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The making of Miss China

Soft power - A nation where beauty contests were banned for over 50 years pins its pageant hopes on an Olympics placard holder being trained to say bless you, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Aug 01, 2010 00:28 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

Miss China is learning to eat with a knife and fork and say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes.

The crash course in English and ‘foreign culture’ doesn’t daunt the girl who was ten years old when China’s Communist Party lifted a rule that banned beauty contests for over 50 years from 1949-2002, ending an era when pageants were raided as 'vulgar' and a former Miss China was crowned in a secretive contest.

On the third-floor of a Beijing mall with corridors crammed with discount pyjamas, Tang Wen, 19, is being coached to win China’s first Miss Universe title when she travels to Las Vegas in the US later this month.

“She has no fear!’’ exclaimed her English and foreign culture trainer Kevin Wang, who perfected his English while studying in the US. It’s the first time Wang, the young CEO of a firm that teaches American accented English to Chinese executives, has been roped in to teach a Miss China to say sorry, thank you and please.

“I’m the Chinese number one. (So) I’m the best!” Tang told the Hindustan Times, her oval face looking incredulous at the suggestion of nervousness.

China’s best known launch pad for models as young as 14 is aptly named the New Silk Road Models Organisation. Beauty contests are also a tool to soften China’s international image. This face of China was chosen for her traditional look and Olympian patriotism.

The agency ‘designated’ Tang as Miss China without a contest. “She is an oriental beauty,’’ said her agent who goes by the English name Rain. Tang says she doesn’t need an English name and will proudly speak Chinese on stage, though her Internet fans are posting advise to practise English.

A Chinese girl has never won this international contest. Over the next hour, Tang spoke little English besides repeating ‘I’m the best’ at least five times. The leggy model, who has never travelled abroad beyond Japan, is still riding the Olympian wave that engulfed Beijing during the costliest-ever Games opening ceremony in August 2008.

From 400 girls in a six-month residential government training camp for the Olympics, Tang was among eight girls selected to wear a seven-layered handmade red silk costume, ‘each worth 70,000 yuan’ (Rs 4,90,000) as placard girls for the top national teams. She held the placard for Germany.

“During camp, we had to stand for three hours a day in the blazing sunshine or heavy rain. If it was hot we wore long sleeves and covered up so only our eyes were visible,’’ Tang recalled. “For an additional hour per day, I practised holding an 18-kg placard. Every day, girls were eliminated...and there were rumours of bombs under the shuttle buses and at the stadium. It was most challenging.’’

The Olympics left her well trained to answer the obvious ‘western’ questions about China’s human rights record. “The Olympics was my turning point,’’ she said, eyes sparkling. “At the Bird’s Nest stadium, the audience would shout Go China and I would feel so proud to be Chinese.’’

By the time Tang had grown up and moved from Heilongjiang province bordering Russia to a Beijing college, China was transforming into the world’s second-largest luxury market. Beauty contests were held somewhere on the mainland every month, even for Miss Plastic Surgery. Models in bikinis pose on the Great Wall and face-whitening creams are a sell-out. Tall height, big eyes and a fair, sunflower seed-shaped symmetrical face are now an unwritten job guarantee during the annual recruitment season when Chinese graduates splurge on cosmetic surgeries. Mention India and every Chinese college girl can name India’s Miss Worlds but not the Indian President.

“Like India, China has a big population. I carry the expectations of lots of people,’’ she said. “China has made progress in human rights but it’s still developing so you can’t compare China with the US. Won’t people ask the same questions about India?’’

The Olympics marked the peak of China’s obsession with promoting its pretty face. Medal presenters and placard holders were selected for their vital statistics and taught the perfect six teeth smile. In the Olympics camp, Tang did her own laundry that got moldy in humid Beijing. Two years hence as a model, she was telling HT about Buddhism, karma (destiny) and inner beauty, with her Louis Vuitton bag tossed in a chair.

The poise dropped only when she excitedly discussed what Bollywood taught her about India. The bewildered English teacher struggled to translate. “Indian brides wear all the bridal clothes one day before the wedding...they touch the legs of old people...’’

First Published: Aug 01, 2010 00:25 IST