February 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Looking sheepish

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“Sheep’s placenta for the face is all the rage among Chinese women,” my father said. All his mainland-Chinese friends told him that this was the perfect gift for me to give when I went to Beijing: lanolin oil containing adventurous admixtures of animal innards. So Dad scoured the Chinese newspapers, looking at the ads of shops that cater to overseas travellers. We drove to a place with signs outside in both Chinese and English, and a giant gilt sheep painted on the window.

This was definitely not a tacky knick-knack shop where you could buy ten koalas for two dollars. It was white-lit, like a swanky hotel’s bathroom, and the shelves were stacked with bottles and vials and small boxes with gold-font and glossy veneers. These were gifts you give the people overseas with whom you want to be friends. Friends help you when you’re in trouble, and the gifts ensure that you remain their friend and not a bothersome foreigner.

 ”Ni hao,” said the mainland-Chinese owner when we entered. “What are you looking for?” Dad told her, and showed her a newspaper clipping. She led us down the centre aisle, where the lanolin skincare products were sold in pallets of six and eight. The natural oily coating of sheep’s wool, lanolin is widely used as a base in cosmetics: it is one of the key ingredients in Oil of Olay, which was invented by a South African chemist (indeed, the product’s name is a play on ‘lanolin’). Lanolin oil might be “a gift from nature”, as the packaging suggested, but the thought of rubbing the afterbirth of an animal on your face was still disturbing.

The tiny tubs were packaged resplendently, with the green Australian Made logo emblazoned on every box and its kangaroo bouncing with promise of foreign pulchritude. The storeowner had beautiful pallid skin, and I wondered whether she used her own products. ”Hen bai, hen hao,” she said to me: very white, very good. This is why, when you go into those little sticker-photo booths in Australia’s Chinatowns, the flash illuminates like a shock of lightning and everything is washed out except for your eyes, two small nostril spots and a shadowy sliver of mouth. And flat, white luminous skin.

The skin creams ranged from one to eight dollars a tub. “Why are they so cheap?” I asked Dad. “Are you sure the Chinese will use this stuff?”

“Of course,” he said. “It’s made in Australia.”

“Which one is the best?” he asked the owner, as we stared at the dozen or so brands on display. After some thought, we decided on two pallets of the small tubs regally branded Royal Life Placenta Cream, which promised to be a 24 Hour Slow Release Moisturiser”. The packaging had an emblem that looked like a royal crest: a king and queen dressed in togas stood on either side of a shield with a kangaroo and a lamb on it. The queen carried the Australian flag and stood on a strand of wattle. What an odd and yet somehow accurate representation of how the Chinese view this country!

“What about male friends who may help me?” I asked Dad. “What should we get them? Wallets? Alcohol?”

The owner led us to another shelf, this one containing ointments and medicinal items for boosting every physiological function. There were the usual substances, like shark-liver oil, snake oil and cod-liver tablets. And there were others of a more arcane variety. Deer Pizzle (second-listed ingredient: grape seed) boasted that it contained various minerals to aid circulation and the kidneys. It also gives “strength and vigour to their manhood”. Who knew that a concoction of Bambi’s dangly bits and fruit could have such properties? Then I remembered that I was going to a country renowned for creating more eunuchs than any other place on Earth – no wonder there was an obsession with pizzles and performance.

I walked past another box, containing the Green Lipped Mussel, which sounded like a poor creature that had never been kissed when plucked from the bowels of the sea. And there was Deer Velvet, made from deer antlers, also used to boost performance. “Um, let’s not get any of these things,” I said, and Dad concurred.

We walked over to the next section, where lambs’ wool blankets, still with the leather of the skin attached, were draped like white snow. I wondered about the harvesting of sheep’s placenta and the fate of these lambs, and whether there was any correlation. “Not these, either.”

I stood in front of a stack of chocolate boxes. Paton’s Macadamia Nuts: surely these would be popular? “But no one in China has ever heard of this brand,” said Dad, “so how will they know we haven’t picked the cheapest supermarket supplies?” I told him that macadamia nuts were almost exclusively Australian. “But no one has heard of this nut in China,” Dad told me.

In the end, we decided I would buy the rest of my presents in China. But I also decided to get 20 medium-sized koala bears, each bearing a boomerang, for any children I met overseas.

Driving home, I commented that some of the medicinal products the Chinese like are bizarre, almost voodoo-like. But then I remembered that I have eaten bird’s nest, made from the saliva of little birds. I have eaten the webbed feet of duck, and their bills. I have eaten pig’s tongue, relishing the feel of the tiny bumpy bits on my tongue, until someone told me what it was and I felt like I had just kissed swine. Mum used to cook pig’s intestine – small and large – for us, and the lining of cow’s stomach. We used to buy duck-embryo eggs that were sold in the marketplace in Footscray before they were banned. We called them Abortion Eggs, because at the bottom was a little duck foetus curled unto itself, complete with feathered, folded wings. This was all in Australia. I hadn’t even reached China yet.

In China I realised that chocolate is scarce and painfully expensive. No wonder the people are so thin. Chips are also a luxury item, and biscuits, and things in packages. The cheapest food is the hawker food: corn, sweet potato, pieces of meat on skewers with the fat barbecued off, skewered lettuce and tofu soaking in chilli. Eating Chinese chocolate is like eating sweetened brown crayons. Next time, I told myself, I would load up with chocolate as gifts.

There were Chinese brands of snake oil and lamb’s placenta, but the Western skincare brands were more expensive: Olay, Lancome, Nivea. These are the brands that very wealthy Chinese women use – except that each product includes “skin whitening” elements. My Chinese friends loved the Royal Life cream. They knew exactly what the coveted sheep’s placenta was. They opened the packages, unscrewed the lids of the tubs and sniffed the sweetly perfumed white ointment. “Is this what you use to keep your skin so white?”

“No.” I could not lie. “I stay inside, working in an office all day, and I also have anaemia.” Although my Mandarin was so rudimentary that I did not have much of a personality in China, I was elated to discover that I had said something funny. I also realised that it was equally strange for the Chinese to see me with my pills laden with preservatives and additives not found in the natural world.

My students loved the koala bears with their boomerangs. On their label, written in large letters, was “Happy Memories from Australia”, but at the very bottom, in tiny print, was the evidence of their Oriental origin. I had unwittingly returned these little creatures to their birthplace.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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