China's 'plastic surgery tourists' reap regret in South Korea after surgeries leave them scarred

Chinese businesswoman Chen Yili paid a South Korean hospital thousands of dollars to reshape her face in the hope she would look more like the glamourous stars she saw on television. Instead, she says she was disfigured by the operation. -- PHOT
Chinese businesswoman Chen Yili paid a South Korean hospital thousands of dollars to reshape her face in the hope she would look more like the glamourous stars she saw on television. Instead, she says she was disfigured by the operation. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese businesswoman Chen Yili paid a South Korean hospital thousands of dollars to reshape her face in the hope she would look more like the glamourous stars she saw on television.

Instead, she says she was disfigured by the operation - one of a growing number of Chinese women who claim shoddy procedures and a lack of regulation in South Korea's booming "medical tourism" industry, have left them physically scarred.

"They said they would design my face to look like a South Korean, and help me design a new nose, lips and chin, but (afterwards) when my friends saw my nose they were all shocked. They said it was crooked (and) ugly," Ms Chen said.

Seoul on Friday announced a crackdown on illegal brokers and unregistered clinics in a bid to protect medical tourists, especially those drawn by the country's huge plastic surgery industry.

The country is a cultural powerhouse in Asia - its soap operas and pop music videos are massively popular in China and often feature cosmetically enhanced stars.

While China's domestic plastic surgery market is worth tens of billions of dollars, persistent safety concerns are driving growing numbers of wealthy consumers abroad.

South Korea has pushed hard to foster its so-called "medical tourism" industry, which was worth the equivalent of nearly US$360 million (S$489 million) in 2013, according to official figures.

China topped the medical tourist list with more 25,400 visitors, an increase of 70 percent from the previous year, the South Korean health ministry said.

Chinese tourists generally pay more than twice as much as locals for cosmetic procedures, Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly reported this month.

Dozens of South Korean clinics have Chinese-language websites, some offering surgery alongside sightseeing vacations, with promotions offered during Chinese holidays.

One clinic promises to provide "almond shaped eyes" and a "magical V-shaped face" - considered the ideal of feminine beauty in much of East Asia, another is seemingly full of glowing testimonials from past patients.

While most procedures in South Korea appear to occur without incident, last month attention focused on the industry after a 50-year-old Chinese woman was left in a coma by a clinic in Seoul's up-market Gangnam district.

As much as a third of Chinese patients' costs can go towards fees for brokers who act as liaisons for the hospitals, Ms Chen said after making initial enquiries she was contacted "incessantly" by an agent and felt cajoled into having the surgery.

She spent more than US$26,000 dollars on the surgery in 2010 at the Beauty Line clinic in Seoul. One of her procedures involved having cartilage taken from her chest and added to her nose to make it more prominent.

But upon returning to China, she began to suffer from nasal infections. Now staying at a clinic in Beijing she says her mental health suffered and she is taking 12 antidepressants each day.

"I've lost sleep, I can't meet with friends, and I suffer from depression, because my nose is just too ugly," she said.

"I feel tricked. I think the industry is protected by (South Korea's) government, because its a key source of revenue," she added.

Ms Park Ji Hye, an official at South Korea's Health Ministry, told AFP that "activities involving illegal brokers and inflated fees, as well as disputes over malpractice, are sparking complaints from foreign patients".

Hoping to bring the industry into line, the authorities last Friday declared owners of unregistered facilities treating foreign patients could be punished with jail sentences.

"Some clinics are treating Chinese patients without a state license allowing them to treat foreign patients, because obviously that's where the money is," said Mr Cho Soo Young, spokesman of the association of Korean plastic surgeons.

Back in China, an online support group made up of hundreds of victims of alleged botched cosmetic procedures conducted in South Korea, has begun a campaign to highlight the problems.

"You start to believe that cosmetic surgery is something magical that can change your life. We have to take some responsibility ourselves, for not understanding the industry, and being too trusting," said group organiser Jin Weikun.

But many women in the group added that clinics had not warned them of potential risks.

Ms Winnie Wang, 45, said she was "devastated, cried and even attempted suicide" after an operation in 2013 left her with unequally sized eyes.

Ms Yu Lijun, a designer, underwent one of the most controversial procedures at Seoul's Faceline clinic - "double-jaw" surgery - which involves cutting the bone to produce a slimmer jawline. Today her mouth is visibly misaligned, making it hard to eat and prompting her to wear a facemask at all times.

Ms Mi Yuanyuan, a Chinese actress, said a 2013 operation at the same clinic left her with regular pain in her nose, as well as numbness and hair-loss on her forehead.

"They said there weren't any risks," the 38-year-old said. "They said the surgeon was as famous as the Hermes bag I was carrying."

But Faceline disputed this, saying Ms Yu had been through two botched surgeries in China that had left her mouth crooked before coming to them for help fixing it.

"We sent Yu back several times because the risk was too big but eventually decided to treat her after her repeated pleas for weeks," the clinic said in a statement, adding that she did not follow post-surgery care instructions.

It also said Ms Mi had signed a pre-surgery statement acknowledging potential side effects to her procedures.

Beauty Line, which is licensed to treat foreign patients, said it could not locate the file of a patient named Chen Yili, as its records are in Korean and do not contain patients' names in Chinese. The company did not return calls from AFP after being contacted by a reporter with proof of Ms Wang's history at the clinic.