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How Darkie, Now Darlie, Became East Asia’s Favourite Toothpaste Despite Its Racist

The packaging of Darlie toothpaste has changed over the years to reflect public opinion.
Credir: Shutterstock

When US television host Megyn Kelly defended blackface Halloween costumes on her new daytime NBC show, the backlash was swift and strong. She was fired within a week. For many, blackface is a reminder of how black people around the world have been oppressed and marginalised for centuries.

You don’t need to look far to find examples. Walk into any supermarket in Hong Kong, Bangkok or Shanghai – although it may not be obvious at first, one of the Asia’s bestselling brands of toothpaste has deep roots in blackface.

In a sea of products with slick packaging designed to evoke minty freshness, Darlie stands out on the shelves for its vaguely retro branding, marked by a black-and-white logo of a man wearing a top hat and a broad smile – the Darlie Man, as he is officially known.

It’s the bestselling toothpaste in China, and in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, “we are either in first or second place for the sale of toothpaste, and our market share ranges from 10 to 30 per cent in these markets”, says David Chiu, regional marketing director for Darlie.

So far, so innocuous. But if you look closely at the box you’ll notice something unusual: Darlie’s Chinese name translates as “black person toothpaste”. It’s a remnant of a time not too long ago when Darlie was known in English as Darkie, and the Darlie Man was a grinning blackface minstrel.

Kelley Loper, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law, remembers visiting Taiwan in the 1990s and coming across some boxes of Darkie in a local grocery store.

“I remember being really shocked and offended,” she says. “But then I discussed it with friends in Taiwan and they didn’t understand what the problem was.”

So how did a toothpaste with a name and logo that many consider to be deeply, irredeemably offensive become so popular in Asia? And what does its continued success say about the state of racism and race relations today?

To answer those questions, you need to go back 85 years to Shanghai, where the Niem family established the Hawley & Hazel Chemical Company. One of its products was a toothpaste that promised to give its users dazzlingly white teeth.

Its branding played on the imagery of performers such as Al Jolson, who painted their faces black to perform in minstrel shows that ridiculed people of African descent.

“Darkie” was a racial slur used against African-Americans in the Jim Crow era, when large parts of the United States were governed by apartheid-style racial segregation. “It doesn’t have the same implications as the N-word, but it’s not far off,” says Barry Sautman, a visiting professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who specialises in ethnicity in China and Africa-China relations.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/article/2176817/how-darkie-now-darlie-became-east-asias-favourite

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