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Then & now: coming clean

Traditional beliefs aside, a daily scrub is a luxury relatively few manage in modern Hong Kong, writes Jason Wordie

 

Stereotypes gradually evolve from widely promulgated, broadly true archetypes. It has, for example, long been alleged (unkindly perhaps, but with some basis in fact) that the Chinese and French have a general preference for perfume over soap.

It is a traditional Chinese belief that too much bathing weakens the body, while con-cerns about getting chills and "wind" in the bones also mili-tate against washing. Like many other long-established prejudices, these have gradually - but not entirely - been abandoned by younger generations.

The situation has been more pronounced in some places than in others. A common gripe among Indonesian Chinese who moved to the mainland in the 1950s, for example, concerned the lack of bathing facilities and general shortage of water and soap they found there.

Many Hong Kong people still do not bathe or shower in the mornings, but traditional beliefs explain only part of the story. Quality of life compromises stemming from cramped living conditions also contribute significantly. If five adults (who all need to head out to work at around the same time) live together in a 400 sq ft flat with one tiny bathroom, then anything more than a quick, cursory morning wash is impractical.

One reason for the increased popularity of reasonably priced gym chains in recent years - besides pursuit of physical fitness and the body beautiful - is likely to be the availability of hot showers throughout the day.

For the poor, public bathhouses remain commonplace in older areas of the city: Sham Shui Po, Cha Kwo Ling and Kennedy Town all still have such facilities. Used by residents from nearby old tenement buildings or squatter areas with no private bathing facilities, their continued existence offers a standing reproach to a wealthy society with billions of dollars in government surpluses.

Hong Kong's first soap factory was established in the 1860s in Shau Kei Wan. Then very remote, this was an ideal location as the caustic effluent created by soap manufacture could be discharged straight into the harbour.

The factory was opened by a German trading concern, Friedrich Schwarzkopf and Co, which later anglicised its name to Blackhead and Co and remained in operation until - along with other German businesses - its assets were expropriated during the first world war.

Several Chinese-owned companies, including Kwong Sang Hong, which made the perennially popular Two Girls brand, also manufactured soaps, toilet waters and other cosmetic items in Hong Kong from the 1910s onwards. As products made here benefited from generally lower tariff requirements than those from many other parts of the British Empire, these items were widely exported, especially to Chinese consumer markets in Southeast Asia.

Soap manufacture continued into the post-war era. Major trading conglomerates with diversified plantation interests in Southeast Asia used some of the edible oils produced there for soap and detergent manufacture here. Rising general affluence, and marketing-driven consumer preferences away from soap towards shower creams, shampoos and so on, all helped stimulate annually increasing demand for tropical oil production.

 

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