My thing for Beijing started during the 2008 Summer Olympics. The Bird's Nest! The Water Cube! Since China opened to foreign markets in the late '70s, worlds have collided — East and West, old and new. Beijingers (19 million and counting) are abandoning the dusty brands of yore in favor of newfound luxury. (Alexander McQueen and Dior recently opened flagships here.) Still, they take the whole "beauty from within" thing literally. Traditional Chinese medicine says that our internal energy — or qi — controls how we look. Got acne? Graying hair? Heat your qi up, cool it down, massage it, and you're fixed! Before the West wins the capital city over entirely, I set out to uncover its glorious origins.
Mao's sweet crib, the Forbidden City.
That whole scandal about the Chinese gymnasts being underage — I get it. I find it impossible to guess women's ages here. For millennia, they've been prepping, priming, and whitening their skin, and it shows. From the time of the Qing dynasty to the late 1980s, women relied on homemade remedies like pore-refining masks of egg whites and pearl powder. Now they favor the same pricey imports we use. But their results seem so much better! Something doesn't add up. A quick online search, and I discover that the domestically made Chinese lotion Friendship Cream still has a following. I present an image of it to locals as if it were a flier for a missing cat (Have you seen this cream?). They laugh and refer me to Taobao, China's version of eBay. At a drugstore, the salesclerk is so offended she shoos me down the block. There, I find an elderly man selling the cream, along with tins of snake oils and tiger balms, for less than a dollar atop a cardboard box. I buy one of each. So what if no one under 40 uses them here? Their grandmas did — still do — and they look great.
Long Live the Motherland Beijing, Chen Man, 2009.