To the post-perestroika generation, Russian youngsters born between 1986 to 1996, Hong Kong is a city of dream. That may be an overstatement even for the most optimistic Hong Kongers, but for young Russians who have lived through a rather turbulent history throughout their childhood, Hong Kong offers a taste of luxurious lifestyle that would not be otherwise possible in their home country.
Perestroika, meaning ‘restructuring’ in Russian, is a political and economic reform in Soviet Union in 1980s, which some argue, leads to the dissolution of USSR. The new generation born during this period were torn between two opposing sets of values. On one hand, they are told about the fleeting glory of the bygone world superpower and its communist value by their elders; on the other, the access to american TV drama and movies such as 91210 has introduced (or rather misinformed) to the impressionable youngsters a glamorous and rebellious lifestyle of the western world. The conflict of the two extremes has created a huge desire for teens to flee their country, go abroad to pursue a ‘better’ life. The demand for white models in Hong Kong, has given these kids exactly the playgrounds they crave.
While many asian models is getting international attention in the increasingly diverse modelling industry, pale-skinned and slender figure is still considered the embodiment of beauty, and the norm for high fashion campaigns in many asian cities like Hong Kong. Lacking local talents, many modelling agencies has no choice but to hire models from overseas. Among them, Russians and young east europeans are the most sought after, probably because of both their geographical proximity to Asia and their relatively low salary. And because local modelling agencies has few to choose from, the admission process is much easier for these models. The competition that they face is also considerably less fierce than in fashion hubs like New York, London or Milan. These has made Hong Kong an ideal location for young Russians who wish to flee their country, or just simply want to take a break from their ordinary life to try their luck in the coastal city of China. “About 70% of models who come to HK from abroad are not professional models. There are people who are just going through this stage in their lives when they know they are pretty enough to model in Asia, and they hope that this might become their ticket out of their country.” Photographer Polina Shubkina told me.
During her years pursuing MFA in SCAD Hong Kong, Polina met her schoolmates from Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts, Kesha, who was modelling in Hong Kong. Coming from the same region and speaking the same language, the two quickly got acquainted. The male model brought her to a party at the Play Club, which organises free drinks to models and opened her to the underside of the modelling world, rarely known to laymen like us. For a year since then, she has picked up her camera and started documenting the life around her and the models, photographing anything from a night-out at a glamorous party to depressing moments at home. They are amateur models who have a successful career. They are not as ambitious as their counterparts from the west. And they are probably as confused about their jobs as does any outsiders of the industry. Through prolonged shooting, Polina was able to understand more about their choices to leave their home and work abroad as a model.
In her artist statement, she said:
«My primary focus was the outside of the club environment; I was curious what do they do when they are not at work or the party. It was rather challenging to photograph girls, a lot harder than guys. I guess every photographer who works with a documentary about any community of people is trying to take off the masks from his or her subjects. I have to tell you that with some of my subjects, the mask was a second nature that replaced everything else.
I stopped working on this project after eleven months because of the fact that most of the guys I was following around left Hong Kong. Not to mention how unhealthy it was to go out, at least, four times per week. It is still a big mystery to me how they can eat McDonalds, drink all possible liquors, have a minimal amount of sleep and remain skinny and more importantly, stay alive.
During my time with them, I heard all kinds of stories about how they came into the profession. The majority of models who come to HK from abroad are not professional models. There are people who are just going through this stage in their lives when they know they are pretty enough to model in Asia, and they hope that this might become their ticket out of their country. However, most of them have to leave after the end of six months contract.
While I was working on these series, I had an intense feeling of alienation. I could see how they only have each other, the intricate interlacement of their lives. I figured that even though, they all were physically in Hong Kong with a desire to flee Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Lithuania, they, perhaps unintentionally, built their own little “USSR” under the roof of this club.
It is a lot easier to think about this “HK Russian Speaking Models Phenomena” now. I remember being very unnecessarily judgemental back then. Now, a few years later, after reflecting on this work for a while, I relate to my subjects more than ever. We were born during “Perestroika” and were growing up in great uncertainty. We grew up watching cheap movies from the West and hear stories from parents and grandparents about the life in the country that no longer exists. It seems that the party-animal lifestyle that most newly-arrived models automatically pursue is an act of teenage rebellion.»
© All images from the series 'HK Models' by Polina Shubkina
(The statement is slightly edited for clarity)