19-69 Chinese Tobacco: I’ll Surf This F*cking Place

The “luxury cult brand” 19-69 recently released a perfume named Chinese Tobacco. I only heard about it when I noticed an Instagram post made by @scent_festival ; I hadn’t really paid any attention to this brand before, because it struck me at first glance as faux-edgy and derivative. In any case, I visited the 19-69 website to get the full picture about Chinese Tobacco.

Here’s the description for Chinese Tobacco that you’ll find on their site today:

“Asia has always been a great source of inspiration to me. One particular trip included a visit to a traditional Chinese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. The air was filled with wonderful aromas and spices from the kitchen area, while a group of men was smoking and playing cards. The scent Chinese Tobacco is a capture of that special night.”

Next to that paragraph, there’s a collage or mood-board that seems unrelated to the text but actually offers a few hints about the earlier messaging around Chinese Tobacco.

from the 19-69 website, October 2021

It’s a visual hodgepodge of leading men and fantasy women: Paul Newman…some historical (eighteenth-century?) Chinese erotica…a vintage illustration of a woman in a cheongsam…Robert De Niro smoking opium in Once Upon a Time in America…Jack Nicholson with his bandaged nose in Chinatown…and Marlon Brando in costume as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979).

The sexual imagery and these Hollywood references make somewhat more sense when we take a look at the previous description for Chinese Tobacco. It originally started with a few of the same old Orientalist clichés that are all too common in perfume marketing. THEN…it listed the “influences” behind the fragrance:

from the 19-69 website, October 2021

“Chinese Tobacco is a capture of the legendary films like ‘Indochine’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Reflections of the distinct contrasts in Asia. East meets West, the Old and the New. Chinese Tobacco was inspired by the the [sic] timeless masterpiece ‘Apocalypse now [sic] ‘ by Francis Ford Coppola. The film takes place in Vietnam in 1969. Major influences for the fragrance was [sic] the powerful scene featuring Aurore Clement and Martin Sheen smoking opium. The [sic] the classic line ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.'”

Aurore Clément and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

Here’s a glimpse of the opium-smoking scene, which takes place in the home of a French colonial family in Vietnam.

19-69 regularly glamorizes marijuana use, but…opium? Really? Does their knowledge extend any earlier than their titular year of 1969—to the Opium Wars of the 1800s, for example, or to the ongoing racial stereotyping that revolved around this drug? For that matter, has anyone at the brand heard about the opioid epidemic of the twenty-first century?

Robert Duvall as Kilgore in Apocalypse Now

And then we get one of the most (in)famous lines of the entire movie, as uttered by Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall).

Here’s the full scene, in case you’ve never seen it or just need a refresher (something the 19-69 team could have used).


“If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, captain, it’s safe to surf this beach. I’m not afraid to surf this place, I’m not afraid to surf this fucking place.”

In case you’re not able to watch the video for some reason, here’s the relevant quote in context:

“You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like — victory.

Larry Burrows, Aerial Bombing, Vietnam, circa 1963

What is napalm? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a thickener consisting of a mixture of aluminum soaps used in jelling gasoline (as for incendiary bombs).” A public radio story from 2013 describes it, more graphically, as “a devilish brew of jellied gasoline that sticks to human skin and burns all the way to the bone.” (You can hear that story and see related photos here.)

You’ve very likely seen the famous image of some Vietnamese children running away from a napalm blast, captured by AP photographer Nick Ut in 1972. I won’t post it here, but you can read more and see it on the NPR site.

I don’t think there’s any estimate for the number of people (including civilians) killed or maimed by napalm in Vietnam. Here’s an overall estimate for the war, though:

The human costs of the long conflict were harsh for all involved. Not until 1995 did Vietnam release its official estimate of war dead: as many as 2 million civilians on both sides and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. The U.S. military has estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died in the war. In 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., inscribed with the names of 57,939 members of U.S. armed forces who had died or were missing as a result of the war. Over the following years, additions to the list have brought the total past 58,200. (Britannica online)

How is *any* of this history (global military conflict, loss of life, opiates, chemical warfare…) appropriate as inspiration for a perfume? How could anyone misread Coppola’s movie so badly? Is this some strange attempt at irony?

