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Posted : 2014-04-13 17:59
Updated : 2014-04-13 17:59

Korea offers makeovers Chinese cannot resist

A patient undergoes plastic surgery at a clinic in southern Seoul.
/ Courtesy of LaPrin

By Joel Lee


A cosmetic surgery hospital in southern Seoul mirrors a Chinese drama set in a luxury model home.

Beside a statue of Venus, a woman lies with her face wrapped in bandages. A young woman in a patient gown talks with a man in black sunglasses. A group of Chinese tourists curiously listen to a staff speaking in Mandarin.

In a marriage of capitalist desires and socialist wealth, legions of Chinese women are rushing to visit Korea for plastic surgery. After half a century of development, Korea now has one of the world's best infrastructures in cosmetic surgery, riding high on the Korean Wave or "hallyu" boom.

Clusters of clinics line the "beauty belt" of southern Seoul along Apgujeong, Sinsa, Sinnonhyeon and Gangnam Station.

"Chinese patients come prepared with an idealized, set image. They quickly follow the changing looks in drama, music and fashion and ask for the exact same thing in their surgery," said Lee Chang-mi, a manager at Regen Medical Group.

Most patients are from the upper-middle class or above of China's burgeoning metropolises.

Chen Shui, 36, a patient from Chengdu said, despite decades of socialist emphasis on gender equality, women still face discrimination in society. Single women in their late twenties are called "shengnu" or "leftover women." In the workplace, employers seek young and attractive women.

The popularity of celebrities such as "Angelababy," who had a facial makeover in Korea according to "rumors" and now enjoys "goddess status" in China, is helping the liberalization of society, Chen said.

For those housewives struggling to attract their husbands' eyes, getting a breast implant in Korea helps "keep the family together and raise self-esteem," according to Jin Wen-bin, another Chinese manager at Regen.

"One of our patients discovered her husband's infidelity and upon meeting the mistress was impressed by her beauty. She got breast implants at our clinic," Jin said.

Jin added costly operations like breast implants are popular among rich housewives. Those in their 40s or more come for face-lifts which tighten sagging skin.

For the Chinese patients, simple procedures such as the double eyelid and rhinoplasty (nose enhancement) are the most popular. From there it advances to reshaping facial contours and the rest of the body.

While the Japanese patients want subtle changes, the Chinese prefer clean-cut and highlighted features, officials from clinics said. Also, unlike the Japanese who try one surgery at a time, Chinese patients easily opt for multiple surgeries in one visit, they said.

Penchant for Korea

"China still lags behind Korea in the plastic surgery field. The experience and skill of the doctors can't be made overnight by investing money," said Eric Young, director of Young Life in Seoul, a medical tourism agency associated with the Ministry of Health & Welfare and Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).

With increased wealth, Chinese women known for their "strong character" have no outlet to satisfy their pursuit of beauty, Young said.

Their desire is absorbed by the Korean hospitals in a saturated domestic market with a shrinking population.

"The signs used to be in English but nowadays they are in Chinese. What's lacking in southern Seoul are the hotels, which cannot be built due to a shortage of land. Those already built are not linked to medical tourism," Young added.

The Chinese penchant for Korea runs deeper than their infatuation with Korean pop-culture.

"It comes from the mistrust of the system entrenched in their psyche," said Park Byong-choon, a surgeon and CEO of LaPrin plastic surgery clinic in Cheongdam-dong. "Chinese parents come to Korea even for childbirth. The death of a young singer under a Chinese cosmetic surgeon's knife a few years ago makes people think twice about doing it at home."

In China, cosmetic clinics are not owned by doctors but by licensed businessmen who pay the doctors. Even the good doctors are no match for the mass marketing and it's hard to know who's who in such a populous market, Park said.

"Then there are the bloodless surgeons bent on maximizing profit. With so many ruined faces around, patients think it's better to do it right in Korea by paying more. Even the Chinese Communist Party cannot control that," he said.

Park also believes the Chinese medical system prevents competition. "The brightest are allocated to the big hospitals by the state and the rest work in small clinics," he said.

Language plays an important role in the medical business and cutting-edge aesthetics.

In Korean medical schools, Korean and English are used together, but only Chinese in China. With the medical terminologies in Chinese, the doctors can't follow the latest news in international papers and journals, Park said.

"Technology develops through competition. Especially in the beauty industry where innovation is the key, there's no progress without study. Korea is good at that. We have actively incorporated from outside and created something with our name," he said.

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