When you are always on the road, “home” becomes a nebulous concept. At least that’s what happens to me, since I seem to be travelling at least 300 days out of the year. So, what is home? The USofA, because that’s my base? India, because my parents live there? France and Italy, because those are the places of my soul? Sweden, because I spent my childhood there? Or somewhere in between?
All of these, I guess. And right now, that ‘somewhere in between’ is Singapore, a gorgeous, vibrant megapolis where I seem to be spending increasingly more time. And not just because my brother lives here. I am fascinated with Singapore, which takes the best facets of so many different cultures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Indian – and melds them into one shimmering sphere.
I realised how much I have internalised this city after watching Crazy Rich Asians, and identifying not just with the locations but also with so many of the characters, who seem to be so clearly based on people I know from there (*lips sealed*). It’s definitely a real world, jet setting shopping sprees, and $40 million weddings included.
And talking of Singapore, it’s a city that gives my skin a serious inferiority complex. Every single time. Seriously, have you seen these women and their super-perfect skin? Luminous, smooth, pore-less, and blemish-free, glowing from within and needing almost no help from makeup. How is it even real? And what’s the secret?
Apparently, the secret lies in a breadth of Chinese beauty recipes (76.2% of the Singapore population is ethnic Chinese) that are still being called upon for impeccable complexions, more than 2,000 years after they were first discovered.
And these are not your average, cornerstone recipes. You have pearls, bird’s nests, and jade stones making a not-so-humble appearance. Some may sound crazy but they definitely work. So effective are these recipes that they span generations: Both Shang Su Yi and Astrid Leong-Teo would approve.
Pearls: The Asian superfood
In what may well be the craziest, richest take on beauty ingredients, traditional Chinese medicine has worshipped at the altar of pearls since the past 2,000 years. Wu Zetian, the only female empress in Chinese history, was eating pearls as far back as the 7th century. And she had the supple, glowing skin of a teenager well into her 60s. Cleopatra followed suit, and we all know how that story went!
And I do mean actual pearls: The kind that adorn the windows of Mikimoto. The very same pearls, crushed in a grinder and sold by weight (an ounce of the purest stuff can run anywhere between US$600-800).
Traditional boutiques in Asia will have you handpick the precious beads and grind them right in front of you, much like coffee beans. Akoya, a cultured saltwater pearl found in China and Japan, is the most sought after for its skincare benefits. When I run out of Akoya pearls, I usually fill in the gaps with Moon Juice’s Pearl Powder, which is a decent substitute.
What makes pearls so special for beauty mavens? To begin with, science now shows that pearls are made up of over 80% calcium, alongside a dozen essential amino acids, and minerals like copper, iron, magnesium, selenium, and silica. This gives them incredible skin benefits, such as boosting cell renewal, healing blemishes, smoothing the skin’s texture, neutralising free radicals, and preventing premature aging.
Another thing that pearls do extremely well: Nourish dry skin by boosting its capacity to hold water, which is key for a soft and supple complexion.
And that’s not all. Pearls get their luminescence from a rare compound known as conchiolin. Conchiolin is a protein that promotes collagen production, and speeds up cell metabolism, thereby helping keep skin smooth, elastic, and wrinkle-free. It also guards against irregular deposits of melanin, to prevent dark spots and hyper-pigmentation.
Taken internally, pearl powder is also one of the original adaptogens. Traditional Chinese medicine calls upon it to relieve stress or anxiety, calm excessive heat in the body, cool the digestive system, and bring down inflammation. As a beauty supplement, it can also enhance elasticity and repair past damage to give you luminous skin.
I usually take 1/4 teaspoon of pearl powder every day, mixed into a tea, soup or smoothie… since it’s almost flavourless and water soluble, the possibilities are endless. Or you can make like the empress and eat a pinch straight out of the jar (and you thought I was being high maintenance?).
