Cigarette packs yield trove for non-smoker
Before computer games came along to rivet the attention of the young, children used to play traditional games in Shanghai residential alleyways. One of them involved the trade cards tobacco manufacturers used to stiffen cigarette packaging and advertise their brands.
The children would draw a circle on the ground and each player would put a cigarette card inside. Then a player would toss another card, trying to create a whiff of air movement that would blow opponents’ cards out of the circle.
Another game involved flinging the cards to see whose would “fly” the furthest.
“There is a trick to flying cigarette cards,” says Feng Yiyou, 85, who has collected more than 60,000 of the cards. “You dip them in oil for a short time. They become heavier and thus have a longer flight distance.”
Feng is a cigarette card enthusiast even though he doesn’t smoke. The hobby has been in his family for generations, along with a disdain for smoking.
“My father began his collection when he was young,” says Feng. “My grandmother supported his interest while warning him against smoking tobacco. That advice continues to influence my family.”
Born in 1898, Feng’s father Feng Sunmei was known as master of cigarette cards and was one of the most famous collectors in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s. In those days, people of poorer means often could afford to buy no more than two or three cigarettes at a time. So Feng’s father stopped by tobacconist shops to ask the owners if he could have the cards left on the packs.
The cards featured drawings and script spanning a variety of topics, from history, literature, sports and engineering feats to landscapes, animals, weapons and famous people.
“I have concluded that there were three basic characteristics of cigarette cards,” Feng says. “First, they had both vivid pictures and explanation texts. Second, the cards had to have rich content, and third, superb artistry. A set of cigarette cards is just like a novel or a textbook.”
When he was a teacher in middle school, Feng showed the cards featuring scientists and engineering wonders to his students and told them stories behind the images.
Many cigarette cards became flash cards, of sorts, to teach his two daughters vocabulary.
“Back then, there weren’t many elaborate teaching materials, and cigarette cards were a great tool for learning drills,” says Feng. “Compared with stamps and matchbox labels, the cards are bigger, so they contain more information.”
The cards, made of light cardboard, were originally used to maintain the shape of soft cigarette packs and protect cigarettes from being crushed. They also provided an ideal medium for advertising.
According to Feng, one of the world’s earliest sets of advertising cigarette cards was issued by Thomas H. Hall in New York in 1880. The series of cards, entitled “Between the Acts,” depicted candidates for US president or famous actresses.
Foreign cigarettes came into China around 1890. It is said that a Japanese cigarette manufacturer sent 10 boxes of cigarettes to Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) as a tribute on her 60th birthday. Cixi was intrigued by the cigarette cards, which featured peacocks and beauties.
Cixi distributed the cigarettes to her nobles but kept the cards. They were later unearthed from her tomb in the Eastern Ding Mausoleum in Beijing.
Influenced by the empress, the public competed to collect cigarette cards. The frenzy reached its heyday in China in the 1920s and 30s, when there were 200 to 300 cigarette manufacturers in Shanghai, Feng says.
The earliest set of 32 cigarette cards in China was produced by a Shanghai company called Sanxing in 1904. The cards depicted 21 female celebrities, giving the public a glimpse of fashion trends and customs like foot-binding. The cards were also used to play pai gow, a traditional Chinese domino game.
Feng has a private museum, displaying his card collection in a community center in the Pudong New Area.
“I wanted more people to see the cigarette cards,” he says. “Knowing of that desire, my children rented a 300-square-meter space for me to exhibit my cards as a gift on my 80th birthday. I was very delighted. But considering the high rent and my advanced age, I finally moved the museum to the community center since there was room available there.”
The highlight of his collection is a card featuring the image of Confucius, displayed in a glass display cabinet. Issued in 1930, it is one of a set of 73 cards depicting Confucius and his 72 disciples.
An old advertising leaflet is placed alongside the cigarette cards. It says that anyone who collects the full set of cards can exchange them for a golden cigarette case, a pair of bracelets, a radio or even a car.
According to Feng, the offer quickly boosted demand for the cigarettes. However, no one was able to acquire the complete set because the crafty company had printed only three cards with the sage’s picture.
Feng’s father who worked as editor-in-chief of a newspaper was resolved to collect all the cards of the series, so he visited the company dozens of times. With the help of a Shanghai business magnate, he managed to take possession of one of the cherished Confucius cards on the condition that he wouldn’t exchange the card set for a gift and that he would publish a photo of the rare card in his newspaper. Sales of the cigarettes again skyrocketed.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Feng and his wife dedicated themselves to collecting cigarette cards after retirement in 1994. Apart from daily expenditures, they have spent all their money on the collection.
“I was once invited to eat Peking duck at a famous restaurant in Beijing,” Feng says. “However, I missed the meal because I was so immersed in strolling around an antique market that I lost track of time. Anyway, I could eat roast duck any time, but I couldn’t find hidden gems every day.”
To popularize the heritage of old cigarette cards, the octogenarian has held around 250 exhibitions and published over 100 articles. His book “Vintage Chinese Cigarette Cards Archive” has become a bible for the collectors.
Some cigarette cards have become very valuable. In 2007, a rare US cigarette card depicting Honus Wagner, a baseball hero, sold for US$2.8 million.