They train to smile with chopsticks wedged between their teeth and books balanced on their heads. They must be nearly as tall as the Miss China beauty contestants and produce smiles outlasting any beauty contest: 4 hours and 48 minutes aboard the new train from China’s capital to coast.
The 313 attendants on the 1,318-km Beijing-Shanghai bullet train launched last week have earned the online nickname ‘high-speed sisters’ for their charm offensive. The glimpses of smile training sessions reported in the media served to divert some of the public attention away from the high ticket prices and corruption and safety scandals in China’s railroad expansion.
The pretty army carries forward the Chinese economy’s official obsession with hostesses between 19-22 years who can smile showing only six to eight front teeth. They are now an anticipated fixture in every national project starting from the Beijing Olympics to the Harmony trains launched ahead of the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party.
“Crew members must be female, younger than 28 years, be of fair complexion and have a shapely figure that conforms to selection standards,” according to the China Daily. “The crew must be able to converse in English and know all about the train. They must weigh less than 60 kg and be 165-170 cm tall.”
For pictures of the chopstick smiles, see this.
I was aboard the train, traveling ticket-less on a government-organised test run last Monday, read article.
The second-class compartment (555 yuan or Rs 3,885) had narrow blue seats ideal only for weight-conscious passengers. There was a charging point for my laptop and soon there will be wi-fi. The restroom had full-length mirrors and more space than an airline loo. Ahead in the first-class compartment, seats were wider and fitted with reading lamps. The red leather reclining business class seats cost more than an airline ticket with prices fixed at 1,750 yuan (Rs 12,250).
Perhaps frazzled by the railway officials and foreign camera crews roaming the length of the train last Monday, the high-speed sisters began to look nervous and tired after pushing heavy trolleys laden with KFC breakfast bags and later, chicken curry and shrimp lunch boxes. The attendants I spoke to couldn’t converse in English and kept forgetting to bring anything I requested.
The bullet train has world-class technology and Chinese-style service. When I needed a glass of water, I got a choice of green tea or boiling water. The food selection was meaty except for little plastic bowls containing cherries, tomatoes and grapes. I had remembered to put a bread roll in my hand bag when I dashed out of my apartment at 6.30 am, but I was still hungry by lunch time. I requested an attendant to provide one of the packets of nuts that was distributed when I was away from my seat, interviewing an engineer. She forgot to smile or bring it, but she was kind enough to clear the shells left strewn all over my table by a passenger who enjoyed my window seat in my absence.