Recently, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Shanghai was filled with flowing white gowns, diamond tiaras, the music of Puccini, and a brand of elegance that can only be described as British. No, Kate Middleton wasn’t paying a visit — the party was all for Deb…debutantes that is. To satisfy some of the pangs for blue-blooded revelry now being widely felt among China’s millionaires, thirteen beautiful young debutantes – ten British, two Chinese, and one Polish – were flown into Shanghai to display a little pomp and circumstance.
The hotel is located on Shanghai’s famous Bund in what used to be the Shanghai Club, the bastion of the British colonial elite during the 1920s and 30s and a place where Chinese were barred from membership. In a country that is still nominally communist, such a spectacle would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
“That’s why I wanted to hold the ball here,” said Vivian Chow Wong, the ball’s organizer “It shows how the Chinese have come full circle.”
As a sign of the times, the lavish occasion at the Waldorf-Astoria served a far different purpose than the one custom dictated. “I think it is very different to what it was before. It’s not about meeting your future husband. Most of the girls want to go to university and have careers,” said Araminta Lawrie, the 20-year-old daughter of a London general practitioner and a history of art student at Nottingham University and one of the featured debutantes, who ranged from age 17 to 22. The ambitions of these girls’ parents have certainly changed, too.
“There are an awful lot of rich people in China now and they want to learn more about upper-class etiquette and the upper-class lifestyle,” said Jennie Hallam-Peel, who along with Patricia Woodall has organized the Queen Charlotte’s Ball and coordinated what is left of the London debutante season for the last 11 years. “We’ve had masses of inquiries from Chinese businessmen in London who want us to give them etiquette lessons. They want to socialize at the highest possible level and they need to know how to do that.” Which may be why so few of the debutantes in Shanghai were Chinese.
“I think there’s definitely a market for a ball like this in China, but it’ll be in the future because the Chinese girls will have to build up their confidence and learn how to behave like ladies and learn how to treat people properly,” said Julia Guo, owner of a private equity company who was in attendance. China’s two representatives, however, certainly shone.
Jen Hau, a bubbly 22-year-old from Taiwan, is the granddaughter of a former President of Taiwan, while her father is the current mayor of Taipei. Vivien Lee was born in Hong Kong, but attended the top girls private school Benenden in Kent, before going on to take a first in economics at Cambridge. Both knew little about debutantes until they were invited to take part in the Shanghai ball. All of the debs, decked out in Chaumet jewelry and armed with a squadron of hair and make-up experts, rolled around Shanghai in a fleet of Jaguars. The thirteen young women enjoyed the weekend of a lifetime and set new precedents in old-school style.