Having a ball

Shanghai event struggles to unearth “suitable” Chinese debutantes

Having a ball

Making an entry: aspiring young ladies tread the tiles in Shanghai

For millions of female TV viewers, the closest they will come to a debutante ball is an episode of Gossip Girl. In the first season of the hit American TV show, Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen are among the privileged Upper East Side ladies to ‘come out’ at New York’s Cotillion Ball.

The tradition dates back hundreds of years, to introduce girls of upper class background into ‘high society’.

And it still goes on, perhaps most famously at the Crillion Hotel in Paris, where Le Bal des Debutantes is held. An article in last weekend’s Sunday Times profiled this year’s event, mentioning attendees from European royalty like Charlotte of Bourbon, as well as blue bloods from Hollywood, including the daughters of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.

Readers have probably guessed where this is going – yes, there is now a debutante ball in Shanghai too, which featured in an article in the China Daily this week under the heading “Throwback or future?”

It’s a good question from the Chinese perspective. An exclusive and extremely lavish gathering for posh young girls may seem a bit decadent in a country that is notionally communist. Then again, on the flipside, it’s exactly the sort of thing likely to appeal to China’s 243 (US dollar) billionaires, as well plenty of its million (and counting) millionaires.

The organiser is Zhou Caici, a 66 year-old socialite, who is the daughter of Chinese opera master Zhou Xinfang.

On Saturday Zhou invited 160 guests to the grand ballroom of the Shanghai Waldorf-Astoria to watch 13 carefully selected ‘debs’ come out.

Zhou had one main problem, the China Daily says: finding appropriate Chinese ladies. Apparently, she found no one on the Chinese mainland who met her criteria: age 17 to 25, competent in English, and preferably from a family that “had contributed to society in a certain way”. As the exacting Zhou put it, having interviewed a number of local candidates, she had to turn down their applications. “We would rather go with nobody than someone shoddy,” she confided rather cruelly.

A couple of ethnic Chinese did make the cut, albeit from Hong Kong and Taiwan (the former educated at Benenden and Cambridge, the latter the daughter of Taipei’s mayor).

But the remaining 11 girls were from Europe, giving this first Chinese event a distinctly Western feel.

Will that change for next year’s ball? Zhou’s comments don’t give cause for much optimism.

“Ideally I want someone who can stand out as a Chinese zither player or a deft embroider, which I think are the most basic skills of Chinese fine ladies, besides a clean, upstanding family and good upbringing. However, as it turned out, I cannot find someone who can even make dumplings.”

Fortunately, Zhou’s partners for the event are also London socialites – which at least ensures a ready supply of eligible men from Britain (the future Marquess of Ailesbury setting hearts most a flutter this year).

Apart from a night of dancing, formality and quaffed champagne, was there any deeper purpose to the proceedings? Zhou told the China Daily that she sees it as a way of introducing English aristocrats to well-off young Chinese women. She says this is not so different to similar events in the early twentieth century when “down-and-out English gentlemen travelled overseas to marry the daughters of American magnates.”

Sourcing plummy but hard-up Brits is probably the easy bit. But as Zhou admits, finding suitable debs in the mega-rich Yangtze river delta seems to be a lot trickier.

We’ll keep you posted how she fares at next year’s event.

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