Chinese calendar posters of the 1920s are easy to find in Hong Kong. Antique stalls along Hollywood Road have hundreds of them and, with a little light-hearted banter, you can knock the price down to about $80 a piece. To the casual observer they might look old, but that is thanks to little more than yellow dye and a few strategically placed tears.
'Many merchants rub dirt into the posters to make them look old and if you look carefully you can see brush marks on the paper where they have washed them with yellow paint,' says William Chiang. This is the reason why Chiang, owner of China Art on Hollywood Road, decided to put up his own exhibition of calendar posters - to show collectors what the real things should look like.
After eight years of sourcing the posters from Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, Chiang has a collection of almost 600. They will be on display at China Art from April 26 to May 13, with prices averaging $2,500 each.
The posters are a fine example of early advertising and marked the beginning of commercialism in China. They were popular throughout the 1920s and 30s and their demise 60 years ago marked the end of the 'Shanghai era'. The posters experienced a resurgence in the early 90s and genuine vintage pieces are now as sought-after as ever.
Calendar posters had been around since 1885, but they reached the height of their popularity when overseas companies hit on them as a way of promoting their products. Cigarette merchants, pharmacies and gasoline companies all made use of the new medium. The breakthrough came when someone hit on the idea of getting well-known artists to paint attractive young women, engaging in leisurely activities.
Although they were originally hand-painted, the introduction of lithographic printing made them prolific. New painting techniques also added to their widespread appeal. Artist Zheng Man Tuo was the first to mix charcoal with colour to produce more life-like images. Other artists, such as Guan Hui Nong and Hu Bo Xiang experimented with the style.
Although these posters mainly adorned middle-class homes in their time, they have a place in the history of modern art in China for allowing artists to break through from classical ink paintings to using Western perspectives. The women in the posters usually wore cheongsams and the traditional Chinese dress was complemented with Western accessories, such as high-heels and permed hairdos. The subjects also took a variety of roles from the virtuous wife and mother, who usually appeared in prints at Chinese New Year, to scantily clad women in seductive poses.