The mid-19th century’s dawn of the “carbolic age” marked a major developmental divide, between those regions that had soap – and used it – and those that did not. It used to be said, with some truth, that the main difference between Europe and North America were standards of personal cleanliness; wry remarks about a “French wash” – a quick squirt of cologne, followed by a dusting of talcum – are the stuff of legend. Likewise, the venerable Australian crack that the safest place to hide money in Britain was under the nearest bar of soap, said much about different personal hygiene perceptions. “Nothing impresses me more in American civilisation,” wrote philosopher and humorist Lin Yutang in Between Tears and Laughter (1943) “than the fact that soap here is good and cheap and available to all. Soap has become democratic.” Hong Kong has manufactured various grades of soap since the 1860s, when German enterprise Friedrich Schwarzkopf and Company had a soap and soda ash factory at Shau Kei Wan. The firm later Anglicised its name to Blackhead and Co, and continued to operate until World War I. Famed for its Two Girls brand of perfumed soap, as well as cologne, hair oil and talcum powder in the same scent, Kwong Sang Hong has been in operation since 1898. Various other local brands came and went over time. Overseas Chinese returnees to China between the 1950s and 80s often remarked on the difficulty of obtaining good-quality soap during those years. This contrasted sharply with their former homes in Southeast Asia, where even the poorest inhabitants liberally used locally produced, inexpensive brands. Edible oils – the main raw material for soap – were then in drastically short supply in the mainland. The United Nations embargo on China trade from 1950 critically affected availability. Large amounts were sourced through Hong Kong agency businesses, which were exempt from import controls. In return, while the commodity remained scarce at home, China-made soap came into Hong Kong in generous quantities, much of it for re-export to the wider world to generate national foreign exchange earnings. The Bee and Flower brand – in sandalwood, rose and jasmine scents – remains a popular Chinese soap variety; it is exported all over Southeast Asia, and appears in Chinatown grocery shops everywhere from Melbourne to Seattle. Inexpensive bars of laundry soap – Golden Phoenix was the best-known type – were exported to Hong Kong and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Solid shampoo was also produced; the Shanghai-made Seagull brand was popular, and came in various fragrances, including lemon and menthol. The most popular – apparently – was an anti-dandruff variety, still manufactured today. Heavy-duty laundry powder was also exported from China; the Temple of Heaven brand, in particular, possessed a potent detergent strength that, given enough elbow grease, would probably scour the paint from a battleship’s hull. Mere dirt and stains didn’t stand a chance. Like most such industrial products from China, then, a little went a long way. Most soap sold locally these days is produced from tropical palm oil; massively expanded production in recent decades in Indonesia, Malaysia, the South Pacific, West Africa and elsewhere has led to dramatically lowered prices. In turn, once-expensive shower gels and liquid shampoos have become much cheaper, and universally used. In consequence, an entire generation has grown up unfamiliar with bar soap. One Hong Kong Chinese friend in his late 20s recently spotted several bars of Marseilles soap in the bathroom cupboard during a visit. On being offered some as a gift, a lengthy, polite hesitation ensued, before he asked sheepishly, “Exactly how do you use it?” Some liquid soap squirted on a flannel – he then explained – was all he had showered with since early childhood. How quickly times have changed.