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Beauty in the eye of the beholder

By Jiang Xueqing (China Daily) Updated: 2012-09-25 07:47

Younger consumers increasingly adopt a cute approach to life, reports Jiang Xueqing.

When Zhang Lan first saw her Volkswagen Beetle, it was love at first sight. The car's cute shape exerted a fatal attraction on the 33-year-old deputy president of a small entertainment company in Beijing.

Related video: Selling cute

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

"For me, there are only two types of car: One is a car, the other is a Beetle," she said.

When Zhang finally bought her Beetle, for 230,000 yuan ($36,240), she picked cream - one of the best-selling colors for Beetles in China. In her eyes, the car's color is a perfect match for its shape.

"It looks like a vanilla cone running on the street," she said, smiling sweetly.

Like the Beetle, people and things with a cute look, shape or style - including shoes, pets and cellphone covers - are becoming increasingly popular among younger Chinese people, mainly those born between the late 1970s and the 1990s.

Compared with the sophisticated and cautious older generations, those born after 1977 are much more willing to publicly exhibit a sense of innocence, playfulness and individuality by wearing Plants vs Zombies T-shirts, sending Teddy Bear bouquets to their beloveds and posting pictures of themselves making funny faces on social networking sites.

Take Zhang Qiqi, for example. The 31-year-old, who works for a multinational pharmaceutical company in Chengdu, Sichuan province, posed for a series of pre-wedding photos with her fiance in September 2011. In addition to choosing a traditional wedding gown and a suit, the happy couple also posed in Angry Birds T-shirts for lovers. Zhang played the red angry bird, jumping up in the air and throwing a toy bird at her fiance, who wore a T-shirt with the image of a pig's head printed on the front. Their joy at the photo shoot was plain to see.

"Most of my friends love the pictures. They said they could see we were smiling wholeheartedly, but my mother and some more conservative friends think we were just playing silly games and should have been more serious," she said.

Today, cuteness has penetrated a number of aspects of the lives of young Chinese people. Many are attracted by cute pets, cartoons, stuffed toys and fashion models with childlike features. Mai meng, the displaying or selling of cuteness, has become chic on the Internet in the last two years, indicating that things of this nature have huge market potential and can be used as a sales tool.

A dog's life

Shunsuke, a 9-year-old Pomeranian from Japan, has been an Internet hit since his owner opened an account for him on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, in 2011. The dog has a round, chubby face with innocent marble-black eyes, a black button nose and short, soft ears. His owner has posted nearly 600 pictures of Shunsuke wearing all kinds of costumes such as bowknots, fluffy fabric rabbit ears and ladybug-looking clothes. The pictures have gained the dog more than 247,000 regular followers on Weibo.

A search for Shunsuke on Sina Weibo will lead interested visitors to around 5.39 million results. Among them is a micro blog called "Home of Shunsuke", which actually uses the dog as a marketing tool. On Sept 4 alone, the site forwarded at least 26 advertisements for various products, including fashionable shoes, handbags, perfume, dinnerware and home decorations, to more than 11,000 followers, along with pictures of the star Pomeranian, of course.

Today, a fast-growing number of city dwellers are raising cats and dogs, especially cute breeds such as teddy bear puppies, bichon frise, Scottish fold cats and Garfields.

Zou Hui, 33, a lawyer at a US multinational company in China, bought a Samoyed for her mother when she retired. The dog was only 2 months old when they first saw him at a commercial kennel in Beijing in 2009.

"At first, we were not sure whether to choose a Samoyed or a golden retriever, but as soon as we saw them lying on the ground side by side, our hearts immediately went for the Samoyed," Zou said. "He looked exactly like a little snowball."

The dog has a pure white body and only his eyes, nose and the bottom of his paws are black. Zou decided to call him Qiuqiu, meaning "furry ball".

The dog, now aged 3, is a real member of the family. When Zou returns from work every evening, Qiuqiu waits at the door and barks to call her mother to open the door as soon as she knocks. When Zou sits on the sofa, he will come close to her and throw his head on her lap, imploring her to scratch and feed him. Sometimes, when Zou feels blue and cries, he will sit by her side and try to comfort her by rubbing her arms.

"I think meng means lovely, pleasant and approachable," said Zou. "It has become popular in recent years for the same reason that Hayao Miyazaki - a leading Japanese director of animations such as Spirited Away and Laputa: The Castle in the Sky - received a warm welcome from my generation. As people live in a concrete jungle, experiencing intense pressures and cold relationships, we all hope to find spiritual sustenance as a relief. So cute and amiable things like dogs become an outlet to help relieve the pressure and escape from harsh reality."

