Politically correct toothpaste?


If you go into any supermarket in China to buy toothpaste you will soon discover that one of the biggest brands on sale – if not THE biggest brand – is a toothpaste called Darlie.

Like it’s competitors, Darlie has a whole range of toothpastes, you can choose from: Double Action Protect,  All Shiny White, Fresh ‘n Brite, Tea Care Mint or Hydro Fresh Gel. Something there for everyone.  This unusually named brand which is virtually unknown in the west has an intriguing history. Back in the 1930s a Shanghai company developed a toothpaste which quickly became a best seller, the toothpaste was Darkie, and every tube, every box had a picture of a black man wearing a top hat with a wide – white – toothy smile. The image was apparently based on pictures of  Al Jolson, and presumably it was chosen because of the contrast between dark skin and white teeth.

The company, Hawley & Hazel, moved to Taiwan and  from 1949 marketed it from there until the company eventually  moved to Hong Kong. As a brand ‘Darkie‘ was amazingly sucessful, with over 70% of the Asian toothpaste market, so it was no surprise that Colgate-Palmolive who manufacture most toothpastes in the West became interested, and in 1985  they paid $10 million to enter into a joint venture  with Hawley & Hazel.  Then it dawned on them that the brand name was not acceptable to Western sensibilities, in fact it was considered downright racist.  Four years of negotiation ensued, until finally, in 1989, Darkie became Darlie, the man on the box was altered to be racially ambiguous, and so it has remained.

The irony is that under the brand name Darlie – on every tube, every box – the Chinese characters remain unaltered,   黑人牙膏,  which reads ‘Black Man’s Toothpaste‘. Meanwhile others have watched the success of this brand and imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, have tried to emulate it.

A Taiwanese company has brought out a toothpaste with the name  Whitemen  Toothpaste (Guardian of Tooth), whereupon the manufacturers of Darlie promptly tried to sue them – and last year they lost their case, as the Judge said, you could not confuse  Black Man toothpaste with Whitemen toothpaste!

And now I have been told that there is a toothpaste marketed in Hong Kong (from Hin Sang Long Co. Ltd) called Chinky – I promise you I am not making this up!

The question is, does any of this matter as long as it cleans your teeth properly?

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About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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10 Responses to Politically correct toothpaste?

  1. Herschelian
    It is so funny you wrote about this as my husband and I were in Chinatown here in the Sydney CBD and saw this on the Asian grocery shelves. We’ve had relatives who’ve lived in Asia and say that it tastes odd, but does a great job. I used to like a fennel toothpaste in the states, so each to his own! Funnily enough, I just posted my latest and the main photo is a toothpast tube as well…seredipity.

  2. Oops — meant serendipity.

    • herschelian says:

      Serendipitous indeed! don’t you find it strange how often one sees/reads something and then suddenly comes up with it elsewhere? I have not tried using Darlie – frankly the tube of Crest my husband bought that was flavoured with green tea put me off unusual toothpastes forever and anon – good old peppermint/spearmint suits me just fine!

  3. Absolutely agree! I was young :-).

  4. Dan Griffin says:

    Enjoyed the post, Jo! Brand names that get somewhat lost in translation are always great fun. I was reminded of the time Richard Roels went abroad on a school trip (I forget where) and brought back a tin of beans as a present for me. The label read: SCUM.

  5. That is absolutely hilarious! Who would of thought…politically correct toothpaste. Can I just say that even though I hardly comment, I love your blog!

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