People's republic of cool

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2005, 12:00am

For China's baby-boomers it's 'nostal-chic' - communist-era products that bring back childhood memories; for the generation Xers, the country's first post-poverty group, it's 'retro styling'; for westerners, it's 'communist chic' and reveals images of a mysterious life behind an iron curtain; and for style gurus and entrepreneurs, it's the beginning of a new revolution: China Cool.

Deng Xiaoping puffed his way through hundreds of packets of Double Happiness cigarettes; former United States president George Bush Snr rode around Beijing on a Flying Pigeon bicycle during his tour of duty at the US embassy there in the 1970s; and former prime minister Zhou Enlai kept time with a Shanghai wrist-watch. By any stretch of the imagination, these men are hardly icons of style, but the items they smoked, rode and passed the time with are fast becoming the brands that define a person's position in the hierarchy of chic.

China's domestic brands appear to have gone full circle. Forty years ago, locally produced brands were almost all that was available. That changed after 1978, when economic reforms opened the door for foreign imports. Throughout the 80s and 90s and to some extent today, west was best - bringing many of the country's cost-hungry, inefficient manufacturers to their knees.

The country's nouveaux riche now flaunt their success through western brands: Nike trainers, Canon cameras and Mercedes-Benz. They eschew old China as an embarrassing reminder of the country's status as a developing nation.

'China saw western success as a result of its product design, so it followed the western model,' says Lorraine Justice, head of the school of design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 'The question for Chinese designers and companies today is, do we look at what Japan and Korea have done or do we stay true to our Asian roots?'

A sophisticated, hip generation has arisen that could help save a slice of China's recent past. This generation has grown up with the internet and outgrown the vacuousness of the

MTV era; it is an entrepreneurial group with a better standard of living, education and eye for style than its predecessors.

As the mainland's post-poverty generation matures into adulthood, the children of the 80s - those born after the start of Deng's economic liberalisation programme in 1978 - are torn between wanting the newest bling things from overseas, and the simpler materialism of their childhoods, embodied by locally produced, iconic objects such as White Rabbit sweets, Hero fountain pens, Deer Brand thermos flasks and Seagull cameras. Increasingly, many are caught between their wallets and their memories, leaving design gurus wondering whether a combination of more spending power and the stirrings of nostalgia will produce a consumer boom to rival that of post-wall Germany, when former East Germans rushed to buy communist-era Trabant cars and other Soviet memorabilia.

Design experts say it is only a matter of time before the mainland is in the grip of 'nostal-chic'. And when the fever strikes, the rest of the world is likely to catch it. With China poised to be the biggest consumer market in the 21st century, it will wield enormous influence.

Pick up a product in any supermarket or department store and the chances are it will have 'Made in China' on the label. As the world's manufacturing centre, the country churns out more televisions, fridges, teaspoons and toys than any other country in history. Today, China is as synonymous with mass-produced consumer goods of dubious quality as Hong Kong was in the 70s. But go back 40 years, to a time when China was a closed economy. The capitalist west was seen as degenerative and its jeans, cool drinks, cameras and rock 'n' roll were signs of its impending downfall. China, on the other hand, saw itself as a strong, proud nation capable of reproducing everything the west could offer - only better and with greater moral value owing to tight government control and funding.

By dismantling Japanese electronics and borrowing technology from the Russians and East Germans (who had 'borrowed' their technology from the West Germans), China embarked on a manufacturing revolution of its own. The result was the production of cameras, watches, radios, shoes, bicycles, cigarettes and pens by the millions: everyday items used by farmers, workers, students and cadres. Some of the products, such as Seagull cameras, used parts and lenses of comparable if not better quality than those produced in the west, but sold for a fraction of the cost.

One icon considered worth saving is the Flying Pigeon - the mainland's biggest-selling bicycle. By 2001, the Flying Pigeon Company had sold 70 million bikes, including six million overseas. Big, black and sturdy, the male model - with a crossbar - was the preferred choice because, in the days of a 'one-bicycle household', a family of three could ride on it (father cycling, baby balanced on the front bar and wife at the back). The name Flying Pigeon was chosen to symbolise world peace, durability, speed and lightness. In 1989, a Flying Pigeon was presented to Bush Snr as a reminder of his Beijing days. Bush went on to head the CIA, leaving one to wonder if he was also in possession of a Seagull camera. The Seagull company was formed in Shanghai in 1949 and is China's biggest and oldest domestic camera brand. At one stage, it was the only camera on sale and owning a Seagull proved - even within the materialistic limits of the planned economy - that a person was doing alright. Today, the Seagull 4A-107 - a twin-lens reflex, box camera modelled on the benchmark 1948 Hasselblad with a chest-level viewfinder - costs about 2,000 yuan and is recommended by many international photography magazines. Retro in design, with a large, manually operated, black-and-white patterned focus knob, the camera is simple to use and produces a more artistic image than digital cameras.

