Squeaky clean for decades with iconic Shanghai soap

The warm, comforting fragrance of sandalwood fragrance is deeply ingrained in the memories of many older Shanghai residents. 

Shot by Tang Dafei and Ma Xuefeng. Edited by Tang Dafei. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou and Andy Boreham. 

The warm, comforting fragrance of sandalwood fragrance is deeply ingrained in the memories of many older Shanghai residents. The beautifully carved soap has washed away the dust and grim of decades past.

The Shanghai Soap Co, one of China’s biggest soap producers, is still thriving after almost a century. Founded in 1923, the company makes 25 products, with annual capacity of 80,000 tons and 1,300 workers.

Its showroom in the Shanghai headquarters on Yangshupu Road offers tours for visitors. The history of washing is written there.

Squeaky clean for decades with iconic Shanghai soap
Ti Gong

Showroom of Shanghai Soap Co, one of China’s biggest soap producers, on Yangshupu Road in Shanghai.

Soap, in its simplest terms, is a salt of a fatty acid, which acts as surfactant, emulsifying oil to enable the soap to dissolve in water and be rinsed away. It is used both as a cleaning agent in housekeeping and as a beauty aid in personal care when coconut oil, palm oil and lanolin are added.

But if you think soap is simply a washing product, think again. The products on display in the company’s showroom come in an array of shapes, colors, textures and uses.

Its star brands include Bee & Flower Sandalwood Soap, Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Soap, Guben Laundry Soap and Shanghai Xiang Zao, a fragrant soap. Each features a combination of sulphur, aloe, boric acid and amino acids, with additions such as gold foil, high-purity essence oil, natural fragrances and dried flower petals.

The soap maker caters to a wide range of consumers, with soaps in solid state or liquid, in travel or household packaging, in designs for children or adults and in formulas for different skin types and different seasons. Bathing or washing clothes was never so varied.

Squeaky clean for decades with iconic Shanghai soap
Ti Gong

Factory of the Shanghai Soap Co back in the 1990s

“Shanghai Soap is in the city’s collective memory, and it’s been an indispensable daily necessity for almost every Shanghai family,” says company marketing director Lin Ling. “Quality is what we’ve been sticking to over the years, with relentless efforts to develop new products through technological innovation.”

Launched in 1928, the Bee & Flower Sandalwood Soap, perfumed with elegant sandalwood essence and beautifully packaged, has been called the “queen of soaps.” It’s China’s most exported soap, with loyal customers across the world.

The packaging of the soap with a paper belt, product specifications, a brand logo and a golden medal emblem is a traditional design unchanged over the past 91 years. The soap is still hand-wrapped, which involves nine steps in total.

“The formula of sandalwood soap, which includes more than 70 ingredients, is still a secret today,” says Zhang Yuxin, a technician who has been studying and making soap for more than 30 years.

Squeaky clean for decades with iconic Shanghai soap
Ti Gong

 Bee & Flower sandalwood soap, the “queen of soaps”

Most of the ingredients are from Mother Nature, such as essence oils extracted from flowers, sandalwood and agalwood — another ancient, classic scent.

“But in recent years, we have developed new products from recyclable, environmentally friendly resources,” Zhang says.

Having dealt with soap so many years, he is deeply attached to his vocation. He has designed the bottles for two liquid sandalwood soaps.

Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Soap, now more than 60 years old, features different skincare functions for each of the four seasons.

Squeaky clean for decades with iconic Shanghai soap
Ti Gong

Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Soap has a history of more than 60 years.

The spring soap contains extracts of peach blossoms to soothe sensitive skin, while the summer series works to remove bacteria and restrain sweat. The rare medicinal plant rhodiola rosea is used in the autumn soap, helping to moisturize dry skin, and the winter soap contains the medicinal herb huangqi to give skin more “energy” on withering cold days.

“The medicinal soap is one of our flagship brands with specific functions,” Lin says. “Our customers just love it.”

A few steps away from company headquarters is a small, somewhat shabby outlet store that has been selling various soap products over the past three decades.

“It’s the smell of my childhood,” said Xu Jianguo, 53, who came 12 kilometers on his electric bicycle to buy some soap. “After so many years, I still remember that special fragrance. When I see one in the supermarket, I always pick it up and smell it.”

Squeaky clean for decades with iconic Shanghai soap
Ti Gong

A file photo of Shanghai Soap’s workshop, where soap bars were hand-wrapped in a tradition still carried on today. 

Today, customers can still buy liquid soap by the kilogram if they bring their own containers. It’s a service mode that all but died out in Shanghai. The liquid products range from laundry soap and body and hand wash to dish detergent and pet wash. Prices vary from 3.5 yuan to 13 yuan (53 US cents to US$1.90) per 500 grams.

“It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly,” Xu says, holding a plastic bucket that has been just fully loaded with Bee & Flower sandalwood body soap.

Ever thought about making your own soap? On the seventh floor of the Shanghai No.1 Department Store, Shanghai Soap operates a do-it-yourself area where customers can learn how to make soap, from heating the soap base and adding pigments, fragrances or essential oils for scent and color to the final cooling in molds.

“It’s one way for us to educate our customers about soap and offer them a fun experience,” Lin says. “Making soap is a special gift.”

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