Musing by Guest Writer AlbertCAN
What is innovation? Is it edible?
—Contemporary Mandarin humour*
和谐 (Trad. 和諧)
Pinyin: hé xié
1. harmonious; harmony
2. (euphemism) to censor
Of all the celebutantes the fragrance world has attributed to—Jicky, Madame Rochas, Misia, Monsieur de Givenchy, Liù, just to name a few—I have a particular affinity to Monsieur Li, an eponymous personality penned by Jean-Claude Ellena, the now-emeritus master perfumer for the iconic French design house Hermès.
As with everything in life, timing is everything: I have befriended Li in the spring of 2015, during an relocation to Vancouver’s historic Chinatown district, not only working as a financier to a heritage bank, but also living mere blocks away from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first Suzhou-style garden established outside of China and aptly named after the Father of the Nation in the Republic. Corner office befitting a financier? Check. Tasteful requisite objets d'art for a banking office? Of course. (Can you expect any less?) Ambient scent of choice, in the heart of Chinatown ? Hermès Le Jardin de Monsieur Li (2015).
At this juncture of the musing let’s get something out of the way: This Monsieur Li is a fictional character. And to any native Chinese speaker, this man is a gentle synecdoche to Mainland China . Please do not reduce this surname as an exercise in economy—any native Mandarin would instantly attribute this man as a Mainlander. (As opposed to Lee, who are most likely not.) In fact, under such context, this gentleman is somewhat of an everyday man, arguably China ’s cultural equivalent of Mr. Smith from North America, Monsieur Durand France . Given such logic, the name for this fragrance betrays a poetic subtext: A Garden of Everyman.
Hermès, Everyman? As I can hear the gentle murmur amongst you, dear audience. Ringing the affirmative is the answer. If I shall name one outstanding quality of Monsieur Li, incredible sociability comes to mind. Master perfumer Ellena has selected gentle note contrasts as the foundation of his jardin compositions, and this citrus aromatic is no exception. The garden here opens with kumquat, a beguiling citrus the Chinese often fondly savour during happier times—as confits during Lunar New Year, even serving along a variety of preserved foods from lotus to coconut, melon, ginger to the all important Chinese deities, as a mean to sweeten their tongues (lest them bad-mouth the mortals upon returning to celestial abodes for the holiday). Kumquat trees are also often a staple in Chinese and Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations, as they symbolize good fortune and prosperity. The inclusion of jasmine here, of course, is somewhat of a foregone conclusion, given the exalted status of the flora in China . Although, mind you, this jasmine is also resoundingly à propos in its political correctness, arguably not just because of the utilization of Hedione High Cis: I suspect any concrete conjuring of the real deal may be misinterpreted as a reminder of the Thou-Shall-Not-Be-Named failed coup d'état, with its moniker attributed possibly related to the flora in question.** White musk and mint round off the harmonious bouquet. The overall sillage persistently optimistic, the mellow diffusion a study of calibrated cheerfulness. The aromatic bone structure murmurs excellent breeding. Its gentility evident; its silken elegance aplenty.
Does Hermès Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, complete with its effortless joy, complement the Les Jardins series? Yes. Can this Monsieur Li potentially be a kissing cousin to another? That’s also a yes.
“Why are you choosing my signature fragrance as your office scent?”
Soon after debuting my ambient choice a Financial Planner discreetly confronting me so. The issue? Her signature scent in question is Green Tea by Elizabeth Arden. That discussion eventually turning into a passionate side-by-side scent development mini symposium—amongst two financiers, no less. (The absurdity of that situation is completely lost upon me.)
Years after that rhapsodic episode the underlying issue is worth a sombre second thought here. This garden is not the Chinese of yore. Ellena can choose from a wide range of Chinese landmarks—many of which UNESCO certified to boot—yet this isn’t the case. The aromatic elements mentioned are of Chinese origin, yet under different contexts they can also be interpreted in a very modern fashion. In fact, this fragrance is decidedly modern—androgynous, versatile—and there’s a delicate sexual fluidity underneath its aromatic pulse. (A scent referencing a gender, however unisex, cannot be devoid of sexuality altogether, no?) Likewise, the garden of Li is neither composed of imperial peonies nor sandalwood. Simply put, this is for Modern China, period.
Style wise I actually consider this fragrance to be in complete alignment with Rhythm of China (2007), the first ever Chinese-themed Hermès silk scarf designed by a Chinese artist. Just look at it. There’s an air of electricity permeating throughout. Perhaps the traffic lights during the day, or is it neon lights by night—perhaps both? And yet, wrapping it around a Kelly or a Birkin bag, or simply wearing it as is, the jolt transforms into something else, something decorative. There’s something harmonious about such ambiguity.