Lost innocence

Introverted young men from Japan originally used the word Moe - which translates into Chinese as meng - to describe things they found adorable and appealing, especially young, innocent female characters in animations and comic books. The word is a homonym for "burning", suggesting that people will burn with passion when they see this type of fictional character.

"Meng is something that awakens one's feelings of happiness and splendor, such as lovely, pretty girls," said Wang Yaqing, a lover of Japanese animation and comics who works for a business news and information organization. "Whether it's a kid or a small animal, as long as people think it is meng, it will be very cute, delicate and reminiscent of the innocence of children in some way. For me, meng represents lost innocence and youth," she said.

Born in 1983, Wang said her generation grew up watching Japanese animations and reading comics. As adults, they now have the purchasing power to pay for cute products based on those characters.

Zou spends around 1,000 yuan on her Samoyed every month. The expense mainly covers dog food, snacks and showers at a pet store. Although she has been working for 10 years, she still buys stuffed animals occasionally.

During the 2009 Christmas holiday, she went to a store that sold soft toys and gifts. There she found a black toy mouse with a sharp-pointed mouth and a gray toy mouse with a round face. They immediately reminded her of a Japanese animation about a city mouse and a field mouse that she watched as a child.

"It's lovely to have soft toys at home," she said. "They awaken the childishness and playfulness in my heart, setting me free from the adult world and my heavy workload for a brief moment as I imagine what would happen if these toys were alive."

People of different age groups derive pleasure from cute things for a variety of reasons, said Zhao Junyan, a teacher at the psychological counseling center at Capital Normal University in Beijing. Young people love cuteness because they are always looking for novel things to show their character and individuality. In contrast, many middle-aged and elderly people especially divorcees or those whose children have left home like to keep cats and dogs as a means of psychological comfort and to banish loneliness. Some one-child families have also found that pets make good companions for their child.

A love of cuteness comes naturally to certain people, and now that many sectors of Chinese society have reached a reasonable level of prosperity, meng has become a consumption trend as businesses and the mass media turn it into a consumer phenomenon.

During Chinese Valentine's Day in August, bouquets complemented with a bunch of miniature stuffed toys such as bunnies, piglets and teddy bears, overtook flowers as the new favorite for many girls. On the day, a tiny flower shop on the East Third Ring Road in Beijing sold more than a dozen bouquets of this type, the price ranging from 168 yuan to 288 yuan. Bouquets featuring teddy bears in pink silk dresses were the most popular, said the florist, adding that this type of bouquet began appearing on the shelves about three years ago, but didn't sell well.

Pink skirts, white aprons

China's first Hello Kitty-themed restaurant opened in Beijing on April 10. Images of Hello Kitty can be found everywhere in the restaurant, whether hanging on the walls or printed on napkins. The restaurant has pink wallpaper and all the waitresses wear pink skirts with white aprons. The doorway boasts a wooden multilayer cake-shaped decoration with Hello Kitty soft toys piled atop.

"As our founder said, every girl has a pink dream," said the 23-year-old manager Chen Wenyu.

"The cute, sweet and quiet Hello Kitty (usually dressed in pink and wearing a bow on her head) is attractive to many customers."

The restaurant serves around 150 customers Monday to Friday and 220 customers during the weekend, at an average cost of 80 to 120 yuan per head. It hosts two or three birthday parties for families with small children almost every week. About 80 percent of its customers are children and young lovers aged 18 to 30, according to Chen.

One of its bestselling desserts is a cheesecake in the shape of a Hello Kitty headshot. Chen said he and his colleagues are putting a lot of thought and effort into how they can present the restaurant's theme more effectively. At present, more than 29,500 people follow the restaurant on Sina Weibo.

Unlike many other cultural phenomena, meng does not have a finalized version. Instead, it is developing little by little. Each individual can add personal elements to it and make his or her own creations, according to Chen Yan, a reporter for the Chinese magazine Economy, who spent 14 years living in Japan, the birthplace of meng.

"Young people have found that their quest for uniqueness and individual style is expressed by the culture of cuteness, because they can make new developments to meng based on the latest fashion," he said.

The popularity of meng is associated with how young people interpret the real world nowadays, said Qin Gang, an associate professor at the Beijing Center for Japanese Studies of the Beijing Foreign Studies University. A growing number of people are turning their attention away from reality to the virtual space.

"Some Japanese scholars criticized the kawaii (or meng) culture for dispelling values that should be held by adults. I think we Chinese should also pay attention to this problem and take note that not everything can be judged by whether it is cute or not," Qin said.

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