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March 25, 2015

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The long-lasting scars of plastic surgery

WANG Jing is haunted by her reflection: The looking glass frames a crooked mouth and numb, motionless cheeks.

In the pursuit of perfection, the 31-year-old former office worker from Shanghai went under the knife in Seoul, South Korea, last year. She hoped bigger eyes and a V-shaped face would help her find a handsome boyfriend and improve her employment prospects.

Glancing through her old photos, many would struggle to find fault with the fair skin and small round face captured in the snapshots, but not Wang: “I wasn’t beautiful enough for my ex-boyfriend, who left me for a younger, more attractive girl.”

Wang is one of a growing number of Chinese women who travel to South Korea for cosmetic surgery but have been left with lasting physical — and emotional — scars after botched operations.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, approximately 210,000 medical tourists visited the reputed “kingdom of plastic surgery” in 2013. Chinese tourists comprised 26.5 percent of the total to top the list.

When Wang decided to go to Seoul, she felt she was fully prepared and understood the procedure. She had watched Internet adverts promoting “magical” Seoul face-lifts and had been impressed by the “before-and-after” images.

At Wonjin Beauty Medical Group, she asked for a procedure that would give her extra fold in her eyelids. She was persuaded, however, into doing at least two other operations including one on her cheekbones to give her a V-shaped face, considered the height of feminine beauty in much of East Asia.

The operations cost her nearly 120,000 yuan (US$19,000).

“I was told there was no risk. After the operation, the doctor said I would recover in a few months. Obviously, I didn’t,” she says.

When Wang returned to China, she sought help from several hospitals but was told the damage was permanent and irreversible.

Instead of boosting her confidence, the surgery made her life unbearable. She found it difficult to eat. She lost her job, faced an array of medical problems and slipped into a depression.

In a fit of rage, Wang flew back to Seoul for retribution, but she was beaten up by the hospital’s security guards, she says.

Wonjin Beauty Medical Group, however, refuted Wang’s accusations.

It said the operations had been successful and Wang’s crooked mouth was the result of something she had done deliberately. It added that Wang had fabricated the assault story as the hospital has no security guards.

There is a rising trend for young women in China to undergo cosmetic surgery.

However, unlicensed doctors, shoddy but costly operations and fraudulent intermediary services are too regular an occurrence in the booming, yet poorly regulated, medical tourist industry.

Media reported more than 20,000 cosmetic surgery institutions are operating in South Korea. But data from the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons showed only 1,500 registered institutions along with 2,100 licensed plastic surgeons.

The “ghost doctors” who stand in for experienced surgeons and perform actual surgeries are an open secret in the industry.

Lack of medical documentation

Cho Soo Young, public relations director of the association, suggested customers check a doctor’s qualification on its website before making the decision.

Many overseas students and travel agencies moonlight as intermediaries for hospitals in Seoul, reaping as much as 50 percent of the operation’s fees.

In addition, Chinese patients are often charged twice or three times the amount South Korean citizens pay, according to former actress Jin Weikun.

Jin, 26, reshaped her face and augmented her breasts last year to “improve her career.” She was left with a plethora of medical problems.

In response, she set up the group “Fight to Win” on messaging app WeChat, which now has more than 200 Chinese members, including men, who claim to have been left disfigured after going under the knife in Seoul.

Few, however, have any supporting medical documentation, such as invoices or pre-surgery agreements, which makes it almost impossible to claim compensation. Many members of the group now struggle with depression and some have even attempted suicide, Jin says.

Societal pressure and the misconception that being beautiful is a shortcut to success are often cited by patients as the reasons they chose cosmetic surgery.

“They promised me a high-bridged nose and a lower hairline with no scars on the forehead,” says Mi Yuanyuan from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province.

She went to a Seoul clinic called Faceline in September 2013, after watching a plastic surgery reality show.

Mi says she was given a document while she was on the operation table.

“I cannot read a word of Korean and so had no idea what it said,” Mi says. “All I knew was that I was ready for the operation. I had no time to ask questions.”

Faceline said it was a pre-surgery declaration stating the patient understood all potential side effects. The doctors had explained to Mi clearly and she had signed it, Faceline said.

After the surgery Mi suffered nose pain, hair loss and there are visible scars on her forehead, which Faceline insisted were from her previous cosmetic surgery in China and not as serious as she claimed.

China has its own share of cosmetic surgery horror stories. The China Consumers’ Association says its branches nationwide handled at least 1,400 complaints over aesthetic and cosmetic procedures last year, though many more cases are believed to go unreported.

Wang Bei, 24, a former contestant on the hit talent show “Super Girl,” died in 2010 due to complications from anesthesia during plastic surgery in Wuhan, capital city of Hubei Province. The case raised concern about the safety of plastic surgery.

Despite the damage, some people do not regret having gone under the knife.

“Plastic surgery is just another way to give yourself an edge in today’s super-competitive society,” Jin says. “You can’t blame people for turning to surgery to look good, in a society where being pretty simply trumps everything.”

A week ago Xinhua news agency interviewed 207 students randomly chosen from three universities in Beijing, Tianjin and Nanjing in Jiangsu Province. More than 16 percent said they had “thought about reshaping their faces,” while 191 interviewees thought people with good looks would get better career opportunities.

Nearly 60 percent of patients at major cosmetic surgery clinics in Shanghai were college students who wanted “small improvements,” says a Shanghai doctor.

Plastic surgery isn’t just for women. Men account for nearly 10 percent of student patients choosing face-lifts, the doctor says.

Zhang Yan, a researcher with the Academy of Social Sciences in the northwest province of Shaanxi, says plastic surgery should be reserved for victims of fire or other accidents.

“Young people need intelligence more than good looks to survive in society,” says Zhang. “After all, a pretty face cannot fill the spiritual void.”


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