Friday, January 16, 2009

Background story: A FINE LATHER- reported by Taiwan Panaroma

A bar of soap scented with mugwort from Changhua's Huatan Township and patchouli from Taipei's Jinshan Township made with water from Yangmingshan's mountain springs does more than wash away dirt-it soothes the soul.

"There are mountains all over Taiwan, and those mountains are covered with herbs," says Chiang Jung-yuan. By distilling the best that this land has to offer in a way that "hydrates" the Earth, its herbs, and its people, Chiang has catapulted his Yuan Soap onto the global stage.
L'Occitane, Crabtree Evelyn, Lush, The Body Shop... The market for personal-care products is awash in more European and American brands than you can shake a loofah at, yet Yuan Soap has managed to carve out a place for itself in just three years with its handmade herbal soaps.
On a par with international brands in terms of the price and quality, the company competes on the basis of the purity and freshness of its "homegrown" products.

Pure and natural
Everything about Yuan Soap reinforces the company's "natural" image: the unadorned shape of the soaps themselves, the open, unprepossessing decor of the company's Danshui workshop and Jinshan factory, even the scruffy look of company founder Chiang Jung-yuan.

Though Yuan Soap plugs itself as a local brand, it sells its products at "international prices." Where an ordinary bar of soap goes for under NT$20, Yuan's locally manufactured soaps sell for NT$200-300 per bar.

In 2008, Yuan's "Flowers in a Mirror, Moon in Water"-two pieces of soap in the shape of the moon made from Taiwanese honey, flaxseed oil, and shell-ginger leaves in a ceramic soap dish made in Yingge-won a competition for innovations in mooncakes. Yuan retailed the soap set for NT$1,500.

Chiang Jung-yuan was the first Taiwanese entrepreneur to succeed in elevating locally manufactured soaps to such heights. Chiang established the Ah Yuan Workshop in May 2005 to produce pure, natural, hand-made soaps, never imagining that it would grow from its original four-person team to its current 64-person workforce.
Clean body, clean mind
For Chiang, soap making was initially an excuse to withdraw from the world and "
cleanse" his wounds.
"The Earth has feelings. Every living thing has a soul. Yet people denigrate all of it all the time," laments Chiang. Reading between the lines, you can see traces of an old injury underlying many of Chiang's words. After long years organizing campaign events and writing promotional materials, he came to feel that politicians and his "revolutionary" comrades in arms were
pretentious and duplicitous. He left politics to spend time setting up cultural events all over Taiwan before again realizing that he was sweating blood while other people were taking the credit.

Giving up his career in middle age to wander the Earth, Chiang slowly decompressed. But then all the pressures and problems that had built up inside over the years manifested physically all at once. He developed eczema and allergic rashes. His confidence in social situations plummeted as his skin became dry, inflamed, blistered, and scabbed. He itched terribly whenever he used a skincare product containing preservatives. Looking for a solution to his skin problems, Chiang began studying Chinese herbal medicines and learned to make his own soap. Establishing Yuan Soap was the natural result of putting himself in other people's shoes. "Plants provide a kind of love and protection that can revitalize our whole bodies," says Chiang.

There's nothing mysterious about soap. It's basically oil, water, alkali salts and additives. But few soapmakers invest the kind of time in it that Chiang has.

Yuan soaps are made with pristine water from springs in Yangmingshan National Park, edible oils (olive and coconut), and locally grown medicinal plants, including chrysanthemums, tealeaves, lemon, mugwort and patchouli. The company's soaps are truly all natural, and contain no chemical additives, like surfactants. The production of each handmade bar of Yuan soap requires an 18-step 45-day process. Everything from growing and harvesting the plants, extracting the water, pouring the oil, mixing, forming, cold saponifying, extracting the soap from the molds, and air-drying it for 45 days to cutting and stamping the finished product is done by hand. The company never adds paraffin to speed the hardening process, and never uses machines.

Yuan's support for Taiwanese agriculture and his commitment to localism are inspiring. With the exception of those items that simply are not produced in Taiwan, the company sources everything it uses, regardless of the cost, from small Taiwanese organic farms. For example, it pays NT$800 per catty (600 grams) for chrysanthemums from Taitung rather than buying them from mainland China for just NT$150 per catty. This is also true of the roselle it uses, which it purchases from Hualien growers for NT$150 per catty rather than from the mainland for NT$40 per catty.

Yuan's insistence that all its products contain only pure extracts has had an indirect impact on the growers that supply it with organic fruits and medicinal herbs. It has also earned the company recognition from local farmers' associations, the Society of Wilderness, and organic-produce dealers, who have, to Chiang's delight, sought its help in organizing organic growing events. "I'm getting happier and happier about what I'm doing," smiles Chiang.

