Sincere started the trend of women shop assistants

Sincere Department Store, one of the four Chinese-owned stores on Nanjing Road E. in the early 1900s, celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. 
Sincere started the trend of women shop assistants
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The century-old Sincere Co Building, now housing the Jinjiang Star Hotel and Shanghai Fashion Store, launched the era of "four big Chinese department stores on Nanjing Road" in 1917.

The doors of Shanghai Sincere Department Store were thrown open to the public 100 years ago that launched the era of “four big Chinese department stores on Nanjing Road.”

“The usually quieter corner of Nanjing and Zhejiang roads was bustling on October 20, 1917 with curious locals visiting the newly opened Sincere department store. Their eyes dazzled at the sight of global products and the store was packed with people until evening,” says Shanghai Archives Bureau’s Zhang Yaojun, who did extensive research on the four big department stores on Nanjing Road.

“Within two decades, three other big department stores — Wing On, Sun Sun and The Sun — sprung up successively on the golden Nanjing Road,” he adds.

A day before the opening of Sincere store, The Shanghai Times published a story tracing the history of the Sincere Co back to 1900 in Hong Kong and later in Guangdong and Singapore before reaching Shanghai.

The report also previewed “everything that the heart of man or woman desires: The optician is ready to test the eyes of a customer; the watch repairing establishment is open; while the wares and products of many countries are displayed attractively amid a wealth of flowers and palm trees. The cafe, the theaters, the cinematographs, etc, are bound to attract the crowds ...”

Zhang has found considerable similarities among the four department stores whose founders were mainly Chinese merchants, all of whom earned their first buckets of gold by selling fruits in Australia. They returned to China with the intention of “saving China through business.”

“Sincere, Wing On and The Sun companies had already made remarkable achievements in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but these Chinese entrepreneurs had cast their eyes on Shanghai, especially Nanjing Road, leading to a surge in land prices back then,” Zhang says.

Ma Yingbiao, founder of the Sincere Co, selected the venue after conducting a careful field survey of Nanjing Road in 1914.

Ma found that the section of Nanjing Road E. near the Bund was dominated by big foreign-owned stores like Hall & Holtz and Whiteway Laidlaws. However, the section west to Henan Road was crammed with small Chinese shops, which had limited products and could not win against their foreign competitors. 

Sincere started the trend of women shop assistants
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The historical building retains the beautiful veranda along the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall.

Sincere started the trend of women shop assistants
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The Sincere Co Building is a typical commercial architecture with ornamented columns and a tower on the corner.

The survey strengthened Ma’s determination to open a big Chinese-owned department store on the prominent Nanjing Road.

“After the survey of the location and people, Ma handpicked the site to build the Sincere store. He chose the former site of a dim sum shop and a teahouse on the crossroad of Nanjing and Zhejiang roads,” says Qian Zonghao, a Tongji University professor and author of the book “Nanjing Road (1840s-1950s).”

Ma rented the site from a British landlord, established the Shanghai Sincere Co and built a 7-floor classic Baroque building in three years. The name “Sincere” displayed his business idea of selling good-quality products at honest, transparent prices.

According to a report on the North-China Herald on October 20, 1917, the general construction of Sincere was a reinforced concrete skeleton filled with bricks and stones. In the center of the store was a large “light well” with an ornamental skylight.

There were two enclosed concrete staircases to the store. The external walls had blue Ningpo stones all the way to the first floor and Japanese granite chip cement above them. The columns, the cornices and dressings were of patent stone.

“The store is the largest and most up-to-date Chinese-owned store in Shanghai, at which everything from a needle to an elephant (toy) can be obtained. The ground floor has sections for grocery and provisions, wines, spirits, liquors, kitchenware, hardware, cigars, tobaccos, smoker’s requisites, patent medicines, perfumes, confectionery, etc. The first floor is for drapery, millinery, tailoring, haberdashery, furs, etc. The second floor is for porcelain and other household supplies, electric goods, sports goods, toys, musical instruments, etc. On the third floor are the general offices of the company and the furniture department,” the report said.

