Learn about Life in the 1920s


FOUR hundred million Chinese "are beginning to wonder why they can't have what other people have," we are told, and when one asks how they know what other people have, the answer given is, "Moving pictures."

They prefer American films. What seems to fascinate them is the lavishness—"the comforts of life which they see shown: fine furniture, warmth and cleanliness, shower-baths, attractive clothing, comfortable school-rooms, books, newspapers, signs of plentiful food, electrical home appliances, automobiles, industrial wonders, modern devices. " In China our movies are creating wants, and William G. Shepherd declares, confidently, "As customers the Chinese promise to be a gold-mine. They are trying, through the Nationalist movement, and otherwise, to reach a higher standard of living. Every move they make in this direction presents a future rosier, in the long run, for the manufacturers and merchants of the world." Already "they are good buyers, who have been doing the best they can, under the circumstances." The other day Mr. Shepherd visited the Standard Oil Building in New York, and there found a concrete illustration of the possibilities of Chinese purchasing power. Writing in Collier's, he tells us;

I saw a little red tin lamp that would hold a few tablespoonfuls of kerosene. The glass chimney was only six inches or so high, and you could barely have squeezed a silver quarter through its top. The wick was as wide, perhaps, as the diameter of a dime. It was a toy of a lamp, but strong and well made. If some one had not picked it out as a sample from millions of its brothers, it would have been lighting up some Chinese peasant's home instead of reclining here in this palace of business— the great Standard Oil Building in New York City.

"Do you remember when talking-machines wore new?" asked an old "China hand," now with the United States Department of Commerce. "Do you remember how the family that got the first talking-machine in the neighborhood invited everybody in to hear it? Well, it was just like that when these little American kerosene lamps first turned up in China about twenty years ago.

"Chinese families didn't sit up much of evenings; didn't have any useful light. Of course they had their ancient lanterns, and their vegetable-oil illuminants, but as encouragements to night life these couldn't be called a success. A Chinese university figured out that there were 600,000,000 chickens in China. Well, the 400,000,000 Chinese generally used to go to bed with the 600,000,000 chickens."

After these preliminary explanations, the "old China hand" went on to, say:

"All of a sudden along came an American business firm that gave away free, here and there, these little red lamps, providing the recipient would buy a certain quantity of the new strange oil to burn in them. The livest families in a neighborhood made the bargain. And for weeks and months the neighbors ran over to see the Mei-foo Lamp—that's what they call them—light up the dark corners of their friends' homes.

"The lamps were also manufactured in yellow and in blue. Thus the Chinese national colors were represented—sound sales attractiveness.

"After that China began to sit up at nights. That little seven-and-one-half-cent apparatus was just as wonderful to them as the automobile or the radio ever was to us; it added billions of hours to their lives.

"Nor was its blessing wholly social. Silk-factory illumination was by means of cups, or other small receptacles, containing oil into which a strip of rag was thrust. The result, of course, was a glimmer—not a light. And the smoke from scores of these smoldering oily rags left its taint on the silks. Factory owners took up the new smokeless and bright lights with celerity, adding to working hours without spoiling silks.

"I always said," continued the oldtimer—he is Charles K. Moser, who has charge of the Far Eastern Division for the Department of Commerce and has spent most of his official life in the Far East— "that this little kerosene lamp carried the first real light into what people call Dark China. You couldn't have much reading and writing in China, unless folks had time to read outside of working hours after nightfall."

To-day "there are tens of millions of these little red or blue or yellow lamps in China," and Mr. Shepherd tells us:

"There isn't a town in China where wicks and chimneys for them are not sold. And to carry to Chinese homes the hundreds of millions of tablespoonfuls of kerosene which keeps these lamps shining, a great armada of oil-tankers must keep plowing through the world's greatest ocean, back and forth from the shores of the United States, to help China get the 200,000,000 gallons of kerosene which it now uses yearly.

"A toe-hold on commerce—that's what that lamp was," continued Mr. Moser. "It wasn't just an American form of something that everybody else was selling to the Chinese, like cloth or shoes. That little lamp did something new for China. And what the people want in China, after 4,000 years of what they've been having, is something new that will change their lives —and they are friends of anybody who can give it to them."

Accordingly, they are great friends of the American tobacco men. They had "had tobacco of their own since the year 1660, but such tobacco!" In order to smoke it at all, it is explained, they used "tiny pipes—the smaller the pipe the better." Hence:

American tobacco, mild and sweet, in cigaret form, caught the Chinese fancy. Back in 1890 cartons of cigarets were sent from America to a few Chinese firms to distribute. Customers took to them immediately. ;

Then the American tobacco men got an idea—"cigaret pictures," a picture to a package.