It’s no accident that we have referenced the concept of harmony, or hé xié in Mandarin, several times throughout this article. While it’s an important principle of design in its own right, harmony is no trifle matter within contemporary Chinese culture. I am going to reference Wikipedia here, since it succinctly summarizes the heart of this matter:
The "Socialist Harmonious Society" concept represents a new direction of Chinese communist leadership that signified the transition between Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Although on the surface, "socialist harmonious society" seems benign, many scholars believe that General Secretary Hu has a vision for a deeper reform of the political system in China . In addition, the idea of scientific development stresses on scientific discovery and technological advance, engines for sustainable growth in the long run. Sustainable growth is a concept in macroeconomics that signifies GDP at potential (i.e. all that is produced is being consumed and there is no cyclical unemployment) for years to come.
In addition, the Socialist Harmonious Society concept was a response to the problem of social inequality/ wealth gap, which if not dealt with immediately, could lead to social unrest and even turmoil. A key reason contributing to a widening wealth gap was social injustice, which features collusion between entrepreneurs and officials. Through collusion, entrepreneurs were able to buy land from farmers and then sell it at high prices. Furthermore, with the protection of local officials, private coal mine owners ignored safety regulations to cut production costs. As a result, thousands of miners are killed in accidents.
Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the leadership has been extremely sensitive about maintaining stability. General Secretary Hu's focus on stability and openness is the central model addressed in the book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall by Ian Bremmer. According to Bremmer, the Chinese government is trying carefully to avoid instability by jumping from a controlled social environment on one end to complete openness on the other. The "J Curve" model is applicable to the political development of most nations and presents a choice between stability and openness. The concept of "Socialist Harmonious Society" is said to include both elements of the model. Hence, Hu's "socialist harmonious society" has an underlying message of establishing political reform as well as safeguarding social justice and equality.***
So how does this affect the aesthetics of Monsieur Li? Further notation from the same article:
While initially the public's reaction to the idea was positive, over the years "Harmonious Society" has emerged as a euphemism for "stability at all costs," and has garnered its share of critics. The government often uses "Harmonious Society" to justify the suppression of dissent and the tight control on information in China . Some social commentators have pointed out the irony that in building a "harmonious society" the country has become less just, less equal, and less fair. Meanwhile, some of Hu's critics say that application of the "Socialist Harmonious Society" concept has resulted in anything but itself. China scholar Cheng Li said that Hu's failure in implementing the Socialist Harmonious Society program has been his "gravest pitfall" during his tenure. Critics cite the increased wealth gap, higher internal security budgets, and unprecedented corruption in state-owned industries as evidence that Socialist Harmonious Society has failed in practice.
The term "River crab" (Chinese: 河蟹; pinyin: héxiè) has been adopted as internet slang in Mainland China in reference to Internet censorship. The word river crab sounds similar to the word "harmonious" in Mandarin Chinese. In addition, the word "harmonious" can itself also be the placeholder verb for "to censor", most often referring to posts on a forum that have been deleted because of its unacceptable content, or the censorship of stories reporting sensitive issues in the press. Something that has been censored in this manner is often referred to as having been "harmonized" (被和谐了).***
Yet I have digressed. Let’s talk corporate bottom line, shall me?
Ellena, no matter how much of an exalted figure in perfumery, could not afford to miss boat here. Especially after Un Jardin après la Mousson (2008). And with this Chinese garden being one of his swan songs, a failure to launch would have been disastrous. This is really not the time to experiment, to innovate.
Traditional China might sound romantic to some, but that crowd has never been the core of the Hermès growth—it’s the nouveau riche that has kept the financial engine humming.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ellena’s stature in perfumery is reassuringly beyond reproach. At this same time, as much as we would like to think that the Mida’s touch is in spades, this launch is stacking up to be much too expensive for a risk. What it’s all said and done, harmony reigns supreme.
Now I am really not in a position to surmise development details of the Hermès Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, though I often wonder if its lack of assertion ends up serving as a footnote on the general zeitgeist of Modern China, however breath-taking its metamorphosis may be.
Often when I visit this Chinese garden, I wonder what my friend Monsieur Li looks like. Willowy of course, impeccably decked in Hermès no doubt. Graciously open-minded yes, perhaps generous to a fault. Good looking, yet with a somewhat forgetful ordinarity about his charm. However personable he may be, his words are diplomatic, action always calibrated. I think there’s a fluidity in his way, but I think he keeps it out of joint. Never putting his heart on his sleeves, never speaking his mind directly to anyone.
Hermès Le Jardin de Monsieur Li is a Citrus Aromatic fragrance for woman and men, and available in select Hermès boutiques and Point of Sales worldwide.
This fragrance review is based on a sample personally purchased by the writer in 2015 at an Hermès boutique.
Photos by Hermès and Wikipedia Common.
* Any arbitrary concept can be substituted into this modern sarcasm, to denote the futility of a particular idea—especially since sustenance is the cornerstone of Chinese culture.
** I’m absolutely in no position to comment on anything related to this matter. Googling “jasmine contraband New York Times” shall suffice—should your region allows so.