Past lifestyle mainstays are modern collectibles
Eggs, milk, meat, sweets, rice and light bulbs, the ubiquitous daily necessities found in every supermarket, were in such short supply in China from the 1950s to the early 1990s that they were rationed.
At that time, money was not everything. Only with ration coupons could people buy basic commodities. The inconspicuous scraps of paper were as precious as money to every family.
“We stored the coupons in the top drawer of a wudou cabinet (a chest with five drawers, often placed in bedrooms) and locked it up,” said Shi Guoqing, 62.
Yesterday’s precious pieces of paper are today’s collectors’ items. Shi, a member of the Shanghai Collection Association, has amassed more than 10,000 ration coupons.
The coupons were mainly categorized into eight groups: grains, edible oil, meat and eggs, non-staple food, textiles, household supplies, industrial products and capital goods. Each type was further divided. The subcategory of household supplies, for example, included soaps, matches, toothpaste and furniture, each with separate coupons.
Allocations varied with work assignments. Shi showed me a blue-covered booklet that recorded his grain purchases. As an office worker, he was entitled to a maximum 14.75 kilograms of rice every month.
“Manual workers were allowed 17.5-20kg,” said Shi. “A family of five or more was called dahu, or big family, and was given more rations than a small family of four or less.”
He said families went to subdistrict offices quarterly and picked up coupons by showing their household registries.
Retired from the well-known Forever bicycle company, Shi’s collection includes several bike coupons that were extremely hard to get in the 1980s. A company with hundreds of employees was allocated only about 10 bike coupons a year, he said.
According to Shi, a bike coupon sold for 150 yuan (US$22) at a time when monthly salaries were only about 30 yuan. The lucky people who obtained the ration coupons needed to spend another 168 yuan on a bike.
“My job was very popular,” he said. “Just by showing my employee card, I could easily buy railway tickets and find inns to stay at, which also required ration coupons and even letters of introduction. People were happy to meet a worker from a bicycle company, so they were always ready to help me.”
The public hankering for bicycles could be an annoyance for Shi, however. Knowing that he worked at a bicycle company, many relatives and friends came to ask him for special favors.
“To avoid them, I went directly to the library after work to read books or went to the Eastern Shanghai Worker’s Cultural Palace,” he said. “I began collecting ration coupons and public transportation tickets in 1981.”
Before that, Shi collected stamps when he served in the army from 1976 to 1980. Far from home, he and his comrades-in-arms communicated with family and friends through letters. Shi kept all the stamps and shared them with other collectors. His stamp collecting stopped, however, when he returned home to Shanghai.
Several bundles of old cardboard railway tickets, which are much smaller than today’s versions, are stored in his cabinet.
“Arriving at railway stations, many passengers threw their tickets away,” he said. “I picked them up and kept them. Passers-by often gave me weird looks. Most people didn’t understand why I would want such commonplace, worthless items. Actually, the transportation tickets tell the city’s development history, and I have had a special feeling toward public transport since I was young.”
Shi told me that among the happiest recollections of his childhood were the bus trips with his parents to go to the cinema.
Becoming a father in 1987, Shi recalled the beginning of mother-and-baby buses that allowed his wife and baby daughter to avoid oppressive crowds.
“Many lines introduced mother-and-baby buses in the 1980s, when buses were unbelievably crowded,” he said. “Passengers were jammed into buses. The special bus lines ran in the rush hours.”
To carry more people, buses with two carriages were introduced in Shanghai in the 1960s. The locals called the double-articulated buses “dragons” because of their length. The larger size and heavier weights often make driving more difficult.
“The buses often stalled while climbing onto bridges, for example, the bridge connecting Sichuan Road N. and M., and the Zhapu Road Bridge on my way to work,” he said. “Sometimes 10 or so of us young men had to get off and push buses together with a shout of ‘one, two, three...’”
His oldest collectible is a set of tram tokens dating back to the 1930s. Issued by a company called China General Omnibus, the round tokens have cut-out numbers in the center.
“Shanghai’s first tram line opened on May 3, 1908,” Shi said. “It ran from Jing’an Temple to the Bund.”
Leafing through his collection albums, I was intrigued by a scrap of paper printed with a bicycle and the fee 0.25 yuan. It is a receipt for a borrowed bike issued by a transportation company in former Nanhui County in the 1970s.
Imagine that! Today’s booming bike-sharing system is rooted in days gone by.
“The past is frozen on these pieces of paper,” said Shi.