Hand washing, hand washing, and more hand washing. Since the Chinese Lunar New Year, no, actually since the outbreak of SARS, “hand washing” has become synonymous with providing people peace of mind. Pressing down the soap bottle with the back of my right hand, the hand soap dropped precisely into the palm of my left hand. Carefully, I scrubbed every inch of my hands with my mind completely spaced out. Water flowing from the faucet ran through my hands, creating so many bubbles, also bringing my consciousness back to the present moment. I felt satisfied. Handwashing has become a ritual declaration of good health.
If hand washing is such a ritual, shall we do it with perfection? I wanted to incorporate into this ritual with a piece of handmade soap created with my own hands, and that is what led me to Oscar of the Night Night Gallery in Anping, Tainan.
“Among everything in this century-old house, I paid the most attention to reforming the bathroom,” said Oscar.
Her one-story house has a steep roof, and its walls were built during the colonial rule by the Dutch Republic; this is where the Night Night Gallery resides, and where Oscar and her husband call home. With an area of no more than 300 square feet, the living room is turned into an art gallery and a work studio, of paper art and handmade soaps; the bedroom and bathroom are the rare secluded spots in the house.
“In the bathroom, we can take a bath, trim our nails, take a shower, we can do anything to pamper ourselves; while in the studio, everything is fluid and ever-changing. Just think about it, the bathroom is our most private spot.” Oscar gently explained why she cherishes the bathroom while hand-brewing a coffee for me.
“When you first started making soap, was it because you wanted to pamper yourself?” My intuition told me that it is a way of pampering.
“Or I should say, I wanted to cleanse my body with a handmade soap, as in, to simply enjoy an ordinary life with a simple soap. Being able to know the ingredients and their sources allows me to be better aware of my own body and skin condition.” Oscar was once a full-time office worker.
“So you have an exclusive soap recipe for yourself?” I think she must have some sort of witchcraft power.
“I don’t have my own recipe. Not stressing yourself out is also a way of pampering; that is, not having to think and figure things out, just follow others’ successful soap-making recipes. I hate the idea of trying to unnecessarily innovate because with soap making it generates waste. If there is a proven formula for a successful soap, why should I bother to fail? Besides, adopting a proven formula means I don’t have to figure things out by myself.” Oscar’s answer was a bit out of my expectation, but maybe this is what being ordinary actually means.
[Understand Yourself Simply from Records and Statistics]
Since there is no such thing as a secret witchcraft soap-making recipe, we might as well be practical and humbly follow in our predecessors’ footsteps. The cold process soap-making method is not as difficult as expected. The hardest part is probably the “wait”; the wait to attain the best pH balance, the wait for the soap to cure. The curing process usually takes a month, and during this period, saponification takes place and glycerin is produced naturally. Glycerin is considered to be a robust moisturizing ingredient; however, it could be removed during the making of hot process soap, which is why many soaps on the market often do not contain glycerin.
“They are all being extracted to make moisturizers,” said Oscar while mixing up bottles of oils, sodium hydroxide, and water.
“These will turn into moisturizer naturally, and it is indeed amazing.” Oil and water seem to be mutually exclusive, but with constant stirring, they are mixed together and thickened, somehow the mixture looks like creamy, viscous honey.
Oscar smiled and said to me, “I’ve been collecting statistics of my emotions recently.”
“Whenever I feel angry and upset, I keep a record of such emotions; I want to know whether it has anything to do with the moon. Similarly, the formula for making soap successfully is also derived from statistics. I like the UK so much; I like how they use statistical data to draw scientific conclusions. I suppose statistics can also help us understand our emotions.” At that very moment, Oscar seems more like a scientist than a witch. Indeed, if we can record anything emotional in a rational manner, maybe we can understand ourselves better.
[Afterall We Are All Looking for that Perfect Balance of Life and Excitement]
I am curious why people still opt for shower cream if handmade soaps are so good for the skin and also the environment.
“It’s all because of the aroma. There is no added artificial fragrance in handmade soaps. It’s like eating; everybody knows that deep-fried food is unhealthy, but we like it for its delicious taste.” Oscar read my mind with such ease: I like Taiwanese chicken cutlet. I felt a sense of guilt with what she had just said.
“Ah, I get it now! It’s about balance. Life is like a scale; we sit on one side, and the other side is the way of life that we choose to live. The more stressful our lives are, the heavier on the scale it gets, and this is when we need some strong tasting food to soothe our mind, release the stress, and strike a balance.” I am enjoying this discussion regarding our views on life.
“Maybe. People love excitement. If there is not that much pressure, the urge to strike a balance weakens. I used to work at a company as a designer, and always felt the need to indulge myself in an attempt at finding a balanced life. Now that I’ve moved to Anping, Tainan, and become a freelancer, the yearning for sensory stimulation is no longer that strong.” Oscar explained in a way as if everyone would eventually reach enlightenment to pursue the life they want.
I like chicken cutlets, and she records emotions, yet both of us share a love for handmade soaps. I can handle failures, but also dislike generating waste. Slowly but surely, we will find that perfect balance of life and excitement without having to indulge ourselves with weighty stimulants. After all, a heavy jump on one side would result in an overwhelming rebound on the other. No wonder we can summon the memory and texture of handmade soap, but easily forget the smell of chemicals in the shower cream.