“The general external style of the premise was Western neo-classical with Baroque elements. It was a typical commercial architecture with a tower on the corner and ornamented columns,” says professor Qian.

Sincere started the trend of women shop assistants
Shanghai Fashion Store / Ti Gong

An archive photo of Sincere store's lobby

Sincere started the trend of women shop assistants
Shanghai Fashion Store and Shanghai Archives Bureau / Ti Gong

An archive photo of the porcelain and electrical appliances section

Roof garden and women shop assistants

As the first Chinese-owned big department store, Sincere enjoyed considerable success. Ma and his team tried out novel ideas for promotion, such as a roof garden and even published advertisements to hire women as shop assistants.

“Traditional Chinese women were supposed to be housewife, so Sincere’s attempt to hire shop assistants was like ‘the first one to eat a hairy crab.’ No one responded to the ad for one month. Then, Ma’s wife Ho Qingtang and her two sisters-in-law volunteered to be the first ones, which was a great advertisement for Sincere Co,” Zhang says.

According to Shen Ji’s book “Old Shanghai Nanjing Road,” the department store customers were mainly Chinese. Outdone by the domestic stores both in size and in business scale, their foreign rivals took a big hit. The four Chinese-owned department stores became a symbol of Nanjing Road.

Today the Sincere Co building is shared by Jinjiang Star Hotel and Shanghai Fashion Store, a company owned by the state-run Shanghai Bailian Group Co Ltd. According to Liu Jinxing, director of the administration office of the store, the shop still enjoys good business by selling a variety of Chinese cashmere sweaters and clothes for middle aged and the elderly.

“Most of our customers are tourists on Nanjing Road. Our sales were in the top three in the Bailian Group last year,” Liu says, adding that they made a documentary to mark the store’s centennial this autumn.

Among the other three stores, Wing On now serve as the state-owned Wing On Department Store; Sun Sun is now the Shanghai No. 1 Food Store; and The Sun, which housed the Shanghai No. 1 Department Store, has closed for renovation. With new shopping malls mushrooming across the city every year, the four big department stores are striving hard to revive their past glory.

“The four stores not only kicked off a new era of Shanghai’s modern department stores, but also guided the city’s modern trend and altered Shanghainese habits and lifestyles,” Zhang says. “The grand buildings are still there, but their glory has been long forgotten. It’s a bit sad but fortunately research material of the four stores are well preserved by the Shanghai Archives Bureau."

Sincere started the trend of women shop assistants
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The external style of the premise is Western Neoclassical with Baroque elements.

Other shopping areas paled in comparison to Nanjing Road 

Architect Tang Yu’en, who restored the Fairmont Peace Hotel on Nanjing Road E., says that the four big department stores made Nanjing Road different from other shopping streets in Shanghai.

“The four emporiums introduced the business model of department stores in Shanghai, which was in vogue overseas early in the last century. These establishments stood out from other shopping streets,” says the architect who also designed the Shanghai Library and restored the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund.

Tang says that the four stores were different from traditional Chinese commercial architecture and featured Chinese-style big roofs and memorial gateways.

“Traditional Chinese shops that usually lined along the street or the river were arranged in a linear way. The four department stores had a much larger area, covered a whole block and were built with modern commercial idea with goods and products transported through inner smaller streets while customers entered through two larger streets,” she says.

Tang says the quality of all the four stores had fallen compared with their heydays as Nanjing Road itself had changed. It was dotted with low-price shops and crammed with group tourists.

“The four department stores had very nice roof gardens and hosted dance parties and concerts in summer. They offered a variety of services and entertainment options. The four buildings dramatically upgraded Nanjing Road and reflected what a Far Eastern city like Shanghai was like early last century,” Tang says.

Building details

Yesterday: The Sincere Co Building

Today: Shanghai Fashion Store

Date of construction: 1917

Architectural style: Western neo-classical with Baroque elements

Address: 299 Nanjing Road E.

Tips: Please note the change of architectural styles of the four big department stores on Nanjing Road while Sincere Co Building, built in 1917, boasts a classic style.

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