Chinese office manager Ye Lu likes working up a sweat -- not in the gym, but in a tanning salon.
"Tanned skin looks great on me and I like to hear my friends saying how fresh and healthy I look," said Ye, a young Chinese white collar worker, as he walked out of a tanning room in downtown Shanghai, perspiration glistening on his forehead.
A customer waits to start her tanning session at a tanning salon in Shanghai August 1, 2006. [Reuters]
Ye hits the tanning beds twice a week, despite the objections of his wife, who still favors a traditional pale complexion.
Next door to Ye's salon, Zhang Xinyu sits at the reception desk of a skin-whitening beauty salon, looking quietly and uncomprehendingly at the dark-hued Chinese customers coming and going from the neighboring tanning parlor.
"Aesthetically and culturally, I think light skin is more appealing for Asian people because it looks pure and noble," Zhang said, justifying the appeal of the services her spa offers.
"But I suppose it's up to people to make their own choices," she sighed.
For centuries, Chinese people have looked down on those with dark complexions, viewing their skin color as that of peasants laboring in fields under the hot sun or manual workers.
Men with darker-colored skin were assumed to be socially inferior, working as farmers and builders from dawn-to-dusk in the open air, as opposed to scholars and government officials cosseted in their offices.
Those with lighter skin, by contrast, were seen as better educated and wealthier.
But that is now changing in China, especially in its richest and most sophisticated city of Shanghai, where having a nice tan is increasingly seen not as a sign of peasantry but rather as a status symbol.
The recent boom in tanning salons in China is starting to shake deep-rooted traditions about skin tone, though it still seems a long way from denting the multi-million dollar market in skin whitening creams.
Bronze Bodies, a newly opened tanning salon in fashionable central Shanghai, has expanded its VIP membership to about 900 people and is planning to deliver value-added services like how to coordinate hair and clothes with newly tanned skin.
"I am making a fashion statement," owner Li Rui told Reuters. "It's not merely about tanned skin, but creating a fresh lifestyle choice for Chinese."
The service is not for everyone, though, being unaffordable for most ordinary Chinese. A one-month course of tanning sessions costs between 700 yuan ($88) and 2,000 yuan, almost the average monthly wage in Shanghai.
"People can immediately tell how wealthy you are by looking at your golden tanned skin," said a tanning branch manager who identified herself as Jin. "It looks shiny and healthy, quite different from the dim and coarse skin of day laborers."
The appearance of tanned models on billboards around China and of bronzed actors, such as Hong Kong heart throb Louis Koom, on television and at the movies is also having an impact.
Lulu, an aspiring Shanghai singer does not want to look like the pasty skinned stars of her youth. Hispanic US actress-singer Jennifer Lopez is more her style.
To look more like J. Lo, Lulu goes to a tanning salon.
"It looks sunny and outgoing, not pale and fragile," she said.
She is in the minority for Chinese women as tanning salon owners say 70 percent of their customers are men.
Women generally opt for the traditionally defined concepts of beauty in China which call for pale skin, untouched by the sun.
The young and trendy have been the first to pick up on the tanning fashion in China as well as people who have lived abroad and want to show off their new sophistication.
Student He Ziqing tops up his tan at a salon in Shanghai after picking up the sun bathing bug on a trip to Germany.
"Germans enjoy sun bathing on the beach. I go with my German friends when I'm there on holiday," he said, adding he did not visit the artificial beaches that sprout in Shanghai's suburbs during the punishing hot summers.
"It's too course to do that here," he sniffed.