Back Stories » Vietnam » Controversy Brews Over 'Minh Mạng' Herbal Tea Brand's Song Joong-Ki Packaging

A tea product featuring the face of a South Korean celebrity has turned into a royal pain for its manufacturer.

Đức Phượng Imperial Tea, a tea company based in Huế, has drawn scrutiny from members of the public and local authorities for using an image of Song Joong-ki, a popular South Korean actor, on its packaging for a tea product named after a Vietnamese emperor.

The company specializes in making what is known as trà cung đình, or imperial tea, a beverage historically enjoyed by royalty in Vietnam’s former capital. One of its key product lines, all of which are monarchy-themed, is Minh Mạng tea. Its namesake is derived from the regnal title of Nguyễn Phúc Đảm, the second emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty who reigned the country in the 1800s.

Confusion and concern arose after a news outlet reported photos of Minh Mạng tea packages sold to consumers with Song Joong-ki as a visualizer. The actor is shown spotting a red dallyeong, a traditional costume reserved for court officials and upperclassmen in feudal Korea. The image is taken from a scene in the historical drama Sungkyunkwan Scandal where he plays a noble scholar from the Joseon dynasty. The show gave Song his breakout role and was massively popular in Vietnam when it came out in 2010.

Front and back of Minh Mạng tea packaging. Photo via Anh Bạn Trà.

Despite the actor’s appeal, many found the use of a foreign character to represent a historical figure problematic. Phan Văn Hải, Director of Huế’s Department of Culture and Sports, said upon finding out about the case: “The fact that the brand took advantage of a famous historical figure such as Emperor Minh Mạng, and misrepresented him by not using the appropriate honorific and attire, will certainly evoke reactions from people."

Nguyễn Văn Phượng, the company’s owner, has denied any malicious intentions to distort history by putting Joong-ki on his tea. He explained that the product was previously endowed with an illustration of Minh Mạng taken from the internet. However, the brand had to remove it due to complaints from the emperor’s living descendants and Vietnamese netizens. Song Joong-ki was later chosen to fill the vacancy since his wife was a big fan of Korean dramas.

The original packaging featured an unauthorized illustration of the emperor. Photo via Zing.

“I honestly just downloaded the picture and printed it on the pack without thinking about public opinion or copyrights," Phượng commented.

An investigation at the manufacturing site was also conducted by Huế’s Department of Health, which concluded that the tea is safe to consume, but the brand has failed to comply with a decree on food packaging and labeling.

It is unclear how Minh Mạng tea made it to the market and bypassed these regulations, as the product even appeared on a government official website. For the time being, misprinted packages have been recalled with a fine to be imposed, though they can still be purchased on some commerce sites.

[Top image via Trà Cung Đình Huế]

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