China’s tourists are traveling internationally more than ever. And while food, historic sites and shopping continue to be big reasons Chinese people travel, more and more mainland tourists have been heading to nearby South Korea to undergo plastic surgery procedures.
In Asia’s so-called plastic surgery capital of Seoul, South Korea, mainland Chinese have come to represent 70 percent of foreign clientele as cosmetic surgery becomes increasingly accessible and affordable. Reports by China’s Ministry of Health found that Chinese made 56,000 trips to South Korea in 2014 to have procedures done.
The number of Chinese visitors has increased tenfold since 2009, according to Shanghai-based newspaper National Business Daily, when only 4,700 Chinese made trips to South Korea for medical tourism. Now, Seoul’s clinics have even taken extra measures to attract Chinese customers, including providing Chinese-language signs and reading material to welcome them.
The increased desire to go under the knife is likely the result of multiple factors. A growing Chinese middle class with newfound wealth means more people can travel and pay for procedures. Beyond that, the hugely popular Korean-obsessed subculture in China, built around television dramas, music and beauty products have turned Korean-style beauty fads into a trend among Chinese as well. The craze is believed to have originated as an imitation of the country’s K-pop stars (many of whom also go under plastic surgery themselves), who are wide-eyed, with small faces and pale skin.
This has been adopted across most of East Asia as an outgrowth of the popularity of Korean music and television shows in the region. In China, the trend manifests itself as a faddish interest in the Caucasian-skewed perception of beauty that exists in South Korea. Korean pop group Girls Generation, for example, is often a source of inspiration for girls who admire the plastic surgery done on several members of the band.
In South Korea, undergoing cosmetic surgery is extremely common, producing a $5 trillion industry. A survey from market-research firm Trend Monitor found that one in five Korean women under the age of 50 go through with some type of procedure; the most popular is double-eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty, both of which aim to mimic the wider eyes and slimmer noses of Caucasians.
While unrealistic and homogenous beauty standards exist globally, South Korea is unique in that there isn't a stigma on women who decide to change their appearances.