As for applying it on the skin: Mix 1-2 teaspoons of pearl powder with enough honey or yogurt (I prefer the latter) to make a paste. Apply this paste as a face mask, and rinse off after 20 minutes. Or sprinkle some powder into your daily moisturiser. Hello, glow-y, super-soft skin!
Face-to-face with bean sprouts
I love my bean sprouts but the idea of slathering them on my skin would never have occurred to me in a thousand years. Till a visit to Wenzhou, in China, brought me face-to-face with Ying Yue, an 86-year-old zu mu (grandmother), with beautiful, glowing skin that put mine to shame in an instant.
Her secret? Mung bean sprouts, ground into a paste with some yogurt and applied as a face mask for half an hour, once a week.
The Chinese, I learnt, have been using this simple beauty recipe for thousands of years. Mung beans are high in copper, which is a powerful anti-ageing ingredient. Used topically, these copper-rich sprouts can reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots.
Besides this, mung beans are also cooling. When applied as a face pack, they can purge heat and toxins from the skin, thereby helping to reduce acne, rashes, cold sores, and boils.
They also work as a natural exfoliator, busting dead cells and revealing fresh, smooth, glowing skin. What’s not to like, especially now that you can easily get mung bean powder, which is basically a made-to-mix face mask!
Rolling with jade
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the beauty benefits of facial rollers would not come as a major revelation. However, these are not a new invention, hot as they may be on Instagram right now. It was actually Asia which taught us the power of a jade roller, which has been a staple in royal Chinese skincare routines since the 7th century.
Chinese emperors and empresses were the first to use them for drawing out the negative qi that causes a host of mental and physical problems, including stress, pain, inflammation, fine lines, wrinkles, and puffiness.
Why jade? In the realm of crystal healing, jade is associated with protection against negative energy, and is believed to have healing properties, as it expels toxins, heals stressed organs, and slows down cellular ageing. So precious was this stone in ancient times that only the emperors and empresses could afford to use it.
Even if you’d rather stay off the crystal healing bandwagon, jade rolling has many practical uses as a form of facial massage. A jade roller’s cool, super-smooth surface helps exert just the right amount of pressure needed to encourage drainage of toxins from lymphatic tissues, deflate puffiness and tone slackening muscles. It also helps increase blood circulation, diminish the appearance of fine lines, relieve tension, and help your skincare products penetrate deeper.
However, to get maximum benefits, experts advocate using pure Xiuyan jade. There are way too many fakes in the market – primarily glass or inferior quality stones dyed to resemble the real thing – so do your research.
Nesting with the birds
If the Japanese have their nightingale droppings, could the Chinese stay far behind? Enter edible bird’s nest, one of the four great tonics of youth in traditional Chinese medicine. And yes, I am talking about actual bird’s nests: These ones are spun by male swiftlets (a kind of swallow) using strands of its saliva.
Usually found along the inner walls of sea caves, bird’s nests are notoriously hard to harvest and hence were another of those things that were only available to Chinese royalty for the longest time. It’s said that the Empress Dowager Cixi (of the Qing Dynasty) regularly feasted on seven types of bird’s nest. And yes, she had absolutely fabulous skin that totally belied her age.
Before you say yuck to consuming or slathering on what is essentially bird saliva, take a look at the benefits: Bird’s nest is rich in several glyco-proteins, amino acids, and essential minerals such as iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium and calcium. This gives it a number of health and beauty benefits, including cleansing the lungs, regulating the respiratory system, boosting immunity, improving cardiovascular function, aiding digestion and reducing fatigue.
Taken internally (usually as a soup), it is also considered a yin tonic because of its cooling effect on the body.
Applied topically, bird’s nest stimulates the epidermal cell growth factor (EGF) to boost cellular rejuvenation, thereby improving skin elasticity, and nourishing your complexion. Result? Skin that’s smooth, soft, supple and has the glow of eternal youth.
Have you tried any of these Asian beauty recipes?