Asian Beauty: Daughters of the East

Asian Beauty: Daughters of the East

That old cliché that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” holds some truth, though what affects the beholder is a little more of a mystery. The concept of beauty might be an age-old philosophical dilemma, a scientific model, or just a breath-takingly gorgeous face that might stay with you forever.

Once, Asia reminded many in the West of an archaic past, but now the rise of this continent, the rapid social development of its cityscapes and tourism industries, Asia is fast being associated with glamour and a hi-tech, savvy lifestyle. Both the images of glistening modern super cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, and the romantic ones of exotic natural tranquillity serve to raise Asia’s value and profile in the world. This new appreciation for Asian cultures and lifestyles has significantly raised its bargaining powers.

As the world cast its eyes towards the East, scanning over its shifting economies and cultures, it also takes a fresh look at its beauty and, indeed in the plural, beauties. The concept of Asian beauty is changing with the times, and its acceptance and desirability grow within Asia and in the international arena.

Our cover models Du Juan and Emma Pei are modern emblems of Chinese and Asian beauty, both have highly successful international careers and are helping to reshape how ‘beautiful’ is being defined. Because of globalization, there is subsequently a ‘GlobalizAsian’ going on — this fitting theme for our spring issue highlights the renewed cultural influences of Asia in this new dawn of development.

Although evolutionary psychologists have argued for a universal and biological basis to what is beautiful, there is an undeniable socio-cultural affectation to the matter. As a friend once said to me whilst we sat watching models in a fashion show, “affectation can be exhausting”. Exhausting it might be, but undeniable, and changing.

On Screen and In Print

Media is understandably an influential factor in defining and reflecting society’s values of what construes beauty. And in the case of Asia, admittedly a blanket term we use that encompasses overwhelming diversity; the increasing international press that Asian beauties, especially women, receive is doing wonders for their desirability.

A friend from Los Angeles rolled her eyes at me when I pondered the conservatism of Asian communities in Britain. “Honey,” she said, “you obviously don’t spend enough time on the West Coast. Here, Asian girls are the new Blondes.”

Initially balking at this unrealistic sweeping statement, I soon realised that there was some truth to it. This validation of Asian beauty is intimately tied with the prevalence of Asian faces in the media, in Europe and the United States, where even Asian-looking non-Asians are showing to be popular.

The likes of mega actress Lucy Liu and many Asian American newsreaders, as well as the increase in Asian winners in Western beauty pageants (such as Miss USA/Miss Universe 1997 Brooke Lee and Miss Canada International 2001 Christine Cho), have all affirmed a mainstream validation of Asian beauty. But not only do figures such as our cover girls command a new currency; so do sexy males stars such as Jet Li, Jimmy Mistry and Takeshi Kaneshiro.

The success of major blockbusters such as ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’, ‘Hero’, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, ‘Mistress of Spices’, ‘The Guru’ and the art house kudos of Wong Kar Wai and Chan-wook Park, have also brought attention to Asian beauty and curiosity to its culture. Aishwarya Rai, Zhang Zi Yi, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung and Oscar-winning Rinko Kikuchi have all become icons of Asian beauty in the Western world.

In the United States, where there is an extensive history of Asian immigration, success and culture, there is talk of an “Asianization of American Beauty”. Of course for those of us in Asia, the shifting trend also affects what we perceive as beautiful. In India, China, Japan as well as many other Asian countries, the blonde- haired blue-eyed ideal of the late 20th century has resonated deep within. Magazines, newspapers, television and glamorous Hollywood films with solely Western role models have reinforced the beauty of the West, and inadvertently also made Asian beauty, at times, seem almost inferior.

This is changing at a dramatic pace. As the West appreciates Asian beauty more, so do Asian people themselves. They see international validation of your own concepts of attractiveness within your own culture is a tremendous endorsement, as part of the process of the ‘GlobalizAsian’ of beauty.

With elongated eyes and soft textured skin, often Westerners might often talk about the refinement of Asian features, the subtly of the Asian look, that perhaps takes a longer look to mentally digest. Who knows, the popular Western concepts of a beautiful female body may soon even give way to the more svelte figures of Asian women.

