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Hands-On Beauty
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By Valerie Sartor

Wang Qingyun is the most elegant of all my female Chinese acquaintances. With her long, softly permed hair, carefully made up face, delicate foot anklet and body-enhancing clothes, I constantly wonder why some man hasn't grabbed her. "It's my work," she told me a few days ago. "I'm a businesswoman; I have no time to be gadding about, flirting with guys and thinking about getting married - at least, not yet."

For the last three and a half years Wang has run a highly successful nail parlor in the Five Gold Star Shopping Center in Hai Dian. Her distinctive sheer pink curtains, as well as her workers in pink aprons, clearly beckon women shoppers and announce that this is a place for girls to come and make themselves more feminine. I've noticed that the other nail shops do not do half the volume she does. "It's because I really love this business," she told me, tucking her long hair behind her ear. "My regulars always come back because they like the way we serve them and because we give them, using our card membership, a really good deal. Most women come and get a manicure or a pedicure twice a month. It's a good way to relax, prettify yourself and chat with other women."

She's right. For the last year I've biked over to the shopping center specifically to get my nails filed or my toes painted. The eleven shop assistants all recognize me and I know them. They're young girls, all under 30; I'm always amazed that they all seem to get on so well with each other. No one bickers. They share snacks and food, they laugh and joke with each other and with their customers. As I sat and read my elementary Chinese texts these girls helped me to pronounce words correctly. They explained idioms and even counseled me on my love life, and where to go in Beijing to buy things. In fact, going for regular manicures is like joining sorority house: it has provided me the emotional support system I need to feel comfortable in this large metropolitan city.

Wang's shop is open every day from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. As the boss she never leaves her shop. She often does many manicures herself when the place is packed, and counsels her clients on colors and nail art. "I feel great energy and enthusiasm for this work," she confided, "but my only headache is, of course, the rental details. There are so many requirements from the landlords and every year the rent increases a little. So far I haven't raised my prices but who knows what will happen in the fall. I'm thinking of opening a second shop next year because this one is doing so well, but I haven't made any specific plans yet."

Most of the women spend an average of 40 rmb ($7) at her shop, with the simplest manicure starting at 10 rmb. "Many ladies like to have their hands dipped in wax, it makes the skin smooth and soft," said Xiao Li, her manager. "Beijing is so dirty and so dry, we ladies must do everything we can to preserve our skin texture. You can eat good food but you also must take care of your skin."

When I first began patronizing her shop I could not understand much. The ladies were very patient with me, and I gradually felt more and more at home. After watching other clients I decided to start doing pedicures as well as manicures, and after the first treatment, I was addicted. In addition to a soothing foot massage, they do a complete overhaul of the toes. It's fun picking a bright color to paint the nails: this may sound silly to men but it's really quite entertaining and feminine.

"The fashion now is to put little crystals on the fingernails and toes," said Ms. Wang. "Nail fashion changes regularly; last year it was painting on ceramic flowers, especially on the pinky finger. Colors go in and out of style as well. We Chinese have a way to evaluate female beauty: we look at the face, then we look at the hands and then we consider the body. Women here take very good care of their hands."

Another service that many women like is to get the hair pulled from their face and legs. "We Chinese have less facial hair than foreigners," Xiao Li said, "but we like to have our eyebrows beautifully sculpted. Look how different your eyes seem now that I have changed the line of your brow."

"Aesthetics and design belong to women's faces, not just to Olympic buildings and calligraphy," added Ms. Wang. "My girls here are artists. Everyone wants to be attractive so our clients keep coming back."

Wang, owner of two manicure shops in 5 Gold Star Shopping Center

Xiao Li, manager, applies crystals to a pedicure

You can find any color you'd like painted on your finger's and tose at Miss Wang's shops.

The author is an American living in Beijing

(Bejing Review June 26, 2008)

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