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Imperial beauty secret gets modern facelift

Update: January, 17/2016 - 10:43
Continuing tradition: Khanh (left) helps her mother to process the herbal materials for nu powder.

Nguyen Phuong Khanh, a descendent of nu (bud) powder producers, carries on the cosmetic tradition. More than a century later, it is still popular. Luong Thu Huong reports.

Imperial maids in the royal capital city of Hue during the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1905) had charming beauty with fair and smooth complexions. Their beauty secret was the nu (bud) powder.

That secret is no longer hidden in the ancient citadel, with Nguyen Phuong Khanh, a descendant of the nu powder producer, determined to carry on her family business.

The story of nu powder begins in the early 19th century around the time when Hue was chosen as the new Imperial City capital by Emperor Quang Trung.

Cosmetic products became indispensable to every queen, princess and imperial maid residing in the palace at that time. A maid with the highest credit was, therefore, assigned with the task of keeping the recipes of cosmetics made of natural ingredients, including nu or bud powder. The powder's special name was inspired by its special flower-bud shape and aroma.

Legend has it that Queen Tu Cung, the mother of King Bao Dai (1913-1945), did not have aging spots on her skin even when she was more than 100 years old, thanks to the magical powder. However, the technique of producing it was kept secret within the royal city by the maids who made it.

In 1945, the work of the last maker of nu powder ended with the end of the Nguyen Dynasty. However, despite returning to normal life, the woman continued to use the technique to produce nu powder to make a living. The product that was made only for royalty became accessible to every ordinary woman.

Fragrant: Nu (bud) powder was named after its floral shape and aroma.

Later on, the woman taught the trade to her daughter, Tran Thi Thieu, or Huong in short, after the name of her husband. Though Huong's nu powder was very famous and popular in the ancient capital, it was not till her grand-daughter Nguyen Phuong Khanh took up the family trade that the cosmetic got its own brand name and began bringing in an annual income of more than several billion dong.

"Making nu powder means preserving a noble and traditional trade and a cosmetic product of Hue in particular and of Viet Nam in general. These were the first words that my mother said to me in the initial days when she taught me how to make the powder," Khanh said.

She said when she was six, she loved to watch her mother make nu powder over the flickering fire, and remembered every detail related to the secret technique.

"The technique was invented by royal physicians who were very strict about the final products, and so the production process follows very tough rules and takes a long time," she said.

The birthplace of nu powder is Hue, and so most of the ingredients for the finest products can be found only in the city. The powder is still made in the traditional way.

Khanh said the best products use rain water. After it is purified, the rain water is stored in huge tanks, away from rain and sunlight, for use during the whole year. "However, due to the environment pollution, the rain water is not as clean as it used to be. So it has been gradually replaced by filtered tap water."

The main ingredient for making the powder is high-grade kaolin or soft white clay without any impurities, which is processed with more than 10 medicinal herbs and flowers.

Modern twist: Khanh has introduced her family's traditional products to many cosmetic fairs and drawn much attention from the visitors.

Another important factor for making nu powder is that the maker should have an undisturbed mind, which explains why it is often produced in private rooms at night.

"Many imperial maids used to make the powder under the instructions of a supervisor. Now there are only me and my mother, so it takes a pretty long time -- up to a month -- to get the final product."

Khanh and her mother often have to stay up till 3am or 4am, but she is still happy because "the bud powder contributes to the preservation and popularisation of my ancestor's trade".

Khanh said the bud power was not for people who were impatient to see quick results. It takes time for the natural ingredients of the product to get absorbed by the skin and take effect.

As lead-free products, nu powder barely causes any side-effects to the skin, even when it is used along with other cosmetics.

"I don't get pimples and black spots any more. My skin is brighter and smoother," Truong Hai Yen, a customer, said after three months of using the powder.

"In addition, I regularly use face masks made of honey, olive oil and fruits. I hardly have any wrinkles, though I'm over 30," she said.

Khanh not only wants to preserve the traditional business, she has a larger ambition of turning her product into a domestic brand that offers high quality at reasonable prices. The 30-year-old girl is taking the first risky steps to realise her dream.

While Khanh was still a student, she enrolled in an online marketing course, and then bravely invested US$3,000 in building a website dedicated to her family's bud powder. The initial success was beyond her expectations, as the online orders increased dramatically.

In 2008, Khanh took her product to a cosmetic fair and drew the attention of the visitors. After graduating from the university, instead of become a diplomat as per her training, she decided to go home and help her mother in making the bud powder.

Khanh has always felt distressed that foreign brand names dominate Viet Nam's market, while there are only a few domestic products.

Early in 2012, she travelled to the United States, where she got the chance to attend many international cosmetics fairs and get precious business experience.

On her return, she took the risk of establishing My Pham Hoang Cung (Imperial Cosmetic) Company Limited that focuses on making Vietnamese traditional cosmetics with modern technology. However, Khanh still strictly follows traditional principles in making the powder, and has registered her brand.

"The powder used to meet imperial standards in the past, but now it has to follow the standards of the health ministry," she said.

Over the last two years, she has opened eight shops and has hundreds of agents nationwide. Khanh has received many offers of co-operation from foreign companies in Japan and Philippines, but she has refused them. She said all her products were produced manually, and so mass production might affect their quality.

"Though I have to wake up early and stay up late with my mother, I feel both happy and proud because I'm making products that help women become more beautiful," she said.

"The promotion of nu powder on the same level as international counterparts will always be the focus of my present and future life," she said. — VNS

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