Model Behaviour

Along with Korean Hye Park and Japanese Anne Watanabe, Chinese models such as Liu Dan, who features in our ‘Nouvelle Vague’ fashion story for this issue, and of course the magical dual cover girls Du Juan and Emma Pei, that appear on these pages are rapidly gaining more exposure and star status.

Since her cover with uber-model Gemma Ward on the inaugural Vogue China, Du Juan has been hot property. She has been strutting down catwalks in Milan, Paris, New York, London as well as her native China, for the likes of Hermès, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Vivienne Westwood, and Pringle of Scotland.

Following her are other beautiful Chinese faces such as the innocent and fragile beauty Emma Pei, who also features in a shoot in her base of Shanghai for this issue. Also there is Lu Yan, who is a taste that appeals more to Westerners than to her native China. She is an unconventional beauty whose extreme features have since mystified people around the globe — and no less picked up early by WestEast years ago.

However, the success of models such as Du Juan, Emma Pei, Lu Yan, Hye Park, Anne Watanabe are more than just the next big things in fashion. Their successes are indicative of the world’s changing views on Asian beauty.

Luxury Asia

Demand for Asian faces in media and fashion industries are also the direct result of Asia’s fast growing luxury market. Ernst and Young reported that China is now already the third largest luxury good market in the world, just behind the US and Japan. With the burgeoning middle classes in China and India, the financial appeal of Asia is astounding, prompting brands to NEED to appeal to Asians, through localised advertising and marketing strategies involving Asian beauties.

LVMH group has already long ago caught on to the potential of the Asian market and China in particular. They are rapidly expanding in the mainland and in Greater China. Just this month, Louis Vuitton opened their second largest ‘maison’ in Canton Road, Hong Kong; only slightly behind the enormous Parisian store. It is a sign of this fashion giant’s commitment to the Asian market.

As luxury brands lure wealthy Asian buyers with their creations,

the business strategy is also to lure effectively with identifiable faces — namely Asian ones.

The ‘Simply I’ Exhibition

WestEast caught up with long-time friend and noted French photographer Gilles-Marie Zimmermann, who has previously shot several of our covers, to talk about his impressions of capturing some of China’s iconic beauties, actress and models as part of his two year ‘Simply I’ Charity Project.

An exhibition of this project began in Shanghai, featuring these Chinese stars, who include Zhou Xun, Fan Bing Bing, Feng Jing, Maggie Cheung, Qi Qi, Li Bing Bing and Li Yu Chun. The exhibition’s opening party, held in association with the WestEast group, debuted in Shanghai’s international fashion and lifestyle district at High Street LOFT. The selected ‘Simply I’ images on our pages are beautiful renderings and lucid interpretations of these Chinese faces, not just as celebrities, but as women… as Zimmermann himself says: “perhaps the photographer becomes the photographer not when he is photographing, but when he is picking the photos.”

The exhibition and its opening party was a great success, and many photographs were sold, the proceeds of which were given to their charity project. A close relationship between charity, fashion and art is a relatively new thing in China, so WestEast and Zimmermann’s successful event was quite pioneering and a proud moment for all involved.

For the opening in December 2007, celebrated guests including Lauren Hutton, Gemma Ward, Maggie Cheung, Du Juan, Amanda Strang and many others joined the party. The exhibition aimed to celebrate the opening exhibition and to support December 1 — World AIDS Day.

Photographer Gilles-Marie Zimmermann

The ‘Simply I’ portraits that you see on these pages are the work of a photographer who wanted to portray these women in their real essences. These striking black and white photos of iconic Chinese beauties show an understanding of them, rather than a fetishization of their Asian looks.

“Especially in the fashion business, we are ahead of what globalization is, because of travel,” and thus the culture of fashion might indeed pre-empt pop-culture understanding and acceptance of Asian beauty.

