One of my favorite things to do when I’m travelling is to shop for cosmetic products I can’t get at home. Sometimes, it’s totally work-related – there’s a long list of makeup artist essentials that aren’t (officially) available in the United States. But there are also all the curious finds that sell only in specific countries, whether by beauty standards, culture, or legality. And to find them you have to look past the luxe high street shops and find the nooks and crannies.
Of course, my budget doesn’t really allow for trips just to buy makeup. So when I get itchy for something new – something really new – I thank all the higher powers that I live in New York City, and get my Metrocard ready.
One of my favorite places to explore is Chinatown. Most people go for the dim sum, or the fish and fruit markets, and that’s a great thing – I wouldn’t have nearly as many home-cooked curries if I didn’t stock up on pastes and fish sauce from my favorite pan-Asian food shop. But for beauty lovers, Chinatown has a growing number of beauty shops to explore – with lots of surprises.
First Stop: Nature Republic
Though the shop in Chinatown is new, this South Korean company has shops across Southeast Asia. The skincare lines incorporate natural ingredients – and the weirder they are, the better. Bee and snake venom, and my personal favorite, snail slime (though they call it snail secretion). They have lots of single-use masks for facials and for pedicures. The selection of color cosmetics is fairly limited, with lots of pastel eye shadows. The last time I was there they had loads of nail polish colors, but now they have only a few. Yae, the friendly sales associate on duty, says they send in different products all the time.
But exotic skincare and pastel eye shadows may not be the best thing about Nature Republic – last year they signed KPop sensation Exo to endorse their products. EXO is a twelve-member boy band (well, maybe eleven right now) who split into two separate groups to tour – one group sings in Korean, and the other in Mandarin Chinese. That’s a LOT of cute boys – only six of them fit on any given package or promo. They’re front and center on the snail secretion masks, so I pick up the Gold Snail Hydrogel Mask Sheet (with “Syn@-ake Venom Peptide – yeah, it’s a lot of stuff:-)). I also pick up a pedicure mask and some TSA-friendly eye makeup remover wipes to take on my next real trip. And I head over to Canal Street.
There used to be this one beauty place I went to on Elizabeth Street, which is now gone – the minimall it was in has been razed to make way for a new hotel. I don’t know where it went – I don’t even know what it was called – but the good news is that Chinatown supergrocer Kam Man has stepped up to the challenge of providing all the sundry bits and pieces an Asian woman – or man – could need to keep themselves looking good. And all the sundry bits that keep a beauty tourist enthralled.
This isn’t the neat and friendly chainstore with a corporate philosophy and well-trained salespeople – it’s a panopoly of grooming items, jam packed with goods – from razors and personal hygiene supplies to skin care to makeup to phone charms to Hello Kitty toys – it’s nearly impossible to leave this store empty-handed. And since this time the ladies working there allowed me to take photos (they usually shut me down), I lingered over everything.
Walking up the stairs, I spied some super-kawaii Japanese anime tote bags for $10-15 each. And from there it was sensory overload – the walls of facial masks segue into bento picks and phone charms, and there’s a wall of eyelashes too. If you’re a fan of Dolly Wink, Kam Man has a really good selection of their lashes and liners. And speaking of liners, there’s also a corner with Japanese ink pen eyeliners with super fine lines. And there are other Asian-only products: eyelid tapes, for those who want to create a crease where their is one (and if someone can tell me if and how these work I’d love to see it!) and blotting papers, which are awesome and should be easier to find in the USA. If you’re into Hello Kitty, there’s a ton of stuff, plus an oddity Hello Kitty BB cream called Ghost BB, which I assume is a lightening, sunblock infused version of everyone’s favorite cosmetic product.
It’s also great to look over the diversity of cosmetic packaging. Some of it is a mess – too many slogans and bad photography to boot – but some of the packaging is really, really pretty. There are masks for anti-aging called “The Secret” with Disney-esque illustrations, and lace-framed photos on packaged eyeliners. I go for some kit essentials – Love Liner’s liquid fineliner in Rich Black, and lots of blotting papers. Plus I buy two different sizes of the Japanese tote bags for my trips to the pool and the office, and a hand gel that I think is for computer-fatigue.
The Face Shop
After finding that my Elizabeth Street minimall place was gone (boo!), I stopped into The Face Shop. The Face Shop is Korean (I usually stop in the one in Koreatown here in NYC) and carries their own lines of skincare featuring natural ingredients. They also have a decent selection of color cosmetics and some pretty good Asian-toned (meaning light to medium yellow-based) BB and CC creams. They also have a kiosk of colored contact lenses – nothing all that theatrical, but if you want to try blue or hazel eyes on for size, they’re here. In addition to skin care lines based on chia seeds and lots of anti-acne products (pore strip lovers: I have heard that theirs are unparallelled), they have face “modeling gel patches” which promise to shape your face along with the illustrated “face yoga” exercises. Umm, r-i-i-g-g-h-t.
For me the color cosmetics are a draw, as well as the oddities. I have to buy the chin shaper patch just for the weird value of it (though later my husband wondered aloud if I was getting a little too into this stuff). I also picked up an iridescent chartreuse nail polish and some salicylic acid-based acne spot patches (another thing which should be much easier to find in the US.)
My passport’s not stamped, and I don’t have bragging rights about visiting the Great Wall, but spending an afternoon exploring Chinatown for beauty finds is a fun thing to do if you find yourself in New York City (or San Francisco. or in many other cities, for that matter.) And I’ll leave you with this: if you’re into KPop, or Boys in Eyeshadow with Great Hair, here is EXO’s video for their new song “Overdose”:
Nature Republic – 151 Centre Street – New York, NY – 212-219-0810.
Kam Man – 200 Canal Street – New York, NY – 212-571-0330.
The Face Shop – 6-B Elizabeth Street – New York, NY – 212-608-1988.