Modern Times

Shanghai was a veritable star factory in its golden era of the 1930s. People hungry to know the latest trends were fed by the fashion magazines, posters, records and gramophones. These classic objects recorded that golden age and are now quintessential of the era.

by: Coco Shen & Cecilia Chan (translated from Chinese)
Special Thanks to the Shanghai History Museum

magazine old chinaEarly Movie Magazines

In the 1920s to 1930s, hundreds of new magazine launched in Shanghai. They captured daily life in Shanghai, with eye-witness accounts of society as it was, revealing contemporary opinion on a culture very much in transition.

In 1921, Yingxi Congbao (Shadow Play Group Newspaper) was launched in Shanghai, and it is generally recognized as China’s first magazine devoted to the film industry. It used lithographic printing and published only one issue, so its intended frequency is unknown. While the content mainly consisted of Hollywood news, the publication also contained a groundbreaking column titled “Grouping Shadow Play Figures”, in which Charlie Chaplin and ten other Hollywood stars were profiled. Although this publication did not report on the Chinese film industry, it became a guide for Hollywood aficionados in China.

Following in the footsteps of Yingxi Congbao, countless movie magazines were born, such as “Film Weekly”, “Movie World”, “Popular Film”, “Chinese Film Magazine”, “Movie Monthly”, “Movie Illustrated” and so on, all of which laid a foundation for the Chinese film industry and captured the zeitgeist of that golden age.

young-companion-mainVariety Magazine- “The Young Companion”

In 1926, Young Companion Pictorial published its first issue in Shanghai. It was a rare outlet of news, and a pioneer in providing pictorial reports. The first print run of 3,000 copies sold out after just three days, and it remained a hugely popular magazine throughout the era.
The first issue’s front cover was a colour photograph of a girl holding flowers with a smile on her face; that girl was 19 year-old Hu Die, who went on to become the most famous movie star in Shanghai.

With their increasing wealth and reverence celebrities came under more scrutiny from the public, and their private lives became a hot topic for the press. Using magazines as a medium, celebrities became more and more famous, they were able to get work as early brand ambassadors and could make money by endorsing products; it was one of the earliest example of the “star effect”. Young Companion found a perfect balance between elegant and popular and it not only earned the moniker of “Fashion Blockbuster”, but also published unparalleled photos and cultural reports.
With the influence of The Young Companion continuing to expand, it even gained a reputation oversea. It was regarded as the “only publication that could give an accurate insight into the latest culture in China”, and foreign libraries and collectors would compete to get the latest issue of the magazine.

old china cigarette ad“Yue Fen Pai” – The Fashion Icon

The earliest form of modern Chinese advertising poster, Yue Fen Pai prints originated in the early days of the last century. While they were at first used by foreign businessmen to promote commodities such as cigarettes, batteries, insurance and alcohol, it wasn’t long before Chinese merchants began to follow suit: they often used the beautifully bound prints as bundled gifts for customers. To appeal to the traditional aesthetic, Western commercial posters often featured Chinese folk calendar paintings on their packaging, which garnered the name “Yue Fen Pai,” or Calendar Posters.

The advent of commercialization saw a cultural shift in the standards of beauty, as public opinion and increased media began to propagate certain ideals. Painters of Yue Fen Pai and advertising companies alike began capitalizing on beautiful figures, most notably images of famous actors and supermodels, to entice consumers. The shots were composed of beautiful women scantily clad in the latest fashions, suggestive even by today’s Western standards. These sensuously styled women were usually set against rich backgrounds reminiscent of woven tapestries.

Yue Fen Pai epitomizes the 30s era of Shanghai, acting as a catalogue of the culture’s aesthetic values and avant-garde tastes during a time of drastic Westernization. Despite its popularity in the 30s, the 40s-era saw an abrupt end to this fascination. While the prints immortalize Shanghai’s most desired women of that era, they more importantly catalogue the varied facets of their social lives, with the posters depicting women driving a motorcycle, swimming, horseback riding, horse racing, sailing and participating in various acts of charity.

old china cigarette advertThe Masters of Yue Fen Pai

The art of Yue Fen Pai painting reached an unprecedented peak in the 1930s, calling for many painters to incorporate Western aesthetics and ideals of beauty into their traditional techniques. Painters looked to feature different kinds of women with various ‘looks’ in order to showcase the beauty of their people to the nation and beyond, all the while styling their subjects in similar risqué dress, makeup and poses in order to maintain their allure.

One of the most notable painters of Yue Fen Pai posters was Mantuo Zheng, who was famous for the technique he used to paint the eyes of his subjects – they were said to follow the viewer around the room. Zhiying Hang, who founded the first modern Chinese advertising company, also contributed to this shift in the perception of modern Shanghainese woman. Situated on the Bund for over 30 years, he designed over 1600 kinds of Yue Fen Pai. His most famous works include Beautiful Cigarettes and VIVE Perfume; works that are still recognized by people today. His work swept across the country, forming a “Hang Faction” in the Yue Fen Pai circles.

During that time, Zhiying Hang dominated the Yue Fen Pai market and charged a high price for each painting. His counterpart, Meisheng Jing, was known for his striking portraits of beautiful and plump women that littered cigarette advertisements, along with his impressive personal collection of Yue Fen Pai. The leading master, however, was Zhiguang Xie, whose turbulent personal life saw him go from rags to riches and back again. In order to afford to create traditional Chinese paintings, which were his true passion, he would make money off of his highly sought-after commercial paintings. He was one of the most productive and talented Yue Fen Pai painters in Shanghai.

old gramophoneGramophones and Radios

Invented during the 1860s in Europe, gramophones only arrived in China in the early 20th century, owned by those rich enough to afford such an expensive and advanced machine. Gramophones, dulcimers, gold watches, enamelware and chime instruments were all part of household furnishings for high society in Shanghai at the time. China’s most well-known writer Lin Yutang was, in his own words, the “most loyal fan” of gramophones. In one of his articles, Lin describes his love for the gramophones by saying, “take a gramophone, bring it to your summer home, and you can listen to music for days on end.” The best-selling brand at the time was Victrola – light weight and portable players with a sleek appearance that could hold ten records.

China’s first radio station had been established in December 1922 by American E.G. Osborne in Shanghai. The first content was broadcast in January the next year, referred to at first as “voices in the air”, and rapidly became a popular sensation, attracting local and foreign audiences alike. Successors of the radio station were run by foreigners and while broadcasts started off primarily with foreign records, as the Chinese audiences increased, more Chinese songs and opera were included.

More from the “Shanghai in the 1930s” series:

Legendary Women

Fashion’s Avant-garde

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