China took the idea without a halt. Pictures of Chinese statesmen, going back to heroes of over 2,000 years ago, led in popularity. Next came a series of pictures showing the birds of China. These pictures were drawn by the best Chinese artists, and it became a vogue to attempt to secure the entire series.

To-day the Chinese smoke 40,000,000,000 cigarets a year, as against America's 90,000,000,000, and American tobacco advertisements appear constantly in all the Chinese magazines and newspapers.

In view of such facts as these, Mr. Moser declares, "if you can ever get the Chinese to wanting things the way Americans want things, they'll make the whole world richer than it is to-day. The industrial West won't be able to keep up with their demands." Evidently Mr. Shepherd is of the same opinion, for we read on:

China buys one billion dollars worth of outside goods every year. But that's only, a drop in the bucket compared with what this customer may buy some day. "When the per capita foreign trade of China," runs one government report, "is equal to that of Australia, the total will be sixty-five billion dollars a year which China will pay to the outside world for her imports."

"You can't help seeing American business grow in China," a business man from China told me. "Why, it has multiplied itself by four within the past dozen years. It's eight times bigger than it, was thirty years ago.

"Twenty years ago a Chinese who possest $3,000 was considered rich. To-day a Chinese merchant must have $50,000, before he's considered well-fixt."

One trouble with John Chinaman was that he was satisfied with so little: he didn't know other folks had more than he had.

The country is crowded in places, unspeakably so. But over 300,000,000 Chinese live on less than one-third of their land; the remaining two-thirds of China is practically uninhabited and undeveloped. But within this century the "covered-wagon days" have come to China. There are a dozen lowas, a dozen fertile Kansases, with a Texas or two thrown in, that are ready for the farmer or the cattle raiser.

"Manchuria, especially northern Manchuria," Mr. Moser told me, "has been almost wholly settled since 1902 by Chinese farmers from the overcrowded Central Provinces, especially from Shantung Province. Every train is crowded with them."

To many an outsider, Mr. Shepherd concluded, "the wonder of China is what it achieves with what it does possess," and he explains, in part—thus:

The 600,000,000 chickens already mentioned bring in over $23,000,000 a year of foreign money. Immense cargoes of albumen, taken from eggs, are shipped to the United States and Great Britain. This albumen is used in tanning leather, in thickening inks, in glossing paper, in preparing camera plates and films and in printing certain sorts of calico. Yolks and whites of eggs, dried or frozen, are sent to other countries for the use of pie and cake makers and confectioners.

The egg business of China is fairly new; so is the human-hair business, which furnishes the material for hair-nets. The silk and tea trades have been established in a big way for decades; they go back to the old clipper-ship days.

The Chinese is the best business man in the East. He knows how to sell.

- The Chinese invented the "fur cross." The Chinese merchants matched skins and sewed eight of them together, in the form of a Greek cross, so that the buyer couldn't make a mistake. Their business in skins increased tremendously with this improvement in merchandising. They're always hunting up new ways to sell things.

American business men who deal in China tell you that the Chinese are going to have their own way in their country in the immediate future.

"To-day," one expert told me, "these people are on their way toward getting national as well as local control of their country into their own hands. You can't whip 400,000,000 people: Better let 'em go ahead." Then he added: "I'd like to see any one stop 'em!

"It wouldn't pay in a business way to stop them, but it will pay to let them fight their way upward, as a people, into a place in the world where every last one of the 400,000,000 will dare to want the comforts of modern life."

The point to consider just now is that America looks on China from a different viewpoint than the other nations do; and China looks upon us differently. By America I mean not only official and diplomatic America, but also business America, that portion of America which earns money and makes profits out of international commerce. American business leaders do not wish America to treat China as European nations have done, they are glad she has not done so.

As Mr. Shepherd reminds us, the Chinese statesman, Wellington Koo, said in an address before the New York Republican Club some years ago, "Gentlemen, I come here this evening to thank the United States for what it has not done in China." The point was well taken, thinks Mr. Shepherd, for-

America has played square in China, and will have an inside track in China against the commerce of other nations.

I found buried away in the records of the Department of Commerce in Washington a seven-year-old report from an American attache in China.

"The Chinese character," he wrote, "resembles the American character in certain essential aspects. There is no caste in China. The people are democratic, peaceful and industrious and possess a sense of humor and a strong sense of justice. They are reasonable and are intent on culture."

He concluded: "The United States ranks second among the nations of the world in supplying the wants of China." Japan, incidentally, leads.

Source: The Literary Digest for October 1, 1927