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January 13, 2018

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Sun Sun profited from fresh, innovative ideas

THE people behind Sun Sun Co, the third of the four big Chinese department stores on Nanjing Road (the other three being Sincere Co, Wing On and The Sun), borrowed a bit from ancient Chinese classics to mark itself out from its competitors and strike a chord among the locals.

The names, Sun Sun and The Sun, contain the Chinese character “xin” or “new,” according to Li Chengji, the son of Sun Sun’s former manager Li Minzhou. The younger Li has been quoted as saying that the store’s name was inspired by a line from the Confucian classic “Da Xue” or “Great Learning.”

Shanghai Archives Bureau researcher Zhang Yaojun says “it implied making new progress and achievement every day.”

“Unlike the first two stores — Sincere and Wing On — Sun Sun Co and The Sun had to dig deep into their pockets to rent a place on Nanjing Road because of soaring land price. Despite that, the two stores fearlessly marched into this popular street, and strived to make innovations to surpass their competitors,” Zhang says.

Founded by Chinese merchant S. K Lau, Sun Sun Co opened in 1926 on the crossroad of today’s Nanjing and Guangxi roads. With experience of business in Australia, Lau returned to China and joined the Sincere Co of Shanghai as a sub-manager and was later promoted as a manager. He resigned in 1924 and set up the Sun Sun Co in collaboration with a group of enterprising businessmen within a little more than two years.

When the emporium’s doors were “thrown open for inspection” in January 1926, it was described as a “spacious, commodious and different department store” by The North-China Herald.

The ground floor showcased wines and spirits, stationery and a savings bank while the first floor contained silks, boots and shoes. The second floor was devoted to chinaware, glass, electric fixtures, clocks and watches while the third floor was stocked with brass and iron bedsteads, carpets and black wood furniture.

More than 50,000 foreign and Chinese patrons went from floor to floor on the day of its opening and “found almost anything that one can ‘buy in Chicago,’ and perhaps even some articles that are not purchasable in the metropolis of department stores.”

The edifice was also “a tribute to Shanghai’s growth and future prosperity.”

“Constructed on the most modern lines, plenty of windows and good indirect lighting, comfortable lifts and adequate display counters, the new premises will delight prospective purchasers and make shopping a pleasure,” The North-China Herald said in a report.

According to Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, Sun Sun Co reveals a more modern style than its predecessors — Sincere and Wing On.

“Divided into three sections, the facade is designed in Art Deco style, or more accurately a transition from neoclassic to Art Deco style,” Qian says.

The architect was C. H. Gonda, a renowned Hungarian architect, whose works included the Cathay Theater on Huaihai Road, No. 14 on the Bund and the Capitol Theater in today’s Waitanyuan, all of which feature an ultra-modern style. In 1930, the architect also renovated the 19th-century building of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co Ltd on Nanjing Road, which at one time was the largest foreign-owned department store in modern Shanghai.

Lu Yongyi, another Tongji University professor in architectural history, notes the facade of Sun Sun Co mirrored the Chicago school of architecture.

“Sun Sun’s extraordinary signature tower fashioned the building into a commercial monument of a fresh style,” she wrote in a recent paper “The Four Department Stores of Shanghai in the Early 20th Century.”

In the era of the four department stores, architectural design participated in the competition for space and capital in metropolitan Shanghai, Lu noted.

“The strenuous efforts to achieve architectural heights reflected congregation and competition of the four stores, but more importantly, the position of Chinese capitals in a foreign settlement,” she said.

Glass Radio Station

Sun Sun Co boldly experimented with innovations since its opening in 1926.

The North-China Herald mentioned that “one of the most popular devices installed in the new store of the Sun Sun Co is the Perfume Ball from which drips scented spray down on the first step of the stairway on the ground floor.” 

It attracted customers who waited to catch every drop on their handkerchiefs or coat sleeves.

The China Press noted that what “strikes the eye at once is the spacious central stairway, flanked by roomy lifts capable of carrying twenty persons.”

In addition, Sun Sun Co also worked out a variety of promotional ideas such as giving out free cigarettes, inviting “some of the city’s prettiest girls” to parade for an exhibition of modern swimsuits or hosted toy shows.

But researcher Zhang says the store’s greatest promotional idea was a “glass radio station.” 

“Manager Lau thought there was no point in imitating Sincere and Wing On stores and opening an amusement park on the roof garden. So he came up with the idea of a radio station,” researcher Zhang says.

Back in the 1920s, radio programs were still new to many Chinese as the first wireless radio station opened only in 1923 and the stations were all owned by foreign companies.

A Lau’s employee, a technician named Kuang Zan who had studied wireless technology in San Francisco, agreed to design and manufacture the equipment for Sun Sun’s radio station. It began to broadcast pleasant music from March 18, 1927 from the store’s sixth floor.

The station broadcast six hours every day featuring mostly traditional opera programs while promoting the store’s products and special promotions.

“When more radio stations opened in Shanghai, smart Lau renovated the broadcasting room into an all transparent glass room. The ‘glass radio station’ allowed people to see the usually mysterious broadcasting process. It became a major attraction and helped in increasing the store’s sales considerably,” Zhang says.

Today, the glass radio stations are a thing of the past but the Art Deco building is still blessed with good business by serving as Shanghai First Foodhall, a Nanjing Road flagship of Shanghai First Food Chain Development Co Ltd.

The 10,000-square-meter foodhall has been open since 1954 and offers more than 20,000 kinds of food products in its four floors. According to General Manager Yang Jing, the customers include both locals and tourists who contribute to an amazing sale of 600 million yuan (US$92 million) every year.

A paradise for food lovers, the mall is filled with traditional Chinese or imported food and flooded with customers from around the country.

You can now only imagine former scenes in the building when a beautiful young lady sat behind a glass and in a soft-toned voice spoke into the microphone.

Renowned Shanghai composer Chen Gang’s mother Jin Jiaoli was a broadcaster at the Sun Sun radio station.

“It was the first radio station to be designed, equipped and founded by a Chinese. I think it was also a kind of symbol of transparent, open radio station and white-collar Chinese women began entering metropolitan life,” the 83-year-old musician wrote in a book themed on old Shanghai songs and singers. He titled the book “The Glass Radio Station.”

Yesterday: Sun Sun Co
Today: Shanghai First Foodhall
Address: 720 Nanjing Rd E.
Date of construction: 1926
Architectural style: Art Deco
Architect: C. H. Gonda

Tips: Admire the building’s simply cut Art Deco facade bathed in sunlight before entering the food mall which offers one of the city’s most complete collections of traditional Shanghai food.

Next building: The Sun, January 27


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