried donkey skin called ejiao. When cooked in a soup, it helps regulate menstruation. I decide to pass my Western stomach proving weaker than my bruised body. But rest assured, Beijing, I'll be back. Until then, at least I have NYC's Chinatown to make me more beautiful and brave.
Restaurateur JinR at Green T House.