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How Chinese Culture is Carving Out its Place in the Western Beauty Industry

A look at the important strides being made when it comes to the representation and celebration of Chinese ingredients, traditions and innovations in the Western beauty market.
A selection of Chinese-influenced beauty products currently available in the U.S. Photos: Courtesy of brands

A selection of Chinese-influenced beauty products currently available in the U.S. Photos: Courtesy of brands

The first beauty counter I remember visiting was at Isetan Department Store in the Sichuan province city of Chengdu in China, where I was born. I was seven years old at the time, and though I'd been living in the U.S. since the age of three, I'd never experienced a beauty counter there before. My immigrant parents prioritized sending their earnings back to family in China over splurging on beauty products — and besides, none of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed models in '90s beauty ads looked like me, anyway. But I was excited to visit a department store for people who looked like me. And yet, Isetan's ground-floor beauty department might as well have belonged to any American Nordstrom. All of the brands featured, with the exception of Shiseido, were American or European. "The Chinese prefer Western beauty products," my aunt explained.

But 18 years later, the landscape has begun to change here in the U.S. For starters, Western beauty markets have resoundingly embraced a certain subset of Asian beauty traditions — Korean beauty has become an all-out phenomenon in the U.S. — and that, in turn, has helped them become more open to beauty influence from other Asian cultures. In terms of both the representation and celebration of Chinese culture, the Western beauty industry has begun to make important strides.

Chinese Beauty Brands Making a Name in the U.S.

One beauty company founded on Chinese traditions is Wei Beauty, which was developed by Chinese immigrant Wei Young Brian in cooperation with Nicky Kinnaird, the founder of British high-end beauty chain Space NK. Brian moved to America from China at the age of 21 to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science and artificial intelligence. "About a year and a quarter into it, I hated it. So I got my master's degree and left," she says. But her passion for Chinese medicine and its healing properties didn't manifest until her son began having seizures. "I spent a lot of time in Western medicine trying to save him," she recalls. "But then I turned to Chinese medicine for nine months, and his seizures stopped," says Brian. She incorporated five grains from ancient Chinese agriculture that helped her son — rice, millet, sorghum, Job's tears and black soybean — into her Five Sacred Grains line of beauty products.

When she first entered the beauty industry with her Chinese medicinal products, American consumers were apprehensive about the ingredients in them, says Brian. "Girls in China grow up with elements of Chinese herbs, like eating goji berries or drinking Chrysanthemum tea, so my products easily resonate with them," she explains. But when she began working with Space NK, Brian had to re-brand her line. Though she kept the same ingredients, which she valued for their healing properties, the marketing messages were tailored to Western consumers: Instead of focusing too much on the medicinal properties of the ingredients, Wei invoked Chinese principles of yin, yang and zen, which were more well-known and palatable to Western consumers.

Tree to Tub, a natural soap and shampoo company founded just a year ago by Taiwanese immigrant Michael Koh and Vietnamese-American Brian Quach, sources its key ingredient, soapberry, from Taiwan. Growing up in the countryside of Taiwan with his grandmother, Koh suffered from sensitive skin that reacted negatively to the soap formulas on the market. His grandmother began harvesting soapberry, a self-lathering berry that contains a detergent called saponin, to use on Koh's skin. The brand maintains that tradition, relocating its San Francisco-based team to Taiwan for the harvest season every October and November.

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The Importance of Family

Family is a common, central focus for many of the Chinese beauty brand founders I spoke to for this story, and that's not surprising. In Confucian-influenced Asian culture, filial piety is about protecting your family as much as it is about respecting it. Quach, for example, hopes to expand Tree to Tub to a point that it can employ and sustain his parents. "It's really important to me that I provide for my parents, and that's one of the main reasons why I want this startup to be successful," he explains. And after 31 years spent living in America, Brian, now a naturalized American citizen, is back in China to work on Wei Beauty's expansion in Asia — and so that her American-born daughter can learn Mandarin. 

