The products here are different from those in the West.
The shelves are loaded with creams and lotions which whiten the skin.
“Making skin look paler is very deeply rooted in Chinese tradition,” said Jan Hodok, marketing manager for the skincare company Nivea in China.
“Traditionally, the first objective of a woman is to have pale white skin because whitening can cover many flaws. Many Chinese women will put on sun protection just to go next door because they’re so afraid of getting any kind of sun rays,” he added.
Foreign firms like Nivea, Loreal and Estee Lauder make up half of the Chinese face cream market.
With more money in their pockets, young Chinese women—and some young men too—are prepared to pay extra for foreign brands.
And foreign attitudes to tanning are also taking hold.
Flicking through the pages of the February edition of Elle magazine, senior beauty editor Helena Hu points to the latest fashion spread. The pages contain a bronzed Chinese woman with a deep tan.
“This girl had just finished her vacation in Thailand so her skin was very, very dark,” she explained.
“More and more models will tan their skin to make their looks more international; darker skin means healthier body, it’s sexier,” she said.
Dark skin in Imperial times was associated with labouring in the fields.
Even today it is China’s migrant workers, who work on construction sites across cities like Shanghai, that have the darkest skin.
Signs of success
But for a growing number of young Chinese people, dark skin now means having the money to afford foreign holidays or Western-style glamour.
The customers at MH Tanning in central Shanghai agree. The first in China, according to its manager Huang Tong, the salon is popular with the city’s young upwardly mobile set.
“Our customers are mainly Chinese people—white collar workers, entrepreneurs, people who’ve been abroad, or fashionable people like singers and actors. We have more men than women but the girls who come here are really fashion conscious,” he said.
From a few customers a week, the store now has between 20 to 30 customers a day. A tanning session costs between $4 and $25.
“The Hong Kong actor, Gu Tianle has made (tanning) popular. A tan leaves people feeling brighter—they think it’s healthy,” he said.
Few people are more fashion conscious than MC, a young advertising executive from Beijing, and regular MH Tanning customer.
His spectacles are by Gucci, he taps away on his laptop, just before he tops up his tan. He says his healthy glow indicates that he is successful.
“In other countries a lot of young people like to get sun tans, so it’s become very popular here too,” he said.
There is still a great deal of ignorance about the dangers of too much exposure to the sun and there are worries though that this new trend could lead to a higher incidence of skin-cancer.
But few seem particularly concerned about the health effects of tanning.
In Shanghai, getting rich, and displaying your money is what matters.
And a deep dark tan would appear to be one of the easiest ways to show that you are basking in China’s new-found wealth.