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Pieces of China, Yue-Sai Kan on the Lipstick that Changed China, 9.10.20

Pieces of China, Yue-Sai Kan on the Lipstick that Changed China, 9.10.20

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

In the season 2 premiere, we explore the lipstick that changed China, and the moment women in China were allowed to once again feel beautiful with Yue-Sai Kan, broadcast legend and cosmetics entrepreneur.

The year was 1992, and Deng Xiaoping had just urged the Chinese to go out and get rich. Blue and green Mao suits were still common, and the streets bristled with bicycles. Yue-Sai Kan — already known for the hugely popular “One World” TV show that gave many Chinese their first glimpse of the outside world — launched China’s first cosmetics brand.

Selected Quotes from Yue-Sai Kan:

There were two kinds of reactions with my makeup and lipsticks in China. One kind is very much against it, and the other kind is very excited. I think, generally speaking, that era of China, there was a feeling of excitement and feeling of wanting to open up. So, the fact that we became successful is a testament to how much the Chinese wanted to learn about the West and try everything new. At that time, the lipstick was only 59 Yuan, which was very small compared to today, but it was sold out. We were selling a million lipsticks a month!

Shanghai is the most westernized and most open city in all of China. I figured if I couldn’t be successful in Shanghai, then I couldn’t be successful anywhere. I wanted a place like Shanghai to test the market and make sure we corrected all the mistakes. We wanted to make sure as a new company, and we had sufficient time to learn about our customers and what we could have done wrong.

At that time…I was very nervous because all I needed was a leader that said this is bourgeois, and we don’t want this. This could happen, and then my dream would be dashed completely, but to my absolute surprise, Li Peng’s wife gave a luncheon for all the vice premier’s wives and wanted me to tell them what makeup was all about. So, I was very happy because I wanted to tell the Chinese people, particularly the Chinese leaders and the Women’s Federation members, that cosmetics in itself is not important. I was trying to tell them that makeup is just a tool; it’s not that important. The important part is the spirit of the cosmetic. The spirit is if you don’t like your mouth, you use makeup to correct it. If you can correct what you don’t like about yourself physically, you do anything yourself. This is a form for me, emancipation for women. It is extremely important that they understand the real spirit of my cosmetics.

When we grew up in the West, our first model was our mother, and I remember smearing my mom’s lipstick on my lips and wearing high heel shoes. But if you think about it, the Chinese in China did not have mothers like that. Their mothers were wearing Mao jackets throughout their entire life. So, to somebody like myself, wearing very colorful clothes and wearing makeup was an absolute novelty.

What’s truly interesting is that when you study the old China, for example, Tang dynasty women, you will see them use everything we use today. Eyebrow pencil, foundation powder, lipstick, rouge, and even nail polish in those years. What we did was bring back all those customs.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Yue-Sai

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