“The Shanghai Girls” is a term for a particular style of advertising from the 1920’s and 1930’s that depicted very modern, beautiful women from Shanghai, China. These posters advertised a wide variety of products, including cigarettes, gum, batteries, perfume, medicine and many others. Shanghai experienced a population boom in the 1920’s, when thousands of Russians and Jewish immigrants fled the Soviet Union after World War I. By the early 1930’s, Shanghai had become the world’s fifth largest city, and was the residence of approximately 100,000 foreigners. The eyes of the world were on the city, and Shanghai became known as the “news capital of China” due to an increased world interest in the Far East and mounting concern regarding the West’s relations with Japan. The intrigue regarding this distant land may have influenced the incredible popularity of the Shanghai Girls’ ads of the early 20th century. Shanghai was also known to be a pioneer in the fashion industry, and the Shanghai Girls were considered to be glamorous fashion icons.
Though Shanghai is almost as far east as one could travel, the city boasted cutting-edge technology and a decidedly Western appearance. Around 1900, there was an immense push in Shanghai to modernize everything. Amenities and advancements born in the West such as elevators, air conditioning, neon lighting and department stores, popped up in Shanghai almost immediately. In 1882, Shanghai was the first city in China to install electric street lighting. The East’s fascination with the West (and vice versa) was perfectly complemented in the Shanghai Girls’ advertisements. The Shanghai Girls flawlessly melded the delicate, painstaking beauty of the East with the trendy, progressive advancements and desires of the West.
When a region seeks to modernize, it’s not unusual for the media to become more provocative in an effort to revise social stigmas and taboos. The Shanghai Girls were a good example of this common trend. The Shanghai Girls advertisements featured beautiful Asian women in vivid, colorful detail. Though the ads were meant to promote products, the ads themselves were works of art. The ads and other paraphernalia were generally reproduced from hand-painted artwork that was signed by the artist who created it. In addition to the beauty of the pieces, advertisers made the most of the motto “sex sells”, by sometimes featuring the ladies in revealing outfits. “Revealing” at that time sometimes meant featuring women in a short, form-fitting chi-pao, or classic Asian one-piece dress. Other ads presented women in even more alluring and provocative clothing.
The challenge to old-fashioned expectations of women didn’t end with the clothing they wore in the advertisements. The women of Shanghai wanted to modernize not only their look, but their freedoms as well. Women were depicted in roles previously unfamiliar in Chinese culture, such as playing a European game of billiards. Until this point, women featured in Chinese paintings appeared in artwork for the sole purpose of being admired by men. In a sense, the women of older paintings suffered a decrease in social status simply by appearing in them. While the Shanghai Girls certainly used their sexual prowess to garner attention, it was on their terms. Instead of being only a pretty face with no real sense of purpose, these modern ladies held the subtle power to mesmerize a multitude of nations.
Carl Crow, a Missouri writer born in 1884, started the first Western advertising agency in Shanghai, which he managed for 19 years of his life. Crow is mostly credited with spearheading the marketing phenomenon of the Shanghai Girls. Crow was also the founding editor of the Shanghai Evening Post, and wrote 13 books during his lifetime. The Shanghai he met upon his arrival in 1911 was not the same Shanghai when he left 25 years later. The enormous economic boom had transformed the city immensely – and Crow had transformed its role in advertising.
Advertising paraphernalia featuring the Shanghai Girls is very popular and collectable. One will find that the women who appear in older Shanghai advertisements from the turn of the 20th century are not nearly as captivating as the ones in the 20’s and 30’s. Additionally, the artwork is not nearly as vibrant and charismatic as its contemporary counterparts. Both original and reproduction advertising products, postcards and posters featuring the Shanghai Girls remain in high demand, even almost 100 years later.