It was a tranquil afternoon at a mountain village in Chinshan Township, Taipei County (台北縣金山鄉). Chiang Jung-yuan (江榮原), head of Taiwan's first brand specializing in making handmade soap out of natural ingredients, A-yuan Soap (阿原肥皂), and his obliging assistant led the way into what looked like a farmhouse studio situated in the middle of a fallow field. Inside, the sweet perfume of herbs permeated the air and several housewives were busy cutting semi-finished soap into pieces and stamping them with names such as Asiatic wormwood, common lantana and licorice.
"Chinshan is a withering town. The young people are long gone … I am initiating a community development project of my own, working with locals to make their town the homeland of soap," said Chiang, whose study of plants and chronic skin problems prompted him to embark on his now burgeoning soap business some 18 months ago.
Spending most of the day studying herbal concoctions and hand-making soaps together with his 11 local employees at the studio, the 40-something entrepreneur hasn't always enjoyed such a peaceful existence. Physically and spiritually exhausted after 15 years of running advertising companies in Taipei, Chiang's life-long interest in Chinese medicine led him down a different path a few years ago with help from his herbalist friends and doctors of Chinese medicine. Soon he was using the healing powers of natural ingredients such as organic lemons from Taitung (台東), Asiatic wormwood from an organic planter in Changhua (彰化), aloe vera from Penghu (澎湖) to mineral water from Wanli (萬里) and black sesame and camellia oils manufactured in local factories to make a series of preservative-free products.
Ingredients are selected not for their pretty colors but their supposedly curative effects and are tested on humans before reaching store shelves. The key raw material is fat made from edible oils renowned for their therapeutic powers, the making of which illustrates the meticulous methods employed by Chiang. He had several water samples from locations across the island tested at research centers before determining that Wanli's would produce the finest soap.
A-yuan soaps are also the fruits of collective labor. From the drying and grinding of fruits, vegetables and herbs to the natural process of saponification and packing, the SGS (the world's leading testing and certification company) approved products take two months preparation before being shipped while the hundreds of thousands soaps manufactured monthly by the dozen employees can hardly meet the expanding market demand.
Mechanizing the process isn't an option for Chiang because "local residents need the jobs and a group of villagers happily chatting while hand-packing soaps makes a more beautiful image droning machinery does," the soap-maker said.
Yet when Chiang and his partners began their business, locally handmade soaps were virtually unheard of. "When we first began operations, there was no market for our products. My partners and I traveled across the island and knocked on doors of shops and stores with bags of soaps on our backs … We got rejected all the time and the pain from carrying heavy loads still troubles us today," Chiang said.
Chiang's persistence and the quality of his products have gradually built up a base of clients. Local media quickly trumpeted the budding business as an ideal story of success while investors approached Chiang for a lucrative venture into the global market.