NEW YORK (AFP) - China's march towards global ascendancy has taken another leap forward - at least when it comes to New York high society and its most glittering fashion extravaganza, the Met Ball.
The city's party of the year, attended by stars such as Madonna, George Clooney, Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Pattinson, has chosen China as the theme of its 2015 bash at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday.
Chinese actress Li Bingbing was among the Asian stars including Gong Li, who is one of the co-chairs of the gala, Zhou Xun, Carina Lau, Fan Bingbing and Vicki Zhao at the bash.
For Li - "so excited" to be going for the first time - the China focus this year shows that Western attitudes towards her country, for so long a communist bogeyman in the United States, are beginning to change.
"Nowadays China is the hot topic," she told AFP in an interview at her luxury hotel before embarking on three hours of preparation with an army of assistants she acknowledges is needed to grace the red carpet.
"People love to talk about China, people are curious and want to know the interest in Chinese culture," she adds in hesitant, but exuberant English.
The ball is the annual fundraiser for the museum's Costume Institute and kicks off the exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, which explores Chinese influences on Western fashion.
It positions haute couture from some of the world's most celebrated designers alongside works of Chinese art, with the focus on Imperial China, 1920-40s Shanghai and the People's Republic of China.
Li, 42, who opted to wear Christian Dior haute couture, is delighted that China is the theme, pointing to the wealth in Chinese history and how much it can still be misunderstood in America.
She tells of encountering stereotypes as recently as promoting 2011 film Snow Flower And The Secret Fan in the US.
"I met some Americans. You know what, they thought nowadays that Chinese women still have feet binding," she said. "It's completely a huge change in China now. Women in China are very, very independent and capable and hard working."
All that makes China a fast-growing luxury market for designer clothes. Vogue China is celebrating its 10th anniversary, for which Li was photographed by Mario Testino on the eve of the ball.
Hollywood is also opening its doors to China. Li played a Chinese scientist in 2014 blockbuster Transformers: Age Of Extinction, which grossed US$320 million (S$426 million) at the box office in China, eclipsing the US$245 million made in the US.
"They purposely add Chinese culture, they purposely add Chinese elements, pick up Chinese actors, outfits, in the movie because they want more viewers from China," explained Li.
The Costume Institute re-opened last year and was named after Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who has raised more than US$125 million for the centre since becoming trustee of the Met in 1999.
Under her stewardship, the benefit has become a benchmark for international style and a commercial success for Vogue. Attendees pay US$25,000 for a single ticket or US$175,000 for a table of 10, according to The New York Times, which said last year's ball generated almost US$12 million and attracted over 25 million page views on vogue.com.
This year's chairs also include Chinese-born businesswoman Wendi Murdoch (ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch), Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer and of course Wintour.
Li says Wintour, whom she has met "several times," is her fashion icon. "I think she's cool. She is my idol. I love her so much."
Nervous about speaking in English, she conferred with her assistants at times to find the right expression in English and then meticulously rolled the words in her mouth to practice pronunciation.
She ranks No. 28 on Forbes' China celebrity list, is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and last year became the first Asian actress to give a speech on climate change during the UN General Assembly.
Now, she says, she is looking for love. "I want to have a family," she says. "I want to have more time for myself, my family, my parents. I want to find a husband who really loves me."
Bubbly, charming and fiercely intelligent, she radiates a sense of fun and seemed perturbed over reports that selfies and cell phones are banned from the ball.
"I think tonight, if they don't allow people to do that, it's going to be a little bit pity," she said.
But then again, this is the ball that Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow told USA Today in 2013 was so "un-fun" that she would never go again.