Manic beats pump through the cluttered boutique as Wu Anning, a 22-year-old showroom model, stands on a makeshift stage comprised of two wooden crates. Her job is more about speed than glamor: In one day, she will model close to 300 outfits.

Originally from Fuyang (阜陽) in eastern China’s Anhui province, Wu has been working as a showroom model at Sijiqing (四季) Clothing Market in Hangzhou (杭州), Zhejiang(浙江), since 2014. Her audience is not the fashion industry elite, but wholesale clients looking for new stock. Showroom models like Wu provide a human reference for each garment’s fit, and also offer design and styling suggestions to the clients.

“I just gritted my teeth, stepped on the crates, and started my career,” Wu says of the day she started. “I enjoy the feeling of standing on stage.”

Showroom models can make from 10,000 yuan (US$1,450) to 40,000 yuan (US$5,833)each month. It’s a handsome wage, given that Hangzhou’s average monthly salary, which is fourth-highest in China, was 7,097 yuan (US$1,035) in early 2016. But it’s a tough grind. Most models only have one day off per month, and they have to ask for approval in advance — with this being forthcoming only on the assumption that it will not be a busy day.

Wu’s daily routine begins at 3:30 a.m., when she wakes, washes, and does her makeup. A taxi takes her to work, which begins at 5 a.m. sharp. The schedule does not synchronize with that of most of her social circle.

“When I turn off the alarm and check my phone, I always find my Moments [social feed on messaging app WeChat] that lots of my friends are still out partying,” Wu tells Sixth Tone. But this doesn’t bother her. “I won’t regret it in the future since I’m working hard for myself,” she reasons.

On my busiest day, I tried on 500 dresses and felt so exhausted and dazed I could barely stand up.

- Wu Anning, showroom model

By 8 a.m., the market is buzzing. Up to 100,000 people each day visit the sprawling garment stalls. The 20-square-meter boutique Wu works in is crowded with six waitresses, one other model, and a constant flow of customers.

Wu works swiftly. It takes her just seven seconds to model a brown coat, cinching the sash around her waist as she pouts her glossy red lips, then whipping it off, revealing the black tank top and spandex shorts that all the models wear as modest undergarments.

“On my busiest day, I tried on 500 dresses and felt so exhausted and dazed I could barely stand up,” Wu says. She kept modeling for more than 10 hours, and her voice grew hoarse from shouting for sales.

However, the rapid, frequent changes do little to help Wu keep warm in the unheated, draughty boutique. Always one season ahead, the models have to sell spring fashion during the depths of winter. She wraps her cold hands around a plastic cup of porridge to warm them.

While Wu takes a break, she switches out with another model, 33-year-old boutique owner Zhao Yali. “It’s not enough for a showroom model to have a pleasant face and a good figure,” Zhao says. “Models have to know what style clients prefer, and show them what they’re looking for as soon as possible.”

More than 100 showroom models work in the Sijiqing Clothing Market, and each boutique has one to three models, depending on its size. Zhao explains that clients can also watch videos of the models on the boutique’s social media accounts, allowing the business to compete with e-commerce. Founded seven years ago, Zhao’s boutique now takes in tens of millions of yuan each year.

“Some people complain that these attractive young women work here during the day and then as hostesses at night,” Zhao says. “But I think all the showroom models here should be respected for relying on their own efforts.”

Clients stare at me and it makes me blush. I know that these men are professional wholesalers, but I can’t get used to it.

- Chen Chen, showroom model

Though showroom models can earn decent wages, the profession has a high turnover rate. Wu and Zhao say that some models end up marrying boutique owners, while others only last a few weeks before they leave.

Showroom modeling is 18-year-old Chen Chen’s first job, and she still feels nervous when she’s onstage. “Clients stare at me and it makes me blush,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I know that these men are professional wholesalers, but I can’t get used to it. I hope I’ll gradually adjust.”

Getting up early is another challenge. “I never got up that early during my school years,” Chen says with regret. “If only I had made more effort back then, I could have qualified for college.”

After work, Wu prefers to treat herself to a taxi as a reward for the hard day’s work. She glances out of the car window at the glittering Hangzhou skyline as she heads to her friend’s house, where she’s staying temporarily. It’s her sixth residence since she moved to Hangzhou. “Since I work so arduously, so tirelessly in the city, I really hope one day I’ll have my own place here, somewhere to call home,” she says.

An ambitious young woman, Wu is usually optimistic and determined, but even she has moments of self-doubt and despondency. Over the festive Chinese New Year holiday, she posts a selfie showing her wan, tired face on her WeChat Moments feed. Its caption reads: “How can you fight grief? All you can do is get rich.”

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here.

Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

Editor: Olivia Yang