ODDLY enough, they do not serve Russian food at Yichang's Russian Salon restaurant. The only truly authentic thing about the Russian Salon is not what is on the table, but what is at the side. And Yichang seems to be gobbling it up. When they say Russian Salon, what they mean is the hostesses are Russians - tall, for the most part blonde women in their early 20s who will chat over a spread of Chinese dishes and baijiiu, Chinese moonshine, with any table of customers who can afford the 200 yuan (HK$272) charge. It is an odd concept, perhaps, a bit like having a Chinese Salon in New York where you cannot get Chinese food, but pay US$200 to have a Chinese woman help you wash down hamburgers and fries with Budweiser beer. But who is to argue with a national trend in the world's fastest expanding economy? Chinese people have been used to serving foreigners in hotels and restaurants in China, and in Chinatowns around the world. Thanks to the economic reform and opening up, along with Russia's glasnost, Chinese people are enjoying the novelty of being served by, rather than serving, foreigners. You find Russian women working in the northern city of Harbin, doing folk dances and drinking with customers at the Regent Club in Shanghai, and at the Every Day Hot Pot restaurant in Chongqing, deep in China's interior. And, as of a few days ago, you even found them here in the grey urban blight of Yichang, home of pharmaceuticals and chemical plants, and about as unpleasant a place as you would want to visit. It is a trend reminiscent of the pre-revolution days when white Russian women drifted in to China to wind up serving as hairdressers, dance companions, hostesses and whores. Chinese today like Russian hostesses, it seems, because they are exotic, usually blonde and give Chinese a feeling of superiority. Tell a Chinese person you are American and he will ask about President Mr Bill Clinton, the Most Favoured Nation status and getting a US visa. Tell him you are British, and he wants to talk about Governor Mr Chris Patten, Baroness Margaret Thatcher and maybe a British visa. TELL him you are Russian though, and Chinese chauvinism comes out. He might say something like, ''your rouble isn't even worth as much as our renminbi''. At the Russian Salon, things remain innocent. The woman, from the industrial town of Chelyabinsk, will drink, eat and dance with the customers. ''And that is all,'' said Ms Larisa Vasiliva, 21, the only dark-haired hostess in the group. She, like her fellow hostesses, was studying English, and enrolled at the Normal University of Qiqihar, in China's far north, to study Chinese last year. Ms Vasiliva said she became interested in China by the hundreds of Chinese who had come to Chelyabinsk to open restaurants - there are two in Chelyabinsk, and they actually serve Chinese food. The women came to Yichang for a month simply because they wanted to earn a bit of cash and see more of China. They get 75 yuan a week, including room and board, plus tips, which are usually 50 yuan each time they accompany a table of customers. The hostesses only speak basic Chinese, so conversation with clients, unless they learned Russian in the good old days of Sino-Soviet friendship, is limited to such things as name, age, family details, ''do you like our Chinese food?'' ''how's the economic situation in Russia?'' ''can you use chopsticks?'' and ''bottoms up''. ''It's worth it,'' said a Chinese businessman as he and his colleague sat at a small corner table with Miss Sacha Gagarina, an attractive, slender blonde in a red polka-dot dress, celebrating her 22nd birthday. ''If we want to find out about their customs by going to Russia, we'd have to pay a lot more than 200 yuan.'' Miss Gagarina says life in China is in some ways better than Russia. ''It's a good place to live, because you can't have political freedom, but you are not afraid of some bad people,'' she said, not having read about the wave of crime that has Chinese women training to be bodyguards down the road in Wuhan. But Russian women have their national pride, too. Sure the food is fine in China and the economy and politics might be hunky-dory. But the standard of living is higher in Russia ''because we have civilisation'', said Ms Vasiliva. ''China? It's at the beginning of civilisation?''