Monday, October 1, 2007

Woman of Leisure

So I finished "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster" yesterday. It was a good read, although vaguely similar to how "Fast Food Nation" was written. I guess I must enjoy these investigative-reporting types of books. The behind-the-scenes view is really quite interesting, and I felt I was being educated while embroiled in some secret gossip about the industries.

Having said that, I don't know if I want to go into detail about summarizing any key points, or even trying to review the book. I read what others said about it online after I finished the book, and while most reviewers seemed to think that the author emitted condescension when discussing that mass-democratization of luxury was bad for the business, my interpretation of this observation is that in trying to churn out luxury for the masses, you lose the real meaning of luxury, which is an item of utmost quality, appeal, and value. I also think, based on personal experiences, I am not rich, but I know I have expensive taste. I am not the gilded woman who could walk into a room and stop traffic. But as a patron, I appreciate the finer things in life, even if normally I wouldn't be able to afford it. So where would I fall in this realm? I'm not one to tack on everything and logo myself to prove that I have "taste." But even if my bank account can't sustain my tastes, I would still try to save up for that special something. How would Dana Thomas, the author, choose to categorize me?

This leads me to a certain fascination that I have had on-and-off ever since I read a 2-page article in Vogue years ago, maybe even while I was in high school. This is the concept of a "tai tai," which is a Cantonese term for "wife." In Hong Kong, tai tais are an affluent and impeccable bunch. They are a prestigious group of married women who do nothing but eat, shop, gossip, play mah-jong and look flawless for their husbands. They are like trophy wives, except more immaculate by Western standards. There is a certain aura that surrounds what is expected of a tai tai. One does not just marry into wealth. They must embody taste, knowledge of the world, and are fluid in conversations ranging from finance to travel, culinary delights to fashion. A tai tai looks radiant all the time, and are often chosen for their beauty. They are not a subject of scandal. In their spare time, they attend charity events and gala balls. It is a world that is not as simple as living off of her husband, getting massages and facials every day, and endless shopping, wearing the latest in luxury apparel. A tai tai is an extension, no, a beacon that tells the world what good taste her wealthy husband has. She represents her husband. A tai tai is like a full time job, with no end in sight. Any misstep, and she can fall from grace.

Not much is written about tai tais in the Western subtext. The paparazzi in Hong Kong have an endless fascination with them, and are giddy with delight any time scandal does happen, although the rest of the island would look down disapprovingly, as if to say that this certain tai tai has ruined them all. The traditionalists in Hong Kong astound me, for this is a city that claims to be so cosmopolitan, so liberal, so modern. But as the social rules of a tai tai dictates, wealth does not free one from the traditional restraints. If one is to survive in the norms of the Hong Kong social scene, they play by everyone's rules. That includes flaunting as much as one can of one's wealth, but done in an exquisite manner, not through crass or obvious nonchalance about grace and style. Tai tais who exist in this exclusive circle could have been born from wealth or come from humble means. If they were born into wealth, then becoming a tai tai was only natural. Born from some more ignoble situations, then youth and beauty were keys to find that magnate who could whisk them away into the stratosphere of wealth. Gold diggers? Doesn't matter. In the rarified moments that they are chosen as brides, they can be tamed and molded, much like a My Fair Lady, to become a tai tai. Once this woman has made it into the inner circle, it is her duty to maintain her status.

The book only hit on the concept of a tai tai briefly, but it made me question what luxury means in the modern day, if it doesn't apply to consumerism. A tai tai, who may not be blue blood, can wield more financial power than some of the wealthiest men in the world. Their job, after all, is to shop! If she can be trained to have an aesthetic appreciation of things, and can cull together an air of refinement that keeps people in their place, is she the equivalent of mass-democratization of luxury? Where is the line drawn, to say that one "deserves" a luxury good, while someone else, no matter how hard they try, even if they had the money, can not befit the definition of a luxury goods consumer?

In case you were wondering, the photos for this entry is of Cherie Chung, one of my idols when I was growing up. A radiant Hong Kong actress blessed with beauty and talent, and best known for her films with the young Chow Yun-Fat, she married (for love!) into wealth and retired from the entertainment industry at the height of her career in the early '90s. Recently widowed, she has spent at least the last five years promoting environmental organizations and activities, and lately has been the spokewoman for Piaget, as she is still very popular in the HK media. A woman of all dimensions, she is in my mind, the ultimate, classy tai tai, with no flaws, respect from high society, and an enduring legacy. Can you believe that in these photos, she's in her late 40's? This is luxury that money cannot buy.


Anonymous said...

So are your sessions on DDR your stepping stone to becoming a "tai tai"?

Ella Darcy said...

How did you know?!?! :P

From The Bagaholicboy That Hails From Singapore said...

interesting post. tai-tais are a very unique by-product of asian culture and exist almost everywhere there are chinese people especially. tai-tais can also be found in taiwan, china, singapore, indonesia and malaysia. and in my books, the ones who live it up the best are the ones from indonesia. they are the mega-fab!

Ella Darcy said...

thanks for your thoughts. as you can see, I only know of one kind of tai tai. I'm sure there is a whole sub-culture that I know nothing about amongst the asian countries. would love to hear more about it from you!

lingz said...

You wrote a good description on Tais2 :) Indonesian tai-tais range from crass young married girls to extremely gracious mature ladies.

I guess in all respect of wealthy ladies in all kinds of international societies, from those who are born with it, worked for it and married to it, they have to know that elegance can't be bought but can be cultivated.