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525 Shaanxi Bei Lu - Nanyang Apartments

Just a few meters down the road from the Shanghai Vape store at 525 Shaanxi Bei Lu lies this beautiful white plaster 小区, Nanyang Apartments.

In an interesting link to our current vape business, Nanyang Apartments was commissioned by the Nan Yang Brothers Tobacco Company – manufacturers of the Double Happiness brand of cigarettes and responsible for many of the famous “cigarette girl” marketing posters that brought a touch of glamour to the tobacco industry from the turn of the 20th Century and continue to inform Chinese graphic design to this day.

Probably no other cigarette brand has quite infiltrated the Chinese culture in quite the same way as Nanyang brothers Double Happiness brand. Found in duty free stores around the world Double Happiness cigarettes could also be seen in the mouths of every male guest at Chinese weddings around the nation in the 1980s and 1990s, dutifully being lit by the bride as a token of gratitude for attending her special day.

Originally from Foshan, the eldest brother of the Chien/Jian family (and co-founder of Nanyang Brothers Tobacco Group) made his fortune in Japan and invested in Japanese machinery and technicians to help build a cigarette factory in Hong Kong. British American Tobacco, at the time selling over one billion cigarettes a month in China alone were the biggest player in the tobacco market at the time – manufacturing up to two-thirds of China’s total cigarette output. By contrast, Chien’s modest operation could only produce a maximum of 300,000 cigarettes a day…

Although in the early days 75% of Nan Yang’s cigarettes were sold to Singapore, and most of the rest to other overseas countries with relaxed tobacco import policies, an interesting phenomenon unique to the Chinese diaspora in south east Asia led to peaks in sales.

“When diplomatic incidents or political events in China triggered Chinese boycotts or other patriotic demonstrations, Nanyang’s sales in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia rose, and when these mass protests subsided, Nanyang’s sales fell.” Nanyang’s marketing campaigns led the way with the slogan “Chinese people should smoke Chinese cigarettes”.

Riding each political crest and then closing the factory whenever production requirements fell away, Nanyang Brothers didn’t see real success until the Chinese revolution of 1911 and 1912, funding and supporting Sun Yat-Sen’s republicans and reaping the benefits of nationalistic fervour.

Some of the patriotic marketing materials from Nanyang Brothers

Although successful in southern China and amongst overseas Chinese, Nanyang Brothers always struggled to break into the Shanghai market with their nationalistic marketing campaigns. Wang Shih-Jen (Nanyang’s Shanghai representative) claimed, “Shanghai men are most complicated. The love in their hearts for national goods is thin and weak. Those among the upper classes…smoke expensive cigarettes to appear elegant…therefore if we can produce a brand of cigarettes…and price it more expensively, Shanghai men will take it more seriously.” Taking a southerly walk from Shaanxi Bei Lu towards the corner of West Nanjing Road you can almost hear Wang’s words echoing around the lobby of Plaza 66’s glistening luxury shopping mall.

Plaza 66, with corner of Shaanxi Bei Lu and Nanyang Lu visible between the towers

As the dominant player in the tobacco market, BAT used a variety of bullying tactics to try to crush any competition to their near monopoly. As well as various underhand ploys (like buying up all of Nanyang’s cigarettes, letting them grow mouldy in their own warehouses, then selling into the market at discounted rates to ruin Nanyang’s reputation for product quality) they also aligned with political groups to ensure that all cigarettes entering various provinces were taxed upon entry – except, of course, BAT’s own brands.

The Capitol Theater and British American Tobacco Offices, known as Shahmoon Building and still there today on the corner of Suzhou Nan Lu and Huqiu Lu operating as Shanghai International Trade House

Although Nanyang took pride in their status as a Chinese brand, BAT started a campaign to make people distrust the national roots of the company - accusing Nanyang of cooperating with the Japanese (true, in a strictly commercial sense), being a Japanese company (untrue, although Nanyang did owe their company’s success to Japanese technology and engineers) and of being traitors to China (as the elder brother of Nanyang held Japanese as well as Chinese citizenship). Even though British American Tobacco was also a foreign enterprise, they saw no hypocrisy in denting the nationalistic ideals of Nanyang brothers whenever they could.

Having battled through the tough market conditions over many years, Nanyang entered into negotiations with BAT on two separate occasions to try and find a more harmonious route to market, interspersed with a failed attempt to create a national tobacco authority with the crumbling nationalist government. Having worked so hard to develop the Nanyang Brothers Tobacco Company, the family continued to face difficulties when the KMT government (now led by Chang Kai-Shek, who also owned a house on Shaanxi Bei Lu) began to levy high taxes and extort company profits.

While the family retained control of the company during the building of Nanyang Apartments in 1933 (following the death of the eldest Chien in 1913) eventually they lost control of the Nanyang Tobacco Company in 1937 following the Japanese occupation of China. Nationalised in 1951, Nanyang Brothers Tobacco Company is now listed on the HKSE as a subsidiary of Shanghai Industrial Holdings Ltd and continues to manufacture Double Happiness cigarettes amongst other tobacco products.

The former site of the Nanyang Brothers Tobacco Company on East Broadway Road (now Dongdaming Lu on the north side of the Huangpu, two minutes walk East of Garden Bridge)

If you’re interested in living a bit of this history, you can find a beautifully renovated apartment overlooking Chang Kai Shek’s former house on Airbnb listed as Nanyang Terrace…

#shaanxibeilu #historicalshanghai #nanyangbrothers #britishamericantobacco

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