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Collectors preserve their passion
By Qu Zhi

Once-common cigarette cards and first-edition magazines were considered disposable by most people. But two men, both surnamed Feng but unrelated, who now live in the Pudong New Area, patiently collected them. Qu Zhi shows how their troves have historic, cultural and even artistic significance today.

Feng Yiyou: Cigarette cards

Feng Yiyou, 80 years old, still remembers the old days when he and his friends crouched down together at the corner of Shanghai’s longtang urban lanes playing with cigarette cards. The small cards of animals, fictional figures, sports, trains and photos used to come in cigarette packets.

They folded the cards slightly in the middle and arranged them in a line. Then they slapped each card with their palm in an effort to get the card to turn over. The one who turned over the most cards was the winner and got the others’ cards.

“This was my favorite game in the past,” Feng recalled. For little Feng, cigarette cards were more than a game but also an important way to learn about the world, and his enduring hobby.

Feng said he has never smoked, not even one cigarette. But he still collected more than 50,000 cigarette cards dating from late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to the early 20th century, including cards from the East to the West.

Childhood fun

Last year, with the help of his daughter and son-in-law, Feng opened a museum showcasing 4,000 pieces of his collection, including old cigarette boxes, in a residential area hidden amid the skyscrapers of Lujiazui in the Pudong New Area. He rotates the collection regularly and admission is free.

“Cigarette cards are a very important thing that sadly many young people have never even heard of. I feel obligated to preserve this culture and let more people come and enjoy it,” Feng told Shanghai Daily.

Originating around 1870 in America, cigarette cards were produced domestically in China and not widely imported after about 1890. At first the cards were used to stiffen cigarette packaging, and had no pictures on them, according to Feng. The tobacco manufacturers, however, started to use them for advertising and they became more and more artistic and educational and sometimes even whimsical.

Vivid illustration

The cards mainly were of two sizes: 60mm by 35mm with a pack of 10 cigarettes and 65mm by 50mm with a pack of 20 cigarettes.

“Paper is universally recognized as the best material for cigarette cards while for advertising, the manufacturers really tried everything,” Feng explained. In his museum, there are cards made of wool, cotton, sophisticated embroidery and even glass.

“After 1945, almost all manufacturers stopped producing cigarette cards. Since then, they have gradually faded away, ” said Feng.

“The cards are vividly illustrated, covering a wide range of subjects and sometimes you see old photos on the cards. On the back of the cards are brief descriptions of the images. They taught me how to play soccer. Also I read ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’ (“Shui Hu Zhuan”) for the first time on them,” he said.

When Feng was little, almost all the information people received was in black and white, and cigarette cards were nearly the only things he had that were colorful. “When I was a child, the most exciting thing was helping others buy a pack of cigarettes and waiting for a new surprise on the tobacco card,” the old man remembered with a smile on his face.

Feng’s infatuation with tobacco cards also follows the footsteps of his father, Feng Mei. “My father had collected 70,000 cigarette cards at his peak,” he said.

However, in 1966, the cultural revolution began, and during that time having cigarette cards was regarded as a sign of being a “capitalist roader.” Cards could be considered feudalistic if they had superstitious stories or cultural elements from China’s past.

Surviving the turbulence

“By that time I was a teacher, already a bad profession in class status, and if they found those cards at my flat during a search, the whole family would suffer a huge disaster,” Feng recalled.

In desperation, Feng and his family started to destroy the valuable collection of his father. Terrified they would be discovered, they didn’t burn the cards since smoke might draw attention. “Day after day, we sat together at midnight and tore up the cards into pieces and then hid them in a basket till the next morning to throw them away secretly,” Feng said, sighing repeatedly. On one night, they tore up 3,000 cards.

The cultural revolution ended in 1976, and Feng started trying to find duplicates to put the lost collection back together. Every day that he could, Feng went to different old book markets and flea markets in each corner of Shanghai searching for the cards. “Except for living expenses, all my salary and my wife’s went to the card collection,” Feng said.

At Feng’s cigarette card museum, visitors can see the first colored cigarette cards in the world, made in 1894 by a British company, stereoscopic cards and even cards collected by Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908).

But except for the whimsically designed or precious pieces, Feng particularly likes the cards with photos on them.

He pointed out a small group of black and white cards in his exhibition room. “They have real photos taken during the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) and you can see how brutal it was. Those small cards actually witnessed history,” he said.

There is a guest book on the reception desk of the museum, which allows visitor to sign their names and leave their reflections. “It truly rewards the effort seeing that many people appreciate the cards as a vital part of cigarette culture,” he said.

When visitors go to the cigarette card museum, Feng likes to take them around and slowly tell them the stories of those small cards in his deep voice.

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Feng Jianzhong: First-edition magazines

Feng Jianzhong has a habit he has observed at least a few days a week for decades: He gets up at around 3am, taking just enough cash and a bottle of water, and immediately hits the road toward different nighttime antique or flea markets in various districts of Shanghai. The markets close before sunrise, so he must hurry.

“It is called ‘ghost market.’ Collectors, venders or anyone who has a bric-a-brac for sale or barter will get together in a particular place and adjourn at dawn,” Feng said. The tradition started in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and the name came from  people who gathered around a lantern with a dim, flickering light looking like ghosts, he said.

Since it’s getting tougher to find the items he likes, he usually goes to the regular antique markets afterwards, as they are opening. Sunday is his only day of rest.

Picking up the hobby

Feng, 54, a retired factory worker, is now chief of the Pudong Collectors Association. He has collected a whopping 12,000 debut issues of journals and magazines dating back to the Qing Dynasty. “It’s like I’m preserving the first picture of a newborn baby,” he tells Shanghai Daily.

In 1979, when Feng was 19, he joined the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in South China’s Guangdong Province. “I was a man of few interests, while reading was my biggest enjoyment,” he said. In the military, Feng spent all his quality time on reading newspapers and magazines. At the time, he was paid 6 yuan (around 98 US cents now) each month and all the money went toward buying printed material.

Since he cherished them too much to throw them away, Feng kept his magazines under the bed in his dormitory. One day when he was organizing them, he found 15 were the publications’ first issues.

“I like the forward of each first-issue journal, always beautifully written and specially planned. Also I found the first issues of the journals have great historical value, so I started to keep an eye on them,” Feng recalled.

Collection passion

That moment of realization triggered Feng’s collection passion. He traded for them with soldiers in other cities using snacks and even new clothes sent from his hometown Shanghai. After three years in the army, Feng returned to Shanghai with only a quilt and 200 magazines in his baggage.

In Shanghai, Feng got a job at a petrochemical plant but didn’t earn much. “But even then, I was willing to pay double or even triple the price for a journal I wanted. Over time, book dealers in the markets knew that and would keep the rare ones for me,” Feng said.

Life was not easy. His parents scolded him for wasting money and even his girlfriend left him because of his hobby. Feng still lives in a humble apartment in his native Pudong with piles and piles of journals in a small living room since he barely has enough space to keep them all.

Feng has a chronicle of the magazines in his mind — for each one you pick from his collection, he will give you a brief summation of its history and content. “The first journal in China was issued in Shanghai and I hope one day, sooner or later, there will be a museum of journals in Shanghai,” he said.

Besides the first edition magazines, Feng also has collected a dozen things that “reflect the zeitgeist” of different eras, including old film posters, writer’s manuscripts and antique wedding goods. He occasionally holds exhibitions in Shanghai that always are free.

“I don’t have enough money even to rent a place for a permanent exhibition, but I always welcome people if someone is interested in my collections and wants to come visit my place. Just give me a call in advance,” he said.

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