Asia’s Rise in the Beauty Race

Eastern promises


By Renyi Lim

Asia’s Rise in the Beauty Race

As any Asian woman will testify, our beauty game is strong. Going as far back as 100 BC, Empress Lu Zhi – the wife of the founding member of China’s Han Dynasty – ate a soup made of tremella fuciformis (more commonly known as snow fungus) every day, believing that it nourished her yin and helped create a smooth complexion. Yang Guifei, one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient China, bathed in a mixture of warm water, almond oil and honey – a combination that was apparently potent enough to give her “a face that put flowers to shame”.

Korean women, meanwhile, were already at the height of their enthusiasm for grooming and skincare by the time the Goryeo Kingdom was established in 918 AD – an abundance of celadon cosmetics containers remain from that period as proof. As for Japan, the 9th-century waka poet Ono no Komachi still stands as a national symbol of feminine beauty, with her unusually pale skin and soft, round face setting the standard for women in both the Heian Period and contemporary Japan.

Closer to home, we’ve seen our grandmothers and mothers reaching for cleansing rosewater, anti-inflammatory turmeric, moisturising neem oil, or spoonfuls of powdered pearl dust as tried-and-tested ways of upholding Malaysia’s reputation for producing some of the region’s most attractive women. Back then, however, being at the forefront of the beauty scene meant getting one’s hands on products imported from the West, such as Pears Soap or cold cream – so much so that one of my own grandmothers famously got into trouble at the Malaya-Singapore border over the number of Hazeline Snow jars she had in her luggage.

Right now, things couldn’t be more different: the Beauty world is looking straight in our direction, towards the East. This isn’t to say that Asia’s beauty industry has only just sprung to life; in fact, quite a few big names have been there from the word go, such as Shiseido – currently the fourth largest cosmetics company in the world – which was founded in 1872. Japanese makeup artist Shu Uemura made history by introducing his iconic cleansing oil in 1967, while SK-II, founded in 1980, has a highly dedicated fanbase when it comes to its skincare – most notably Academy Award-winning actor, Cate Blanchett.

It’s only within the last five years, though, that the palpable hype surrounding Asia’s innovative, high quality, and excitingly potent skincare and cosmetics has really reverberated across the world. The emergence of BB creams as a smash hit on the global beauty market has helped establish South Korea’s prowess as a leading trendsetter, hitting sales figures of nearly USD 37 million within a year of arriving in the US in 2012. The fact that big names in the Western beauty industry have picked up on the BB cream craze and run with it – Smashbox, Garnier, Dior, Maybelline and Revlon have all produced their own versions – speaks volumes about just how influential Asian beauty trends have become.

Attitudes towards beauty ideas stemming from Asia are currently far more open and curious than they previously ever were. Where the concept of using facial brightening products might once have been greeted with bewilderment in Western markets, in the same way that we view spray tans over here (there’s one trend that Asian beauty enthusiasts are still hesitant to try!), it’s been embraced as an integral part of anti-ageing skincare to eradicate dullness and pigmentation. Similarly, the famous 12-step skin regimen from ‘SoKo’ – which involves double-cleansing with both oil-based and foaming cleansers – has sparked a new demand for oil facial cleansers, with US department store sales of face, hair and body oils skyrocketing to USD 31 million by 2013.

Given that Asian women use an average of 18 personal care and beauty products, compared with the average American woman, who uses just 12 products – perhaps it’s a wise move indeed on the part of the beauty industry to adapt according to the Eastern consumer market’s tastes and requirements. The act of popping on a sheet face mask during a long-haul flight no longer prompts derisive sniggers – instead, it signifies a person who knows how to take care of their skin properly (Chinese actress Fan Bingbing reputedly uses 600 paper masks every year) – while eyelash extensions (another South Korean beauty invention) feature regularly on most salon menus, and consumers in the US and UK happily experiment with jade facial rollers, Konjac sponges and pore strips.

As a complex reflection of this age of globalisation, not only have Western markets seen an influx of uniquely Asian beauty brands, such as Koh Gen Do, Boscia, Laneige, and Sulwhasoo, but locally-founded brands in the US such as Wei East and TATCHA (inspired by the principles of Chinese medicine and geisha beauty rituals, respectively) have been welcomed wholeheartedly on home turf. No longer are Asian beauty products considered a niche market – their reach stretches far wider than that now.

Additionally, we have beauty icons who we can properly relate to: Chinese supermodel Liu Wen became the first Asian woman to be selected as the face of Estée Lauder’s global brand in 2010, while just this March, L’Oreal Paris named Korean-American model Soo Joo Park as their first Asian-American spokeswoman. As far as our perceptions of modern beauty go, it’s a dramatic expansion that’s been a long, long time coming – a welcome change on a face-to-face basis.

So what next, and where to next for Asia’s beauty industry? It’s already beginning to leave its mark on our rapidly evolving tech industry – Samsung introduced a ‘beauty mode’ setting on its Galaxy smartphone cameras several models ago (it can enlarge your eyes, slim your face and smoothen out your skin), while the selfie-perfecting Beauty Plus App caused a stir this year for its somewhat extreme illustrations of Asian beauty (in essence, everyone ends up looking paler-than-pale).

Alternatively, perhaps Asia’s own perceptions of what constitutes beauty may eventually evolve too, prompting yet another shift in cosmetic and skincare trends. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Asian beauty – in all its diversity – isn’t necessarily about having skin the colour of camellia petals or round doe eyes. The current Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, has gone some way to challenging the conventional assumptions that surround Asian beauty standards by asserting her Afro-Asian heritage, while Hong Kong actress Jennifer Tse Ting-Ting continues to buck trends with her trademark tanned skin.

In the end, what really matters is that beauty has a face we can all call our own.

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