Female bodyguards train in Hainan. Photo: CFP
Xiao Li looks like an ordinary personal assistant. She can type, she can drive, she can speak foreign languages and she can also disarm an armed attacker within seconds.
Believing that sometimes women are stronger than men, the 27-year-old Xiao, from Shandong Province, is one of the growing number of women choosing to join the world of bodyguarding.
After seeing the tough lives of many State-backed athletes after retirement, Xiao, who stands over 1.8 meters tall and trained as a professional wrestler for 12 years, gave up her dream of becoming an Olympic champion and joined the Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant Ltd. Co earlier this year on a friend's recommendation.
"I believe being a female bodyguard has a more promising future," she told the Global Times.
Former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi was famous for his female bodyguards, and some celebrities have also adopted them, though their numbers remain small compared to men.
"Now many millionaires and celebrities in China are considering hiring a female bodyguard," Ai Jianhong, director of the female bodyguard team for Tianjiao told the Global Times. "It is a kind of status symbol."
As the ranks of China's rich grow every year, the widening income gap and widespread corruption continue to fuel public resentment towards the rich. It is estimated that there are 3,000 bodyguard companies competing in the market.
Ai refused to reveal how many bodyguards they are training, but according to a notice on their website, the company is urgently recruiting another 1,200 retired special forces with a promise of 500,000 yuan ($79,500) a year.
Rich and famous Chinese women, who fear their wealth might attract crime, and foreign clients who do not want another man around their wives and daughters prefer female bodyguards, said Ai.
Even though Xiao is strong and tough, she couldn't become a bodyguard overnight. She and another nine women went through a one-month training process in a camp based in Sanya, Hainan Province in March.
Her daily training began from 6 am, including running and crawling on the beach, practicing how to subdue an armed attacker and fighting against other male trainers.
"They never really treated us like women," Xiao said, adding her bruises and heavily tanned skin are souvenirs of the training. But there was only one woman who failed to get through the process.
What scared Xiao most was not fighting against male trainers or getting hit in the face, but the "fight club" in the middle of the ocean. The loser would be pushed down from the board into five-meter-deep water. Xiao could not swim so she told herself she had to win.
Guns are illegal in China. The women used rubber guns instead during the training. Xiao said she had no idea how to fire a weapon.
Besides physical training, the aspiring bodyguards also receive etiquette classes so that they can behave appropriately, including how to enjoy wine and cigars, provide first aid and language skills.
Like other women, Xiao has no experience of protecting the clients. She didn't even know why she should always stand on a client's right side. But she said she was glad there were many things to learn, including special driving techniques and other tricks of the trade.
"I am stronger and taller than most of the others and I'm sure I am able of protecting my clients," she said.
The company seems to know how to promote these inexperienced female bodyguards. While those girls were busy fighting each other on the beach, their pictures were widely circulated online.
When asked why they have to be dressed in bikinis, Chen Yongqing, manager of the company explained that it shows they "have a strong heart."
The combination of violence and hot babes successfully drew people's attention to the industry. Many Internet users praised them for being brave and cool, others just enjoyed watching a muscular instructor smashing a bottle over scantily-clad women, and one trainee stepping on the stomach of another.
The women's families are very worried. Xiao said her mother is against the idea. "My mother wants me to give up and be a physical education teacher."
However, the company has different ideas. "We are not training them to kill people, instead we teach them how to protect people," Ai said.
A rewarding career
It might be a risky business, but the rewards are great. The company charges at least 2,200 yuan a day (only eight hours) per personal female bodyguard or 1,200 yuan for less than two hours of work.
But a beginner like Xiao can earn only 3,000 yuan a month. Her salary will grow as her experience grows. If she works hard enough, she might have a chance to be trained in high-risk level protection classes based in Israel and the US.
Xiao seems optimistic. Inspired by China's No.1 female bodyguard Bian Mei, who guarded VIPs of other countries while they were on official visits to China and later opened her own business, Xiao said she wants to eventually open her own bodyguard company.
"I can't be a bodyguard forever, when I get too old to protect anyone, I will help train the next generation of female bodyguards," she said.