Debutante ball bounces back
Updated: 2012-01-10 07:29
By Xu Junqian (China Daily)
Glamour event steeped in tradition makes a glittering return to life, Xu Junqian reports from Shanghai.
Larissa Scotting, 17, from the UK, leads a group of young women in the "coming out" formalities during the first Shanghai International Debutante Ball on Saturday. [Gao Erqiang / China Daily]
Sparkling tiaras and wine, young men sharply dressed and women wearing gowns, a Puccini aria as background music, and presentations to society: the trappings of another era - and of the first Shanghai International Debutante Ball.
Guests on Saturday night might have been taken back in time, but the organizer hopes such events are the future. If, that is, she can find any young Chinese women who are up to snuff.
"For all these years, people have been talking about our nation's zeal for luxury. But I don't think people really get the point of what luxury is," Zhou Caici said.
"All they have been chasing after is material stuff. Now I am showing them the real lifestyle."
Zhou, founder and executive director of the ball, has been an active socialite in Hong Kong, London and her native Shanghai. Two socialite friends from London helped her organize the party, and it followed a Victorian script with some 2012 tweaks.
The setting was the gilded grand ballroom of the Shanghai Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which occupies a historic building on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River. Of course, attendance was by invitation only.
The 160 guests, with the men in tuxedos, began to arrive around 9, mingling under huge chandeliers and sipping Champagne from flutes. The music, although recorded, was operatic.
At 10 sharp, two uniformed attendants opened the heavy doors through which 13 smiling young women made their debuts. Each handed her white-gloved hand to her escort, and they began their first dance - to the title song from Flashdance.
"Everything is impeccable," Jennie Hallam-Peel said. She and Patricia Woodall had organized the Queen Charlotte's Ball in London and had flown to Shanghai to help with this one.
"Shanghai is a city very similar to London," Hallam-Peel said. "It can't be more appropriate to have a debutante ball in as modern as well as historical place as here."
Hallam-Peel had her own "coming out" in the mid-1970s, and she described the tradition as a "unique English identity" that should not be lost.
The tradition - mainly to declare the availability of young women, especially bluebloods, for the marriage market - hasn't fared so well since 1958, when Prince Philip said that presenting the debs to Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace was "bloody daft". The focus has shifted to charity work in a debutante's pedigree and includes middle-class families, not just the upper crust.
'The perfect city'
Zhou, 66, is the youngest daughter of Zhou Xinfang, a Peking Opera master, and Qiu Lilin who, Zhou said, certainly would have qualified as a deb if there had been such a thing in 1920s Shanghai. Zhou is known in Hong Kong and the UK as Vivian Chow Wong (adding her husband's family name).
She moved back to Shanghai in 2003 and said she had been thinking since then about reviving the ball tradition, not in its place of origin but on more receptive distant soil.
"Shanghai is the perfect city, if not the only one in China, to have a ball like this," she said. "Shanghai people love dancing, from ballroom dancing to morning dancing in the park, which serves a solid base for our ball."
Young Chinese women on the mainland have yet to warm to the idea of the ball as a matchmaking event. She said they are more used to one-on-one meetings arranged by their parents in restaurants or teahouses.
But Zhou thinks the Shanghai Debutante Ball could provide a connection for English aristocrats and well-off young Chinese women. After all, she said, in the United States in the 1930s, down-and-out English gentlemen traveled overseas to marry the daughters of American magnates.