Smoking is a popular pastime on the mainland and cigarettes top the 'nostal-chic' list. Take the classic Zhongnanhai brand. Created at the request of Mao Zedong, Zhongnanhai - the word refers to the compound where top Communist officials live and work in Beijing - was produced by the Beijing Cigarette Factory at 80 South Chang'an Street, opposite the ruler's headquarters. The first cigarette rolled off the production line in 1973. Today, it's the preferred puff of mainland pop stars and actors such as Vicki Zhao, Han Hong and Yu Quan, who have been spotted drawing on a Zhongnanhai, though all are rich enough to afford imported Marlboro Lights or Davidoff brands.

The successful Beijing publisher, An Boshun, smokes Yun Yan, a cigarette made of Yunnanese tobacco in an iconic, red-and-gold box decorated with a Chinese lantern. Other popular cigarettes include Double Happiness and Red Pagoda, both in old-fashioned boxes. The retro design is a big part of their appeal - at home and overseas.

'The red and white of the packet, the graphic image and the bold typeface become the brand value for Double Happiness,' says Charles Ng, chairman of the Hong Kong Designers Association. 'Promoted in China, it just becomes generic alongside all the other Chinese brands. It's never going to compete alongside Marlboro in the west, but using better-quality tobacco and with its status as a Chinese product, combined with a strong image, means it would definitely occupy a unique spot in the minds of western smokers.'

Ng is clearly a potential candidate for 'nostal-chic'. In his North Point office, the 46-year-old flicks through a pile of photographs and has a childhood story for each. White Rabbit sweets from his grandmother, a mainland relative taking his picture with a Seagull camera and the peasant-style canvas gym shoes nicknamed 'white fish'. As a designer, Ng appreciates the products' simple lines and form. 'They are very natural and spiritual with no fancy devices and that means they will have a huge market.'

Hong Kong-raised Ng's memories are in stark contrast to those of Beijing-born Yang Weimin. The 46-year-old nanny has less than fond memories of another iconic symbol of old China, the Deer Brand thermos flask. For decades the tall, usually red flask, garishly decorated with pink, blue and yellow flowers, with a tinny cup on top that burned your mouth, kept water hot for about one billion people. 'That old thing! I think I have one at home, but maybe I threw it out when we moved,' Yang says.

Her 24-year-old daughter, Lin Su, on the other hand, typifies the new generation of mainland Chinese for which the country's difficult journey to its current economic status are tales from a forgotten era. 'I remember we had one when I was little,' she says. 'They are unusual and quite hard to find now.'

If Lin were to travel 8,000km west to London's trendy Chelsea district, she would be in for a surprise. Jostling for space on the shelves of design guru Terence Conran's upmarket retail outlets, alongside the retro Doney portable Brionvega TV and funky Dyson vacuum cleaners, is a lookalike of her mother's Deer Brand thermos retailing for GBP19 ($280) versus 18 yuan ($17) on the mainland.

It was distant design gurus, such as Conran, who first saw the charm in the naive styles and bright colours of Chinese designs of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Often, the utilitarian objects featured motifs from nature - flowers, deer, a seagull; or traditional symbols such as a red lantern, pagoda, or Double Happiness character; or mythical creatures such as Flying Phoenix bicycles.

'Conran is always mixing traditional shades, and the flasks juxtapose nicely with our modern range,' says Liam Butler, marketing manager for Conran. The gaudy design means the flasks are more likely to be displayed on a hall table or in a kitchen cabinet than on the tea trays of London's polite society. 'Everything that goes into the range would work, but I don't expect our customers are buying them to fill with hot water,' says Butler.

Established in 1931 as the Huafujin Pen Factory, the Hero fountain pen factory acquired its politically correct name in an era that loved to declare heroes - the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. By 1970, the pen, modelled on an old-fashioned Parker, occupied 40 per cent of the Chinese market and

was used by leaders to sign international agreements, including the 1984 Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's handover, and China's accession to the World Trade Organisation. Millions of twentysomethings remember Hero as the pen their parents gave them when they first learned to write. They are enduringly popular, even if many people today use cheap, plastic ballpoints.

