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Distilling Taiwan’s Native Scent:Kuai Shan Fang’s Cypress Oils

2020-10-26
Sharleen Su /photo by Jimmy Lin /tr. by Brandon Yen
 
Taiwan’s mountains used to be covered with giant cypresses, each of which bore witness to a long evolutionary history stretching back to the ice ages. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Taiwan’s mountains used to be covered with giant cypresses, each of which bore witness to a long evolutionary history stretching back to the ice ages. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
Rachel Huang and Chris Li at Kuai Shan Fang started to exhibit their product abroad as soon as they had successfully distilled an essential oil from the endemic Taiwan hinoki, or Taiwan yellow cypress. Few can rival their enthusiasm.
 
When invited to introduce their products, Rachel Huang and Chris Li—the couple who established Kuai Shan Fang—proudly display a dark brown vial of essen­tial oil. In the past few years, they have traveled the world with their cypress oils. “Do you know—Taiwan cypresses are a precious resource, so they have fallen victim to much illegal logging,” says Huang. What Kuai Shan Fang uses is scrap wood left over from the production of classy furni­ture before the logging of natural forests was banned, she explains, highlighting how rare the timber is.
In 2018 Huang and Li visited Moscow with the Taiwan‡­Russia Association to attend a business forum focusing on commercial and technological collaborations between the two countries. There Li was allotted 20 minutes to talk about “Taiwan’s scent.” What is Taiwan’s scent? Realizing that it wasn’t possible to give a full description through a presentation alone, the couple brought an aroma diffuser with them. They filled it with their cypress oil, and the fragrance of Taiwan’s native woodlands wafted through the venue.
 
To preserve the primitive fragrance of cypress wood, Kuai Shan Fang distills one kilogram of essential oil from 1000 kg of wood shavings.
To preserve the primitive fragrance of cypress wood, Kuai Shan Fang distills one kilogram of essential oil from 1000 kg of wood shavings.
 
Rachel Huang and Chris Li ventured into Taiwan’s native woodlands for the sake of Li’s father’s health. This is the origin  of their cypress-oil business.
Rachel Huang and Chris Li ventured into Taiwan’s native woodlands for the sake of Li’s father’s health. This is the origin  of their cypress-oil business.
 
An enchanting smell

Before the forum started, a debonair Russian man arrived on the scene. On his way to his seat, something suddenly caught his attention, and he walked straight toward Huang. “May I ask what this is?” The aroma in the air had cast a spell on him. “This is a scent that belongs to Taiwan,” Huang replied.
It wasn’t until later that Huang realized that this gentle­man was actually a special guest: Suren Vardanyan, vice-­president of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He had been enchanted by the fragrance of Taiwan cypress brought from thousands of kilometers away. During the break, he dispatched his assistant to buy that vial which was filled with the “scent of Taiwan.”
Few Russians know about Taiwan cypresses, but the Japanese are familiar with the scents of these trees. In 2018 the National Development Council held the Taiwan Regional Revitalization Exhibition in Maru­no­uchi, Tokyo. Kuai Shan Fang’s travel set of shampoos and shower gels—which had won a Golden Pin Design Award—was chosen as a gift for VIP guests. Infused with cypress fragrance, the gels not only delighted Satoru Ohashi, chairman of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Taipei, but also charmed his wife, who told him: “Next time you go to Taiwan, don’t forget to buy bigger bottles of these.”
The Taiwan cypress emits a scent which isn’t as pungent as lavender or sweet rose perfume. Rather, its idio­syncratic character lies in the calm serenity it evokes. “The Taiwan red cypress [Chamaecyparis formosensis] and Taiwan yellow cypress [Chamaecyparis obtusa var. formosana] are not found elsewhere in the world. So they best represent the spirit of Taiwan.” Li produces a heavy docu­ment folder to elucidate just how precious these native species are. Pointing at two apparently unremarkable pieces of wood on the floor, he says: “This is red cypress wood, and that is yellow. Both of them took more than 500 years to grow. They are veritable treasures.”
 
Beginning with simple essential oils, Kuai Shan Fang has developed various other products over the years, from shampoos and shower gels to soaps and hand lotions. These have attracted attention both in Taiwan and overseas.
Beginning with simple essential oils, Kuai Shan Fang has developed various other products over the years, from shampoos and shower gels to soaps and hand lotions. These have attracted attention both in Taiwan and overseas.
 
