Shanghai debutantes savor their moment

Updated: 2014-02-20 07:38

By Xu Junqian in Shanghai (China Daily)

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The chandeliers were turned off, and the candles were lit. The champagne was bubbling, and the multi-layered cake towered on the trolley. The Rolls-Royce drove up, delivering 12 young ladies pampered in exquisite white gowns and high-bunned hair, ready to be "crowned", at the third Shanghai International Debutante Ball, held in mid-January in the Shanghai Peninsula Hotel.

Daughters from the most wealthy and influential families in the country had expected to be invited to the city's perhaps most prestigious social event. Young women from less privileged families were glued to the media and social networks, eager to find out about the dresses, the tiaras and the hairstyles of the selected "debutantes" at the ball.

Zhou Caici, also known as Vivian Chow Wong, is the founder and organizer of the Shanghai version of the British high-society event introduced by King George III in 1780. For the past three years, she has managed to find domestic couture tailors, food caterers and PR teams for "her ball" to set a tone for China's nouveaux riches seeking the "essential luxury lifestyle".

Young gentleman escorts have become a staple "import" at the event.

Of the 25 boys who have attended the balls - some have returned for two or even all three - only five are ethnically Chinese, and none are Chinese nationals.

"It just happened this way, certainly not by design," says Zhou, who says that not many Chinese boys "have white-tie culture" today.

Zhou's criteria for escorts include good family background, private or British "public school" education, good looks and possession of white-tie (tail suit), or at lease a black-tie tuxedo. One rule that has changed is the age of the escorts, with older boys being preferred as "younger ones tend to want to 'party' too much", as Zhou put it.

Trevor Lai, a Canadian-born-Chinese now based in Shanghai, who has become a "veteran escort" for the ball, provides other reasons for the absence of his local buddies.

"Young Chinese are not often thrust under a spotlight, especially at a young age. So the idea of being thrust to an event like this is foreign to them, in many cases, and not necessarily as exciting as in Western culture," says Lai, who started his own animation company in Shanghai two years ago, and has been the host of an online talk show.

"In many cases, Chinese people would not be the first to volunteer to present in a group, or to do public speaking. It takes time," says Lai, whose background and experience have made him more outgoing.

Escorts at the ball are not allowed to tell their ages "out of respect for the ball", he says.

And the attractions of the ball, apart from nice food, good wine and well-dressed girls, that keep luring presentable young men from all over the world to the annual event are many.

"The ball in Shanghai is very young," says Aubin Dupree, a US captain who now lives in London. Three out of his five trips to China are exclusively for the ball, although the descendant of a well-off family in Boston has attended to events like this a lot back in London.

"In England, it's been happening for hundreds of years. There are always so many traditions and rules. While in Shanghai, Vivian (the organizer) can do anything. She is able to improve and try new things//such as??? I've sent query to writer early this morning//. It's young and fresh," he says.

Lai, for his part, thinks the ball is still "very important" because it "builds character" in a lot of different ways that iPhone apps and video chatting on computers - today's widely popular routes for young people to be "social" - cannot.

"Being put on such a stage where there are a lot of people watching, in many cases, families, friends flown all over, it prepares us for certain things in real life," he explains.

For example, in business, when meeting people who are much more accomplished, or those who are very much looked up to, the intimidation factor is reduced because "we have been presented on a similar stage".

"And that's a skill that only comes with experiences, rather than the virtual world, or even classroom," he adds.

"You almost need to feel the sweat in your hands to know what it feels like," Lai says, recalling the first year when he escorted the first-ever modern Chinese debutante, Jen Hau, among the original 13 into "Shanghai society", though he acknowledges he was just one of the supporting members of the cast.

Of course, the kind of "palm-wetting" experience comes at a cost, and not a low one.

Zhou has never revealed to the public the cost of the ball, mostly covered by her and sponsors such as French jewelry house Chaumet. Zhou, the president of an entertainment company and the youngest daughter of Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang, emphasizes over and over that elegance and style are never compromised to make profits from the ball.

 Shanghai debutantes savor their moment

The third Shanghai International Debutante Ball tries to set a tone for China's nouveaux riches seeking luxury lifestyles. Gao Erqiang / China Daily

(China Daily 02/20/2014 page18)