That theme of honoring one's family is also evident in beauty columnist Bee Shapiro's small-batch natural fragrance and body-care line, Ellis Brooklyn, which she launched in 2015 and named for her daughter, Ellis. Shapiro was born in Taiwan and moved to Seattle with her family at the age of three. Through her careers as a hedge-fund lawyer, and then as a beauty writer and now an entrepreneur, Shapiro hopes to create a legacy for her family. "When we immigrated here, I felt like my parents never got a foothold in their careers," she says. "We couldn't afford a lot of things, so that's how my interest in fashion and beauty started." Becoming a lawyer was a way for Shapiro to fulfill the notion of the "American Dream" her parents never got — but like Brian, she became dissatisfied with her initial chosen career path. "I started writing for small blogs, and then started pitching to and T magazine," she recalls. "Luckily, it was timely — they were desperately looking for online content." By the time she became pregnant for the first time, she was a regular beauty columnist at The New York Times, but she had trouble finding non-toxic, pregnancy-safe alternatives to luxury fragrances like Tom Ford and Diptyque — so she made one. Through Ellis Brooklyn, Shapiro hopes to leave a legacy for her children. "My writing is for myself; there's no article I can pass onto my daughters. But if I build this company, I can employ them and give them real business skills."

Striving for success means learning to "eat bitter"

Whenever I would complain about doing "hard" things as a kid, like running the mile in PE class or studying for finals, my mother would remind me to chīkǔ, a term that means "eat bitter" in Chinese. It's a mantra for enduring hardship in order to taste sweetness — or achieve success — in the future. For startup brands to compete against mainstream beauty giants like Estée Lauder and Shiseido, a certain willingness to chīkǔ for years at a time is necessary for the chance at success. CEO and founder of Restorsea, American-born Patti Pao, learned about chīkǔ from her father, who fled to Taiwan from China in 1949 after the Chinese Revolution. After graduating from UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School, Pao eschewed more traditional career paths like being a consultant or investment banker, instead choosing to pursue a career in beauty. "I wrote to all the CEOs of fashion and beauty companies, and they all wrote back," she says. "They all thought it was so crazy at the time that this Harvard MBA wanted to work in this industry." John Chamberlin, the then-president of Avon, offered Pao her first beauty job. In October 2012, she launched Restorsea, a luxury skin-care company that incorporates the anti-aging enzymes released by salmon eggs. The brand is now sold at Bergdorf Goodman and via its own e-commerce website.

Increasing inclusivity in the media

Beauty media is also making an effort to be more inclusive of a variety of cultures and definitions of beauty; signals of this can be found both on magazines' mastheads and within their pages. Take, for example, Allure editor in chief Michelle Lee, who is Chinese-American (her father immigrated to the U.S. as a child and her mother's parents were born in China). She recalls not feeling represented in the media while she was growing up: "There were no famous Asian role models; the only Asians I really saw in media were Bruce Lee and the lady who did those Pearl Cream commercials. Remember those?" she says. "When I was learning to put on makeup, I was very frustrated trying to copy what I read. My eyes are monolid, meaning I don't have a crease, which makes it nearly impossible to follow the conventional rules of applying eyeshadow." That's why Lee is now striving to make her publication more diverse. "We work hard to make sure we're representing a wide range of ethnicities when it comes to models and celebrities, and we're constantly doing a gut check of any advice we give to make sure it doesn't just apply to one narrow view of beauty," she says.

So when I see Americans obsessing over Korean sheet masks, Vietnamese pho, Japanese sushi and Chinese acupuncture, I feel hopeful. That's not to say that the act of consuming these small aspects of Eastern culture is the same thing as getting to know the people who brought these ideas and products over in the first place. But I can't help but feel relieved that things do seem to be changing, no doubt as a result of the enduring efforts of Asian immigrants and their descendants. Yes, many aspects of many Asian cultures have a place in the United States — not to mention on the shelves of Sephora.

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