12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi, South Vietnam, in 1967. Photo by Frank Thomas Goins.

There’s also a personal angle to my disgust about this obnoxious fragrance concept, because my own family was one of many American families damaged by the Vietnam War. My father served as military personnel for the U.S. Army in Vietnam in—yes—1969. He was one of the lucky ones: he came home. He was also unlucky: he later died from a cancer most likely caused by exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange or other chemical warfare used in the region.

For all these reasons, I can’t see anything edgy or cool about 19-69’s marketing of this fragrance.

A few fragrance aficionados posted about Chinese Tobacco in late October, and the word got out. People started leaving comments on 19-69’s Instagram feed, requesting an explanation or apology. First 19-69 ignored the comments. Then they deleted every single one.

To the best of my knowledge, they have not posted any kind of response or statement about Chinese Tobacco.

from the 19-69 website, November 2021

Instead, they simply updated the product description on their website to this innocuous paragraph about a memorable dinner in Malaysia. To paraphrase George Orwell: The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Chinese Tobacco was inspired by restaurant in Malaysia. Chinese Tobacco had always been inspired by a restaurant in Malaysia.

image via Charenton Macerations

A footnote to this story: Chinese Tobacco isn’t 19-69’s first offense. Earlier this year, 19-69 released a fragrance named Christopher Street, inspired by the Stonewall uprisings of 1969 and the LGBTQ+ Pride movement…despite the fact that an independent fragrance brand named Charenton Macerations had launched a fragrance named Christopher Street, inspired by the Stonewall uprisings of 1969, etc., etc., about eight years earlier.

I reviewed Christopher Street for Now Smell This when it was launched in 2012, and you can find my post here. You can read Douglas’s own account of the situation here, on his blog.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I’ll say it anyway: please do not give this brand any business. They are not “bottling counterculture,” as their tagline claims. I’m not sure what they’re doing. Their approach and their attitude seem clueless and/or arrogant.

Maybe they’re just surfing wherever they want to, just because they (apparently) can.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for the alert — what a shame! More importantly, I’m so sorry about the impact of Vietnam on your father, and your family’s loss. I have many veterans in my family, though none served in Vietnam; my mother lived through WWII as a child in England; and it is really disturbing when would-be “influencers” gloss over the human cost of warfare, to those who serve AND civilians. I also don’t appreciate any glamorization of drug use and, again, glossing over the destruction it leaves in its wake. Digital media seem to foment this kind of superficial, unthinking embrace of imagery, without any deeper consideration of the images’ impact or meaning in real life.

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    • Thank you for this, OH. Life can be really difficult for veterans, in many ways (still a big issue today, right?). And, as you just noted, SO many civilians died by napalm and other means in Vietnam. I completely agree with your last sentence: some brands are looking for an attention-grabbing concept but they’re not putting any actual thought into their choice. I can’t even stand the constant references to “The Great Gatsby” in perfumery anymore — has anyone actually read the book?! I also don’t understand why this brand couldn’t publish a simple apology rather than just erasing the (justified) complaints and clumsily reinventing their copy for this fragrance. A sincere-seeming response would have made them look like a more open-minded and empathetic brand.

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      • Simple apologies seem to be out of style. I will tell you that one of my favorite perfumes is actually inspired by The Great Gatsby, and I’m pretty sure the perfumer has read the book! It is An Excess of Carelessness, by 4160 Tuesdays. Just a lovely floral, with notes that were popular in the 1920s, evoked by modern ingredients: heliotropin, vanilla, coumarin, bergamot, ionone, orris, lily of the valley, jasmine, neroli, ylang ylang, ambergris, civet, labdanum, opoponax.

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