The Liu Wen Express

For the New York Times, Christina Larson profiles supermodel Liu Wen and travels with her back to her hometown in Hunan:

…Her rise is due in equal measure to the extraordinary moment in China’s history from which she emerged. When Liu was born, in 1988, the daughter of a construction worker, many of the brands she has modeled for — Dior, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier — were unknown in the country. Beijing was then a sea of bicycles, and thick coal dust in the air darkened both shirt collars and the sky. China’s per capita annual income was just $704

(last year it was $5,184), and only a sliver of the population could afford such luxuries as skin creams and handbags.

With roaring economic growth every year of her childhood, Beijing was transformed by the time Liu moved there in 2006, as an 18-year-old aspiring model. No longer a wasteland of sleepy state-owned department stores, the capital was throwing up stadiums, shopping malls and car dealerships. At the same time, the city had become a magnet for China’s young dreamers — artists, writers, designers, punk bands, models.

It was into this energetic new world that Liu stepped one November morning after a 20-hour train ride from Yongzhou. She had come alone, clutching two suitcases full of warm clothes and snack foods her mother had packed. That fall, she had won a modeling contest in Hunan; her victory gave her the idea that modeling might be a career, but in no way assured success. She insisted that she’s “not pretty, pretty, pretty by Chinese standards — big eyes and small nose and mouth.” She had come on a leap of faith.


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