China Dumps Glasses; Falls in Love with Contacts

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After the Chinese singer Wang Faye wore a pair of grey contact lenses while performing at the Spring Festival Gala in 2010, the wearing of coloured contacts received a major boost to its popularity. Since then, the look has grown, quite literally; dolly eyes, anime eyes or just plain big eyes are all the rage. Known locally as “meitong”, coloured contacts have over the past decade exploded in popularity throughout Japan, Korea and China.

Meitong come in an array of shapes, sizes and colours, circling the pupil of the eye, making the iris appear larger. The bigger the contacts, the more of an enlarged “doll-like” look for the wearer. Unlike ordinary contact lenses, which cover the entire eye, meitong contacts pose a significant risk to the wearer, due to their positioning on the eye, among other factors.

The term meitong is reported to be a Johnson&Johnson trademark that has now become the generally accepted term in China. Johnson&Johnson and the Pinky Paradise brand are together the largest manufacturers of coloured contacts. Industry insiders point out that while price and quality varies dramatically, it is ultimately safer to purchase from larger companies such as these so as to avoid any potential damage.

“The lenses can scratch or poke a hole in the cornea, which basically makes you go blind”, Beijing optometrist Li Zhong, president of the Intech Eye Hospital told China Daily, adding that continuous use of such “circle lenses” pose an increased risk of infection, deprive the eye of oxygen, and can cause various vision problems.

A pair of non prescription contacts go for anywhere between ¥50 to ¥500, with similar extremes in quality. According to Wade Shepard from Vagabond Journey, “In China, they can currently be [purchased] without a prescription, but the country’s health board claims that this will change [as] soon as many people have reputedly damaged their vision through using them”.

Nanjing model agency executive, Lucy Chen, spoke with The Nanjinger, “I’ve been wearing my meitong contacts for 10 years. I started wearing them for fashionable reasons; in the beginning, I would change colours for various occasions. But nowadays, I just wear the same colour. In fact mine are corrective, so I do wear them for necessity and also for fashion; I believe they make me look more beautiful.

“I pay around ¥200 for a year’s supply. I’ve never had any problems using them. Personally, I don’t believe that there are any dangers, I practice good hygiene and haven’t had any problems”, Chen added, while recognising that stories of women suffering from red eye or infections due to lack of hygiene or improper use are not uncommon.

It has been reported that after Lady Gaga popularised the look by digitally enlarging her eyes for her video “Bad Romance”, other celebrities in the West followed suit, making the look popular for a short time around the start of the decade. In Asia, however, the look seems to have stuck, with most Chinese women admitting that having bigger eyes makes them feel more beautiful.

Also in 2010, the New York Times noted that, in the U.S, it is illegal to sell contact lenses without a prescription; corrective or cosmetic. FDA spokeswoman Karen Riley said, “Consumers risk significant eye injuries, even blindness”.

Nanjing freelance writer, Lily Xu, told The Nanjinger, “All of my friends wear contacts and most of them are corrective as well. I don’t wear them all the time because I think my eyes need a rest. During this time, I will just wear my glasses. I’m aware of the dangers of using the contacts; for me I seem to be ok using them but I don’t wear them often for this reason.

“I have been using meitong contacts for 3 years. My first experience wearing the lenses was in Thailand; I bought them in China and wore them there, because they made me more beautiful. I buy them in China and now often wear them when I go on holidays. Mine are corrective so they’re very useful as well as being beautiful… I don’t like the Dolly Eye look though, that’s for the young ones; young people all wear the really big ones nowadays, I think it looks scary,” Xu went on to say.

In Beijing, men have admitted to jumping on the bandwagon, by adopting grey lenses as part of a fashion trend. Speaking with Todd Balazovic and Wang Wen from China Daily, University student Lu Zhengwei said, “I thought it was unique to have a pair of grey eyes. But I gave it up because my vision was damaged”, noting his Myopia got worse after 6 months of wear.

While some men in China may indeed dabble in coloured contacts for cosmetics purposes, it is clear that the majority still view traditional corrective contact lenses from a rather practical point of view.  

“I wear non coloured corrective contacts and for me they are rather useful in many situations such travelling to beachy places, wearing sunglasses and if I want to go swimming”, Steven Zhao, Nanjing carwash entrepreneur told The Nanjinger.

The Chinese are a myopic race. In fact, one and a half times more so than the world on average; 33 percent versus 22 percent. So whether contacts are worn for practical or cosmetic purposes, the industry in China is thriving, with a growth rate of over 10 percent that matches that of traditional glasses.