My visit to a Korean plastic surgeon

Miss Kim Yumi, South Korea's representative, catwalks in her evening gown during the preliminary round of Miss Universe 2013 in Moscow, Russia, on November 5. The Miss Korea 2012 winner confessed to having gone under the knife last July. -- PHOTO: AF
Miss Kim Yumi, South Korea's representative, catwalks in her evening gown during the preliminary round of Miss Universe 2013 in Moscow, Russia, on November 5. The Miss Korea 2012 winner confessed to having gone under the knife last July. -- PHOTO: AFP
Apgujeong-dong, South Korea's famous beauty belt, is flanked by numerous complexes that each houses a few plastic surgery clinics. -- ST PHOTO: CHEONG POH KWAN
Travellers can find information on a host of plastic surgery clinics in this booklet that they can pick up from the seat pockets in the airport limousine bus in Seoul, South Korea. -- ST PHOTO: CHEONG POH KWAN

WHEN Dr Shim suddenly moved a shiny metal stick towards my left eye, I was too stunned to pull back. I feared he was going to make a cut right there and then.

After all, I had just asked for the cost of double-eyelid surgery, and he could see I was agreeable to his 1.5 million won (S$1,785) price quote.

Thankfully, my concerns about that metal object aimed at my eye were unfounded. He just used it to create a temporary fold. Then he told me to open and shut my eyes a few more times as he repeated the same move before he declared: "Ok, this is optimal."

That was how I learnt that the natural crease on my eyelids should ideally be a few more milimetres from my lash lines. He also suggested that I get an epicanthoplasty - a procedure to have the tiny skin folds covering the inner corners of one's eyes removed - for another 500,000 won. That, he said, would give me bigger, wider eyes that appear less spaced apart.

This spontaneous consultation - my first with a plastic surgeon - was at one of the hundreds of plastic surgery clinics along Apgujeong-dong, the world-famous beauty belt in Seoul's upscale Gangnam district, yes, the one immortalised in a certain Psy song.

Think Singapore's Orchard Road or New York's Fifth Avenue. But instead of shopping malls, this beauty belt is flanked by long stretches of hospital complexes, many plastered with signs indicating what they could "fix" - from unflattering chest sizes to lantern jaws, short limbs and stubby clubbed thumbs, a genetic anomaly made famous by American celebrity Megan Fox.

The sheer number of options is a sure sign of the ballooning demand for surgery-assisted vanity fixes in the Hallyu land. Bloomberg named South Korea the country with the highest rate of cosmetic surgery, with 13.3 procedures performed for every 1,000 people in 2011.

The number of tourists who visited the country for cosmetic surgery also jumped more than fivefold between 2009 and 2012. The upward trend will likely persist, as the South Korean government has been pulling out all the stops to woo medical tourists with promises of quality care, interpreting service and strict industry regulation.

So when I was right there in the heart of the world's cosmetic surgery capital - where only the top one per cent of its medical cohort could vie for a place in this lucrative field - I decided that I had to see some of its offerings.

My travel mates and I then picked a building and went straight to its top floor before coming down level by level.

Each time our lift door opened, we were greeted with a standee. On display was either a perfectly crafted face, or an unbelievably gravity-defying bum. Some clinics have a posh, minimalist deco with soft ambient light, others are pretty much like Singapore's homely family clinics.

In one clinic, I walked to the registration counter and asked for the price list. Four sweet-faced ladies were standing by, so I figured the chances of one of them speaking English should be high.

None could, though, but one quickly put me on the phone with the clinic's English-speaking agent. Interestingly, the first thing the man, named Jin, asked was: "Do you speak Bahasa?"

I guess he's been seeing many Indonesian clients. "You like Korean actress right?" I said yes. Although I have not been following K-dramas and K-pop groups closely, I remember how implausibly gorgeous Kim Ah Joong was in 200 Pounds Beauty, a 2006 film on plastic surgery's life-changing potential.

Next, Jin told me it's "very cheap" to get things done in this particular clinic, but the result is "not so good". Instead, he could recommend the "best surgeons, the ones that the stars go to".

Then he asked for my hotel and email address. But the moment I uttered "", the very sharp receptionist knew the agent was not helping her, so she nudged me to return the phone, and showed me to the consultation room.

I resisted a little, because I wasn't prepared to pay the consultation fee, which could be hefty. But I gave in under her insistence, and that's how I met Dr Shim, a soft-spoken bespectacled man who's likely in his 30s.

I would have imagined a consultation like this to be an ego-bruising experience, with the surgeon pointing out all your physical flaws right in your face. But Dr Shim turned out to be so different from the pushy facial therapists in my neighbourhood salons.

Never at any point in time did he say anything to the effect of "you're ugly" or "tsk tsk tsk, this is really bad". He just let me voice my insecurities, and made recommendations accordingly.

Then is it really cheaper to get yourself "fixed" in South Korea compared to Singapore?

Likely, if you don't take airfare and accommodation into account. The double eyelid surgery, for instance, would have cost almost twice as much at S$3,500 (excluding GST, medication fee and consultation fee) in The Sloane Clinic, one of Singapore's best-known aesthetic practices.

And if I ever run into problems with sharp-eyed immigration officers after getting my new look, Dr Shim said I can always call the clinic for help.

Most importantly, he also very generously waived the consultation fee, since I had not quite asked to see him in the first place.

The idea of braving painful surgery for aesthetic reasons still unsettles me. But I can imagine myself getting used to the idea, normalising and even embracing it over time - if I were to live in Seoul.

The ads are ubiquitous. The clinics are easily accessible. And every now and then you will read about a pop idol or pageant winner confessing to having this and that "fixed", and you see for yourself how glamorous they look with the help of surgery.

Even as I was in the airport limousine heading towards Incheon International Airport, all these brochures in the seat pocket in front of me, screamed for my attention with all their eye-catching before-and-after profiles. And just before I boarded my flight, I got an email from Jin on my cellphone.

"Hi, can I pick you up from your hotel tomorrow?", he wrote. "No commission, no charge."

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