BEIJING – Chinese businesswoman Chen Yili paid a South Korean hospital thousands of dollars to reshape her face in the hope she would look more like the glamorous stars she saw on television.
Instead she says the operation left her disfigured, one of a growing number of Chinese women who allege shoddy procedures and a lack of regulation in South Korea’s booming medical tourism industry.
“They said they would design my face to look like a South Korean, and help me design a new nose, lips and chin, but when my friends saw my nose they were all shocked. They said it was crooked, ugly,” Chen said.
Seoul on Friday announced a crackdown on illegal brokers and unregistered clinics in a bid to protect medical tourists, especially those drawn by the country’s huge plastic surgery industry.
The country is a cultural powerhouse in Asia: Its soap operas and pop music videos are massively popular in China and often feature cosmetically-enhanced stars.
While China’s domestic plastic surgery market is worth tens of billions of dollars, persistent safety concerns are driving growing numbers of wealthy consumers abroad.
South Korea has pushed hard to foster its so-called medical tourism industry, which was worth the equivalent of nearly $360 million in 2013, according to official figures.
China topped the medical tourist list with more 25,400 visitors, an increase of 70 percent from the previous year, the South Korean health ministry said.
Chinese tourists generally pay more than twice as much as locals for cosmetic procedures, Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly reported this month.
Dozens of South Korean clinics have Chinese-language websites, some offering surgery alongside sightseeing vacations, with promotions offered during Chinese holidays.
One clinic promises to provide “almond-shaped eyes” and a “magical V-shaped face” — considered the ideal of feminine beauty in much of East Asia, while another is seemingly full of glowing testimonials from satisfied customers.
While most procedures in South Korea appear to occur without incident, last month attention focused on the industry after a 50-year-old Chinese woman was left in a coma after undergoing a procedure at a clinic in Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam district.
As much as a third of Chinese patients’ costs can go toward fees for brokers who act as liaisons for the hospitals. Chen said after making initial enquiries she was contacted “incessantly” by an agent and felt cajoled into having the surgery.
She spent more than $26,000 on the surgery in 2010 at the Beauty Line clinic in Seoul. One of her procedures involved having cartilage taken from her chest and added to her nose to make it more prominent.
But upon returning to China, she began to suffer from nasal infections. Now staying at a clinic in Beijing she says her mental health suffered and she is taking 12 antidepressants each day.
“I’ve lost sleep, I can’t meet with friends, and I suffer from depression because my nose is just too ugly,” she said.
“I feel tricked. I think the industry is protected by (South Korea’s) government, because its a key source of revenue,” she added.
Park Ji-Hye, an official at South Korea’s health ministry, told reporters that “activities involving illegal brokers and inflated fees, as well as disputes over malpractice, are sparking complaints from foreign patients.”
Hoping to bring the industry into line, last Friday authorities threatened jail sentences for owners of unregistered facilities treating foreign patients.
“Some clinics are treating Chinese patients without a state license allowing them to treat foreign patients, because obviously that’s where the money is,” said Cho Soo-Young, spokesman for an association of Korean plastic surgeons.
An online support group in China comprising hundreds of victims of allegedly botched cosmetic procedures in South Korea has begun a campaign to highlight the problems.
“You start believing that cosmetic surgery is something magical, that can change your life. We have to take some responsibility ourselves, for not understanding the industry, and being too trusting,” said group organizer Jin Weikun.
But many women in the group added that clinics had not warned them of potential risks.
Winnie Wang, 45, said she was “devastated” after an operation in 2013 left her with unequally sized eyes. She said she “cried and even attempted suicide.”
Yu Lijun, a designer, underwent one of the most controversial procedures at Seoul’s Faceline clinic — “double-jaw” surgery — which involves cutting the bone to produce a slimmer jaw line. Today her mouth is visibly misaligned, making it hard to eat and prompting her to wear a face mask at all times.
Mi Yuanyuan, a Chinese actress, said a 2013 operation at the same clinic left her with regular pain in her nose, as well as numbness and hair loss on her forehead.
“They said there weren’t any risks,” the 38-year-old said. “They said the surgeon was as famous as the Hermes bag I was carrying.”
But Faceline presented a different version, saying Yu had undergone two botched surgeries in China that had left her mouth crooked before she approached them to help fix it.
“We sent Yu back several times because the risk was too big, but eventually decided to treat her after her repeated pleas for weeks,” the clinic said in a statement. It added, she had also failed to follow post-surgery care instructions.
It said Mi had signed a pre-surgery statement acknowledging the potential side-effects.
Beauty Line, which is licensed to treat foreign patients, said it could not locate the file of a patient named Chen Yili, as its records are in Korean and do not contain patients’ names in Chinese. The company did not return calls after being contacted by a reporter with proof of Wang’s history at the clinic.