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Famous brands of yesteryear make a comeback

GRANDMA used to swear by her Xiefuchun duck-egg face powder and her Baiqueling hand lotion. Now these time-honored old brands are showcased in a new shopping mall exclusively for nostalgia goods. Zhang Qian reports.

People today show off with luxury imported handbags, wristwatches and cosmetics, but in the 20s and 30s of last century, and even in the 70s and 80s, status symbols were famous Chinese and Shanghai brands such as Xiefuchun cosmetics, Wangxingjie hand-held fans, and Zhangxiaoquan scissors.

Many are long gone, but some remain and have been revived around the country.

A four-floor shopping mall showcasing more than 100 famous brands opened in Pudong New Area in late May and is attracting some customers, as well as nostalgia seekers and the curious.

Zhonghua Laozihao Shangcheng (Time-Honored Chinese Brand Shopping Mall) at the Pudong Road S. near Zhangyang Road features examples of such cosmetics, appliances, bicycles, wristwatches, food stuffs, clothing and fans.

Most come from other cities and provinces and are familiar to local old-timers because they were sold in Shanghai.

Almost all the famous brands are more than 100 years old, according to Daisy Wang, a member of the mall's planning department.

Many Chinese customers relied on time-tested brands, known as "laozihao" (time-honored brands with 100 years history), and swore by their quality.

Though many products were indeed of good quality, inefficient manufacturing and marketing made them lose market share as they were swamped by competition from products from overseas since China's reform and opening up in the late 1970s.

Many of the surviving time-honored brands have regained popularity, especially with young people who are reminded of the value of Chinese culture.

The first cosmetics company in China was Xiefuchun in Yangzhou City, Jiangsu Province, opened in 1830. It was especially famous for three products - "duck-egg" (shaped like little eggs) powder, scented hair oil and scented bars. The colorful "eggs" were threaded on strings that contained eggs for lipstick, rouge, foundation and other essentials. Ladies sometimes wore bracelets of colorful eggs, so they could fix their makeup anywhere.

The products were used by the royal families of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and got the silver award for products in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 (Moutai spirits won gold).

"We used to be the No. 1 company in the field before the 1990s," says Chen Gang, chairman of the trade union of Xiefuchun Cosmetic Co. "But we lost the market quickly with the invasion of cosmetics from overseas."

Imported and easy-to-use "xuehuagao" (skincare cream) was preferred by a lot of consumers since the 1980s, according to Chen. Xiefuchun did try to update to more timely products like skincare creams, but could not compete.

The same is true of other time-honored brands, such as Changzhou hair combs, (first made 1,600 years ago), and 135-year-old Wangxingji handheld fans. Imported and domestic plastic combs and electric fans dominated the market.

During the worst time, Wangxingji lost around 1 million yuan (US$147,358) annually, according to Sun Yaqing, chairman of Wangxingji Fan Co.

The old fashioned hair combs and the handheld fans are also featured in the new mall.

Though many of these companies were written off or went under, some make a comeback around 2000 when quite a few decided to use their traditional techniques to deliver an updated, more fashionable-looking product. After all, the sold traditional techniques were their strength.

"Assembly lines are more efficient but they can never compete with handmade crafts in delicacy," says Jin Songqun, chairman of the Changzhou Comb Co.

Selecting fine boxwood, carving every tooth of the comb in the same sword shape, and adding delicate decoration by experienced craftsmen were the basis for the nationwide fame of Changzhou combs and should still be used today, in Jin's opinion.

The issue is maintaining quality while not going out of business with the costly procedure.

A traditional comb requires 28 steps to make and the double-edged comb requires 73. Though the basic steps can be completed by machines, the company insists on hand work throughout for the double-edged comb.

It usually takes about half a year to process materials for a set of combs and another 10 to 15 days for the actual work, but Jin says it's worthwhile as that's the only way the time-honored tradition can be maintained.

Similarly, more than 80 separate steps are required to complete a traditional Wangxingji handheld fan, and a worker can only complete several duck-egg powders per day.

The emphasis today, with the right marketing, on traditional exclusive products can give time-honored brands a big advantage, according to Chen of Xiefunchun.

And the traditional delicate processing is also a selling point, ensuring that most products are not copied.

Some of the low-end Wangxingji fans with simpler structures can be copied quickly and sold on the streets, but the high-end fans require so much work that there can be no knock-offs, he says.

"We insist selling art works with souls rather than just works," says Sun, "Only the art works can survive and grow; simple works will quickly be replaced."

But turning out the same old time-honored products and packaging isn't enough - nostalgia alone won't bring customers.

Almost all the surviving time-honored brands have added modern ingredients in one way or another.

For example, Xiefuchun is also developing lamb placenta products popular as an anti-aging treatment.

And Da A Fu from Jiangsu Province's Wuxi City is no longer the only figure of famous Huishan clay figurines - he is joined by figures from local operas, legends and modern history.

Some of the time-honored brands use not only their own retail stores, but online shops and tourist shops are other channels.

Still, all is not well. Since most of the time-honored products involve demanding techniques and experience, few young people are willing to spend years as apprentices. Even if they become masters, there's not much money to be made, and money seems the overriding goal today.

"All of our workers are over 40 years old now," says Jin of Changzhou Comb Co. "We are going to face a big talent gap when they are retire within 20 years. I hope that more support from the government can help change the situation."


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