Skin friendly
Given that Ah Yuan's products are natural, handmade herbal soaps, it's essential that the company have an understanding of the cultivation and uses of herbs.

In addition to working with organic growers all over Taiwan, Yuan has established its own farms. After acquiring its first farm in Jinshan, the company leased three hectares of terraces in Yangmingshan National Park in 2008. It now grows a variety of medicinal plants, herbs, and wildflowers, including tea-oil camellia, lemon, mulberry, guava, mugwort, lantana, and patchouli, on land there that had been lying fallow for 20 years.

Because the soaps have medicinal properties, Ah Yuan invests real time and effort in their development. Chiang himself has a solid understanding of both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture, in part as a result of his family background-his great grandfather and great uncle were both TCM doctors and his grandfather was an herbalist.

Among Yuan's many different products are lemon and patchouli soaps. Lemon has antibacterial properties, helps remove old cells, lightens the skin, and shrinks pores. Patchouli has long been used to reduce inflammation, for its cooling effect, to counteract poisons, and treat bruising, and is therefore beneficial to people prone to pimples, acne, housewife's dermatitis, and skin allergies.
When eaten, mung beans and Job's tears have cooling and diuretic effects. In soap, they reduce freckling, smooth the skin, and act as an exfoliant. People who suffer from eczema, prickly heat, and other conditions that cause itching for unknown reasons find some relief in a Yuan soap made with colorful, fragrant Asian puccoon and hibiscus, which contain skin-soothing allantion.
Chiang is most pleased with his company's mugwort soap, which also happens to be its bestseller.
"There's nothing special about adding mugwort to soap," says Chiang. "But no one does it as well as I do." He contends that you have to use different extraction methods on different parts of the mugwort-alcohol for the roots, stewing in hot water for the stems, sun drying for the leaves, and freeze drying for the shoots. He adds that mugwort works best in conjunction with green tea, which contains catechins and anthocyanins that facilitate the action of the antioxidants in the mugwort. His mugwort soap, which also contains complementary ingredients such as green tea, verbena, and lemongrass, helps with irritating skin conditions like eczema, itching, and scaling.

Seeking customers with taste
At Eslite's December 2005 opening ceremony for its Xinyi store, Yuan got to place its soaps in a display counter by the main entrance. It posted great numbers, and has since grown from sales of 200-plus bars per month to sales of 70-80,000 bars per month in 2008.
The company has also been working with growing numbers of distributors. In addition to retailing its products at six of its own locations, it offers them through more than 400 sellers of organic goods. The company has even begun branching out overseas, and now has agents in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.

Envious peers remark that Chiang's background in advertising simply makes him a better marketer. As a soapmaker, he's managed to hitch his products to the "LOHAS" bandwagon and raise the profile of Taiwanese brands.

Chiang's himself believes that timing has been the most important factor in Yuan's success.
"Taiwanese society is in a
tumult," says Chiang. "People are unsettled. When there's too much freedom, there's a turn back to a kind of restraint, a desire to see things consolidated. What Yuan wants to offer people is something calm and quiet." Chiang, who grabbed people's attention with his claim that cleanliness was a kind of moral practice, says of Yuan's rise: "I didn't build the stage. It was just happened to be empty and I jumped on it."

Though there are few barriers to entry in the soap business, Yuan doesn't fear copycats or imitators. "I not only don't fear them," says Chiang, "I'd welcome them." He explains that it took the growing popularity of martial arts films to produce Tsui Hark, and the rise of Asia as a whole to bring fame to directors like Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee. "Taiwan's land, waters, and consumers will all benefit from more people making and using natural handmade soaps," he says. Doesn't he fear losing market share? "You succeed or fail on the strength of your brand." Chiang says that all he has to do is keep making good products.

Visiting gifts
In fact, Yuan has already begun branching out, and growing from Yuan Soap into Yuan Stores, and from Yuan Care to Yuan Lifestyle. To that end, it is rolling out new Yuan products that draw on the good taste of Taiwan's people and the flavors and scents available here.
Products currently in testing and soon to be released include shampoos, face lotions, creams, and other skincare products. Yuan also signed contracts with farmers in Tainan and Yilan for organic black beans and camellia seeds in 2008. In preparation for a push into the manufacture of soy sauce, camellia oil, and cane sugar, Chiang himself will travel to Thailand to learn to make sugar.
Chiang says that he hopes that Yuan Stores' products come to be so well regarded that they become representative of Taiwan, given to foreign visitors to our island the way we currently give glassware, pineapple cakes, and Black Bridge sausages.

One hundred percent made in Taiwan, Ah Yuan wants not just to have a relationship with the people of Taiwan, but to be something they are proud to gift to others.

by: Chang Chiung-fang/tr. by Scott Williams

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