Long-living, slow-growing trees

Taiwan cypresses grow slowly. A magnificent tree 43 meters tall may be the product of a seed that germinated 2800 years ago. The genus Chamaecyparis has only seven surviving species, which grow in Taiwan, Japan, and North America. Taiwan’s mountains used to be covered with giant cypresses, each of which bore witness to a long evolutionary history stretching back to the ice ages.
In fact Kuai Shan Fang’s essential oils were born of filial devotion. Before they developed the first of these oils, Li and Huang were in the habit of taking Li’s father to northern Taiwan’s Wulai and Lalashan. “My father-in-law suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was a heavy smoker when he was young,” Huang says.
When the peach season arrived, Li’s father, who was often short of breath, would ask to be taken to Lalashan to inhale the wholesome air of the woodlands. The couple would bring him to the mountain by car, even though Huang easily gets carsick. Once there, they would push or even carry the old man’s wheelchair, slowly making their way along the woody paths.
The enormous yellow cypress woods of Mt. Qilan also beckoned to Li’s father. The gigantic ancient cypresses rear their heads into the clouds; after rain, the air is graced with the fragrance of luxuriant greenery. These tranquil moments never failed to soothe his restless soul. “Having received a Japanese education, my father-in-law was a serious man. He had always liked the smell of cypress wood. Whenever he visited Mt. Qilan and Mingchi, he would tell us that he didn’t want to go back home.”
 
A devoted son, Chris Li has gained a comprehensive knowledge of Taiwan cypresses. He and his wife Rachel went to great lengths to devise the best formulation for their cypress oils.
A devoted son, Chris Li has gained a comprehensive knowledge of Taiwan cypresses. He and his wife Rachel went to great lengths to devise the best formulation for their cypress oils.
 
Taiwan cypresses grow extremely slowly. It took 2800 years for a seed to become this 43-meter-tall tree. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Taiwan cypresses grow extremely slowly. It took 2800 years for a seed to become this 43-meter-tall tree. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
Finding the right smell

At one point, the couple even considered buying a house near Mt. Qilan for Li’s father, but another idea struck them: why not bring the woods home? With this in mind, they sought out a factory specializing in making high-end furniture from native cypress wood.
Once they had obtained a regular supply of scrap wood, they carried out several experiments and eventu­ally decided to further purify their oils through re­distillation, a process that preserves the true essence of the Taiwan cypress.
Developing saleable products and standardizing the fragrance turned out to be arduous tasks. Having successfully sourced their cypress wood, the couple faced the all-important question of how strong the fragrance should be. It was only after much pondering that their idea of “Taiwan’s scent” came into focus. When pressed, Huang finally divulges their secret recipe: “What we do is to preserve the original smell.” Just as the “secret ingredient” that makes the noodle soup of the Kung Fu Panda’s father special is in fact “nothing,” Huang and Li also strive to be faithful to the native fragrance of the wood: “We distill one kilogram of oil from 1000 kg of cypress shavings.”
Huang’s beloved oils have attracted the attention of Italian, French, and Australian aromatherapy companies, who asked her for price quotations. Despite their gener­ous offers, however, Huang has refused to sell them her oils. These companies wished to use cypress oils as ingredients to make perfumes and other aromatic products. “We could have raked in money immediately if we had sold them our oils as raw materials, but the products they made would not have had the scent of Taiwan.”
There have also been customers from Japan requesting that the oils be diluted to suit the Japanese preference for milder fragrances, but Huang insists on adhering to her original recipe.
Huang and Li are resolute: “What we want to be is a Taiwanese brand producing things in Taiwan from Taiwanese ingredients, in order to be true to what this island has to offer.”
Thirty-odd years ago Huang was a flight attendant. When passengers asked her where she was from, she would proudly say “Taiwan.” But the name meant nothing to them; they only knew Thailand. Today, Huang and Li have invented a catchphrase: “We want to bring you not just a tree, but an entire woodland.” Now they are presenting Taiwan to the wider world through one of the island’s unique scents.
 
Kuai Shan Fang uses scrap wood from high-end furniture making. The source is pure and uncontaminated. (courtesy of Kuai Shan Fang)
Kuai Shan Fang uses scrap wood from high-end furniture making. The source is pure and uncontaminated. (courtesy of Kuai Shan Fang)
 
The excellent wood of Taiwan cypresses was often used to make top-tier furniture when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. (courtesy of Kuai Shan Fang)
The excellent wood of Taiwan cypresses was often used to make top-tier furniture when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. (courtesy of Kuai Shan Fang)
 
At Kuai Shan Fang, Chris Li and Rachel Huang are working hard to bring the distinctive scent of Taiwan’s woodlands into the homes of people around the world.
At Kuai Shan Fang, Chris Li and Rachel Huang are working hard to bring the distinctive scent of Taiwan’s woodlands into the homes of people around the world.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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