The health of a nation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am

Afew years ago, the only fitness centres in Beijing were in the five-star hotels. Even then, only hotel guests frequented the gyms and swimming pools. But in a sign of how quickly things change in Beijing - and in China, for that matter - there are now independent fitness clubs all over the city, even outside the central business district.

Major international brands like Fitness First and Bally Total Fitness compete side by side with gyms set up by Chinese entrepreneurs.

Inside, you will find not only the young and the beautiful but also older Chinese men and women. Membership does not come cheap, however. Despite price wars, the better clubs still charge US$800 or more for an annual membership, a hefty sum considering that urban income averages only US$2,900 a year.

However, a significant portion of Beijing residents can afford it. Take Mr and Mrs Liu, who earned a small fortune selling widgets in Guangdong, and retired back to Beijing three years ago. Both in their 60s, they go to Fitness First in the China Life Building every afternoon, come rain or shine. 'We're retired - we have nothing else to do,' said Mr Liu. 'So we spend two hours here every afternoon; one hour exercising and one hour in the sauna, and then half an hour drinking coffee or tea in the lobby.'

Ms Chen, an insurance agent in her 30s, goes every day as well. 'If I don't, I'll gain weight, and then none of my customers would want to buy from me any more,' she said.

China is a fast learner. Only five years ago, one would have had to look really hard to find women (aside from the bar girls) even wearing make-up or high heels, or men wearing western-branded suits.

But today, Beijing or Shanghai's urban, young professionals look no less sophisticated than their Asian counterparts in Taipei, Hong Kong or Singapore. That is because they not only dress well, but increasingly they make time to take care of their physical appearance. It is not just gyms that are popular; upscale massage salons and beauty salons - for both men and women - are popping up all over, too.

For a country where the majority wore Mao suits as recently as 15 years ago, China has come a long way. The challenge, of course, is to accelerate wealth creation in the countryside as well. Perhaps President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao should institute a new statistical measure for wealth: gym membership. We know that tens of thousands in the major cities can now afford to join a gym. Only when the same can be said about rural parts of Anhui or Gansu provinces will we know for sure that China's economic reforms have succeeded.