“A lot of the celebrities I shot, I didn’t even know who they were,” remarked Zimmermann. However, the newness of the encounters also aided the level of intimacy he achieved in these portraits:

“Because I am a photographer, I sometimes try not to watch the movie or listen to the song of the person I photograph, because this way I can be more natural… and my vision of the person is fresher… When I really know about the career of the celebrity, it distracts me. I prefer to meet the people as they are.”

So for Chinese stars such as the hugely popular, boyish winner of ‘Supergirl’ singing contest Li Yu Chun, it is also refreshing that Zimmermann might see her through the fresh eyes of someone whom he knows little about the whys and whats of her success. The difference between Zimmermann’s style, which is striking, natural, thoughtful and intense, and that of less confident photography in mainstream Chinese media also makes these portraits of this particular group of Chinese beauties extra special.

“I was very happy to shoot most of the Asian celebrities, because I could almost imagine that they were — I wouldn’t say normal, because for some of them if I crossed them on the street, I could realize that they are something special… but perhaps something ‘real’”.

As for Chinese culture, Zimmermann remarked, “I was very surprised when I first came here because people were telling me that in Asia, you have to not show emotion, you have to stay very masked.” But then added, “But I didn’t agree, I think there is a lot of emotion in the eyes.”

This photographer’s understanding of Asia is transferred to his photography, and when asked about some of the lesser fashion media in Asia, he diplomatically replied, “it’s a question of confidence” because “in Asia, fashion is quite new, of course” and “photography has to go through steps… and it will come very, very fast.”

“What attracted me about WestEast was that it was not a magazine made to imitate Western magazines, it was the crossing of two cultures. It was original to the point of view of the Westerner and also I imagine from the point of view of the Asian.”

And his advice for budding Asian photographers?

“Express yourself… and don’t give a damn what anybody else is thinking! It’s very important that globalization doesn’t kill the variety.”

When we begin to talk about our cover girls, Zimmermann reminisces:

“Du Juan, I met her the first time much before the time she became the top model she is now… and I was looking at this girl, and she was very discreet, and I could see something in her attitude and her eyes that told me that she would become a great, great model… She is the mirror of what you want to express… She plays with what you want.”

The Du Juan portrait is simple, but full of emotion, of an Asian beauty that is revered both in her native country and in the international circles. “I love this picture,” says Zimmermann “because there is a lot of emotion, and a lot of humanity,” and WestEast couldn’t agree more.

Emma Pei’s portrait is especially beautiful because it shows her, as never before, up close and very personal. Pei’s innocence and almost gawkishness is transformed into a sexy, tousled haired woman. Her delicate face fills the whole frame and she looks powerful, strong and an emblem of modern Asian beauty.

It is interesting for our French photographer to shoot someone like Lu Yan because “she represents what the Western part thinks what the Asian feature is”. Indeed Lu Yan is “not what we call the classic beauty but express something very strong… like Alec Wek.“

The iconic Maggie Cheung, as so many have said, knew exactly what she was doing for ‘Simply I’. “It was very easy shooting with Maggie because she has the culture of photography in herself… She exactly knows what she gives you… and knows exactly where she wants to go.”

Gilles-Marie Zimmermann captures both the strength and vulnerability of Asian beauty, something that is perhaps seen most potently, not the obvious look of expression or body language but in the expressiveness of Asian eyes:

“There is always an element of vulnerability… that was the concept of ‘Simply I’ — to show the minimum of something else than you, which is sometimes difficult because if you are a model or actress, because most of the time it’s easier to play a part… but to bring the own person out, you can show the vulnerability… I catch something that is something you are not supposed to catch, and something they are not used to giving.”

The next plan for Gilles-Marie Zimmermann is to meet up with the male personalities for another similar project, and we hope he is just as good at capturing the essence of an Asian male beauty as he does for the ladies.

“You have to love the person you are photographing at that moment,” but at the end of the day, capturing beauty for Zimmermann is also about capturing the individual, “I don’t even look at a person in terms of if she is Asian or American or French, it is more about what they have inside of themselves… every person is different in their own culture and vibrations.”

Text: Jing Zhang
Photography: Gilles-Marie Zimmermann

Published in Issue 24 GLOBALIZASIAN, 2008