At a Gala Dinner in China, Women Serve As Part of the Furniture

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A decorative maiden hands out refreshments during a dinner for the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China (Photo: Hannah Beech for TIME)

Because we are not limited, as Western men are, to business suits, women have greater discretion when it comes to semiformal attire. But it was only when I attended a World Economic Forum dinner in northeastern China that I discovered that the dress code for ladies extended to tablecloths. Dotted around the banquet hall in the coastal metropolis of Dalian (the city’s government was hosting the meal) were circular tables piled with drinks and sweetmeats. Inserted into a hole in each table was a comely woman wearing a strapless dress made of the same material as the gold and red tablecloths that flowed around her. Table for one, indeed.

Such spectacles are now de rigueur at high-profile Chinese events, whether it’s international conferences or sporting extravaganzas. In a country where Chairman Mao once proclaimed that women hold up half the sky and should toil alongside men, the biggest contingent of women at prestige events today is invariably leggy and adept at grinning while showing exactly eight teeth. That “heartfelt smile” is one of the many skills taught at a “hell training” of usherettes for the Expo Central China 2011 to be held later this month in the central Chinese City of Taiyuan, according to an exposé by Chinese magazine New Weekly that was also summarized in English by website China Hush. For more than eight hours a day, the wannabe usherettes grip chopsticks between their teeth to perfect their smiles, balance books on their heads to improve posture and even practice a straight-legged stance by clutching sheets of paper between their knees.

(READ: Why many Chinese singles are looking for love online.)

From my experience, the women who serve as eye candy at major Chinese functions are invariably young, pretty­—and unusually tall. A few years ago I attended a gala dinner at the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese parliament building in Beijing. The entrance hall was lined with a cavalcade of women all upward of 6’0” tall. I can only imagine how Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic reforms who strove to reach 5’0”, would have felt. Yes, China may be trying to show international visitors that it, literally, stands tall in the world. But global stature doesn’t depend on physical height.

As for Dalian, after hearing from one friend that he had been told the assembled women were culled from local karaoke joints (some of which provide more than musical services), I checked with one young lady, who was standing a bit forlornly in her table, the fancy drinks with glowing ice-cubes that once surrounded her long gone. What did she do when she wasn’t standing in tables, I asked. “Sing songs,” came the answer. I didn’t ask any other women, so I don’t know whether she was typical or not. But I still wondered about the scene before me. At what point did a Dalian official think to himself—and it would, most likely, be to himself, not herself: “You know what would add the perfect touch of class to this prestigious event attended by 1,500-plus people from more than 90 countries? Women in strapless dresses. In Tables.”

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