Licences and liposuction

Why the Chinese are so keen to visit South Korea


Went under the knife for big screen role: Bai Baihe

Since 2012 the Chinese have surpassed the Japanese as South Korea’s largest inbound tourist group. Many go for the shopping or to pay homage to Korean pop culture. But others have been flying to Seoul for another reason: to get their driving licence.

Last year China’s driving test got more difficult. Applicants not only have to pass a written exam – 90 of 100 questions to be answered correctly – they must also take 78 hours of driving lessons at a cost of about Rmb4,000 ($645), according to the Financial Times. Even then, many learner drivers have not been making the grade.

Conversely, South Korea relaxed its own driving test rules three years ago, meaning that a less experienced driver – local or foreign – can typically acquire licences with just 13 hours of tuition at a cost of about $420. The pass rate is as high as 98%.

As a result, Chinese tourists have been opting to travel to South Korea for the one-day licensing process (and then convert it to a China permit on returning home). According to the FT, the number of Chinese receiving South Korean licences rose more than threefold on 2010 to 24,687 last year.

Other tourists have been deciding to get some nip-and-tuck work done on the same trip. China News Net reports that travel agents now tailor-make tours for people who want to split their time in Seoul between a driving test and a spot of plastic surgery. The Korea Tourism Organisation estimates that at least 30,000 Chinese nationals visited South Korea on medical tourism visas in 2012, with nearly two-thirds paying for cosmetic procedures, while the Oriental Morning Post has reported that more than 60% of the international visitors getting plastic surgery in Seoul are from China.

The plastic surgery craze has even become the subject matter for a film. The Truth About Beauty, released in China last week, tells the story of Guo Jing, played by Bai Baihe, who decides to go under the knife after being dumped by her boyfriend. Guo soon moves from double eyelid surgery to a nose job, lip enhancement and facial slimming injections. Her quest for physical perfection soon starts looking like an obsession, with Guo explaining in one sobering scene that she has to “work hard to make money so I can have more work done”.

The popularity of Korean soap operas like You Who Came From the Stars has even inspired Chinese men to pay for surgery so that they can look more like the show’s male lead Kim Soo-hyun. Last week Xinhua said that male patients have been showing up at clinics in Seoul clutching pictures of Kim.

If The Truth About Beauty is anything to go by, people who are physically attractive – artificially or not – do better in the workplace. The ‘enhanced’ Guo quickly gets a job at a large company after catching the eye of her (male) interviewer. With her almond-shaped eyes and newly delicate nose, Guo also finds herself being promoted faster within the workplace.

The film also deals with some of the hypocrisy surrounding plastic surgery. When Guo’s new boyfriend finds out that she has had work done, he tries to call a halt to their relationship. “The role of Ronald Cheung (who plays Guo’s love interest) represents the voice of many men today. On the one hand, they wish that their girlfriends are beautiful. But once they find out that they have had plastic surgery, they want to break up,” says Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Chan, the producer of the film.

According to Chan, filming of The Truth About Beauty was completed two years ago. But it wasn’t released until this month because it went through a series of amendments with the censors. While the film doesn’t have scenes of sex or violence, the regulators aren’t keen on stories that endorse “negative” values. Plastic surgery is on the awkward list – The Truth About Beauty is one of the first films to address the topic.

In an interview with China News Net, Guo Xiao, vice president of the Association of Aesthetic Plastic in Sichuan, said the number of people electing to have surgery is increasing. “Since 2013, the industry has grown at a rate of 20-30% from a year ago. The most requested procedure that women ask for is a nose job,” Guo advised.

But Aubrey Lam, the director of The Truth About Beauty, warns about expecting too much from cosmetic treatment. Lam says she witnessed this firsthand while she was researching the film. “I once saw a 19 year-old girl who felt that her nose wasn’t beautiful so she decided to have rhinoplasty [the technical term for a nose job]. After just 10 minutes of consultation with the doctor, she decided to go for it. But after the surgery was done, she just sat there and cried. So many people are so hopeful about the operation, but most of them end up disappointed.”

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