The mainland nowadays might tick to Rolexes, real or fake, but once the most coveted timepiece in the country was the Shanghai wrist-watch. The Shanghai Watch Industry was established in 1955 and since then has turned out more than 120 million timepieces. With large, white dials and plain gold, silver or black metal markings, the wind-up watches sold in the 70s for the princely sum of 120 yuan - many times a worker's monthly salary. People saved for years to buy one.

Time seemed to be running out for the company as cheap electronic watches began to replace traditional mechanical versions until 2001, when it received a cash injection from Hong Kong-based Nationwide Treasure Holdings. Nationwide's chief executive Teddy Cheng was quick to spot a market for the watch's retro style and it's Shanghai logo - Chinese characters, squeezed into a triangular shape. He recently assembled some of the original watches from a warehouse full of parts and brought them to Hong Kong, where they were an instant hit.

'They were the height of chic, but only available from flea markets,' he says. 'The company still had parts for 5,000 watches so we brought 1,000 to Hong Kong and they sold out in a week. You used to be able to pick up a second-hand one for $20, now you won't get [a new one] for less than $2,000.'

Cheng says he plans to update the original design and use a variety of materials for special editions. 'We are going to have 500 rose-gold cases ready for Christmas,' he says, adding, 'Friends are already calling me to ask when they are going to be ready.'

Beijing fashion designer Feng Ling has an atelier in the city's fashionable 798 factory district crammed with updated versions of the proletarian Sun Yat-sen suit and the cheongsam, many made in her favourite colours - olive green and deep red. On hangers beside them are tailored velvet overcoats that carry a whiff of the military. Feng specialises in 60s-style revolutionary clothes, modernised to appeal to the contemporary market.

'I think the design might have to be tweaked a little, but I think a revived Shanghai watch would definitely sell on its nostalgia value,' says Feng, tall, long-haired and glamorously dressed in lace and denim, straddling a red cloth-covered bench printed with revolutionary slogans.

Dennis Chan knows the value of Chinese products in overseas markets. Sitting in the Mandarin Oriental's Clipper lounge, the industrial designer grips a picture of a Hero pen. 'I love Hero pens. They were something I used as a child,' says the 46-year-old. 'People of my generation would love this. I want to help rebuild Chinese brands.'

Hero and Seagull are good brands, he says, but they need people who understand design and marketing to promote them. Ten years ago, Chan bought 3,500 of the Russian-made movements from Shanghai Watch, repackaged them in new retro-case designs and took them to Japan. They sold out in three months. 'The Japanese love this kind of stuff,' says Chan. 'Japanese firms are already going into China and buying up these old products.'

He points out that Italian industrial designer Luigi Colani worked on the design of one of Seagull's cameras. 'That's a good sign this kind of company is trying to bring new life into the brand,' he says. 'If Chanel made shoes with the cloth sole [black peasant shoe], they would sell out immediately.'

Like many of their peers Ng, Chan and Feng are in love with the aesthetic of the 60s, convinced even China's painful memories - the violent political campaigns of the period - were a necessary part of its people's history and culture. But looking back for many in China is painful, critics say; why turn to the past, when it was filled with so much suffering and economic deprivation? Could some design icons prove too painful to revive?

Feng, who counts the iconic pop star Cui Jian among her clients, doesn't believe so. 'People feel deeply about their past, even if it was painful,' she says. 'The 60s and 70s were a painful era for a lot of people. When I started doing my clothes I was worried people would reject my work. But I discovered that people really loved it. Our design past is worth digging around in. It's precious.'

Chinese design, says Feng, should not only hark back to the Imperial age; post-1949 design should also be celebrated. 'Everyone feels intimately connected to their past, it's part of their culture. Even if their lives were difficult, it was their life. So when older people told me off for bringing back things that reminded them of their suffering, I said: 'Everything has its good and its bad side. You can't deny that.''

While foreign buyers may not attach the same nostalgia to Chinese products, seeing them purely as trendy items, Feng believes young Chinese are beginning to see the value of local design.

'In the 60s it was all military-style stuff. Then in the 70s and 80s it was all about imported, western-style things. But now I think Chinese people are beginning to think, 'What is local style, what is really our own?' Certainly, among my friends, we talk about it; people who think about things are asking, 'How do we unite all these western things with our things? What is Chinese?''

Additional reporting by Paggie Leung