Want to be a ‘beautiful girl’? Come to China

They say Seoul is where the plastic surgeons are, where good looks can be bought with some Korean won. But I say, China, especially Beijing, is where you can become a pretty woman just by walking on the streets.

Mei nu, what do you need?” asks a boutique salesgirl.

Mei nu, it’s 500 yuan,” goes the cashier.

The last I checked, I haven’t changed my name to mei nu, which means beautiful girl in Chinese, nor have I jetted off to Seoul to make myself look like Gong Li or Julia Roberts.

But in China, one can hardly go anywhere without being hailed as a pretty woman by sales staff or strangers.

It’s so obviously fake and perfunctory - how many of us look a million dollars all the time? - that it grates every time I hear someone calling me that.

In Beijing, it has become a standard term of address for women, remarked a Singaporean friend based here.

Then again, she asked, if it has become such a blanket term, does one get upset if one is not called mei nu?

Hmmm, touchy.

The men don’t get the same treatment as much. Young chaps get called shuai ge, a casual term meaning “handsome guy”, but less often than women getting called beautiful.

It’s probably because women are seen to be more likely to buy things, said the same friend.

The other day, I was in Hainan and browsing at an airport bookstore when I spotted a book about female prime ministers and presidents.

On the pink cover were images of several leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, the Philippines’ Gloria Arroyo and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. The title? "Mei Nu Zong Tong, Zong Li" (Beautiful Female Presidents and Prime Ministers).

It’s sad when even accomplished female leaders can’t escape being sexualised and singled out for their physical appearance to sell books.

Mei nu has likely passed into common usage in China because the once neutral term of xiao jie, or miss, has been stolen as slang for ladies of the night.

Actually, xiao jie was once reserved for the upper crust. In Romance Of The Red Chamber, the classic Qing Dynasty novel, the daughters of the well-off Jia family are called da xiao jie (eldest miss) or er xiao jie (second miss), depending on birth order.

There are fewer qualms in Beijing, though, about calling women da jie (big sister), if not xiao jie.

If xiao jie suggests a young lady, at least in the sense of the word before its modern taint, da jie is used to address an older woman and carries a whiff of respect.

For in hierarchical China, elder brothers or sisters are seen to be one rung above the rest. Hence it is respectful to call someone as Big Sister Jane or Big Brother Jon.

Calling people older sister (jie) or older brother (ge) may be seen as a sign of respect or affection. But some also try to pass themselves off as kin to ingratiate themselves.

I would often get spam phone messages that began with “Ge (Brother), don’t miss out on the launch of our luxurious condominum on the third ring road”.

And they are inadvertently addressed to “Brother” - because men are seen to be the ones with enough money to buy houses?

Or they try to be mushy. Regulars on Taobao would know that vendors on the popular shopping website love to call customers qin, or dear in Chinese.

And then this being China, where the Great Proletarian Revolution was gloriously fought, a woman who looks to be in her 40s once stopped me to ask for directions.

“Comrade, do you know where is the subway?”

I certainly do, grateful that you don’t call me mei nu.

hoaili@sph.com.sg