The Shanghai Jazz Age as Depicted through Silver Cocktail Shakers
This Chinese Export Silver cocktail shaker made by the Shanghai silvermaker Lain Chang, circa 1920, as purchased at a U.K. car boot sale for £3 (about $4.60). It’s easily worth $1,000 or more.
Here we have a circa 1925 Chinese Export Silver cocktail shaker by Hung Chong who operated from 11b Nankin Road in Shanghai.
Shanghai in the 1920s was New York without the speakeasies! It was a city ready, ripe and totally made for the Jazz Age, and it did it with style. Known as the “Paris of Asia,” Shanghai boasted fine restaurants—it also had casinos, greyhound and horse racing tracks, scores of nightclubs and several hundred ballrooms. Shanghai was Berlin and Paris combined with heady oriental overtones. For those who wanted it, Shanghai was decadence on steroids!
At this time, Shanghai also had an expatriate community of some 60,000 living in the designated International Settlement and the newer districts to the north. Most of the foreigners were British, but there were also sizable populations of Americans, French and Russians. Between the First and Second World Wars, tens of thousands of European refugees fleeing Bolshevism and Nazism—and equally large numbers of Chinese refugees fleeing civil strife and the Japanese invasion—flooded into Shanghai.
Most of the 20,000 white Russian aristocrats that came to China after the Bolshevik Revolution in the 1920s and ’30s arrived on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Many of them supported themselves with jewels they carried with them from Russia. Some managed to maintain lavish lifestyles and villas.
Living in Shanghai has often been romanticized in Western and Chinese popular culture alike. Life was particularly glamorous in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Whereas Canton had been traditional center for silvermakers at the beginning of the Chinese Export Silver period, it seems natural that this stylish city would attract the makers to set up an operation there. This is the common thread that links all the silver in this article—all the makers had a Shanghai manufacturing base. The additional fact that there was an international community on hand was a cherry on the cake the makers obviously couldn’t resist. Suddenly, they had a “home market” in addition to their lucrative export market.
Of all possible silver objects, it was the cocktail shaker that became an iconic symbol of the Jazz Age; a “must-have” for anyone embracing the age and the style. One would be hard-pushed to think of an object that is so best suited to the Art Deco style, since not only did the shape lend itself so well. Art Deco typified the age of the cocktail, not to mention decadence.
This Chinese Export Silver circa 1925 cocktail shaker by the prolific silversmith Wang Hing, skillfully combines a classic dragon with the equally classic motif of bamboo leaves which are this time translated into a pure Deco style.
I’ve always looked upon the very shape of the cocktail shaker as being synonymous with Deco. Compare this image of the Peace Hotel on The Bund in Shanghai with the pictured shakers. Do you see a similarity?
In the short time I have been writing for WorthPoint, my own web traffic has doubled and I have become privy to many a spectacular find related to me by WorthPoint readers and subscribers. They have been kind enough to share some images with me. I was planning this very article when what lands in my inbox but a U.K.-based WorthPoint member who shared with me an image of a cocktail shaker she’d found in a Car Boot Sale. I am well aware that Americans don’t even have a car boot, let alone a car boot sale! I am guessing that the nearest phenomenon in America is a garage sale; imagine one of those on a baseball field-sized plot, then you have a car boot sale.
The pictured she sent me was of a Chinese Export Silver cocktail shaker made by the Shanghai silvermaker Laing Chang, circa 1920. It’s high quality and of heavy gauge silver and it’s typical of a Chinese export Silver shaker. It was acquired at the said car boot sale for £3 (about $4.60). What sets this apart from the fray is that it’s easily worth $1,000 or more!
Pictured below, we have a circa 1925 Chinese Export Silver cocktail shaker by Hung Chong who operated from 11b Nankin Road in Shanghai. Decorated with the same dragon chasing the flaming pearl, but embellished with some fine planish work, this particular piece achieved £875 ($1,340) at Bonhams in London earlier this year.
This Chinese Export Silver cocktail shaker, circa 1930, by Wang Hing features superb high relief fusion of herons amidst irises.
A detail of a heron shows a traditional Chinese motif in what is essentially a thoroughly modern item.
Shanghai, as with Hong Kong, were both free, materially minded playgrounds of the East where Art Deco and decadence went hand in hand. This heady combination, with the affluent international set settling there in droves, this was a gift to Chinese Export Silver makers, who set forth to create luxury items for both the home market and export; anything “oriental” had added value when it came to decadence and liquor.
I’ve always looked upon the very shape of the cocktail shaker as being synonymous with Deco. Compare this image of the Peace Hotel on The Bund in Shanghai with the previously mentioned Laing Chang piece. The attraction of all things oriental in the 1920s created a rather unique opportunity for Chinese Export Silver to shine with a unique fusion of traditional Chinese with the Art Deco style.
Drinking was, and still is, very much part of Chinese culture. With the advent of the cocktail shaker—a purely Western invention—another fusion of cultures occurred with the inclusion of Chinese Export Silver “cocktail sets” that included what are known as tot beakers. Tot beakers were ostensibly rice wine beakers that evolved into being used in Hong Kong and Shanghai, especially in fashionable clubs, for cocktail shots.
A Chinese Export Silver “cocktail set” by Wang Hing, who began as a silversmith in Canton and later expanded to manufacturing and retail bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong. It is currently being offered for sale by £2,750 ($4,230).
Here we have a Chinese Export Silver “cocktail set” by Wang Hing (above) that is currently being offered for sale by Andrew Campbell, who trades in the U.K. as AC Silver. This set is currently at £2,750 ($4,230). Wang Hing began as a silversmith in Canton and later expanded to manufacturing and retail bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The current buoyancy of Chinese Export Silver as an antique silver category is in the main a result of the high volume of affluent Chinese “buying back” lost culture. It might seem strange (bordering on sacrilegious) to place cocktail shakers in the realms of culture, but the workmanship and artistry of the way Chinese Export Silver makers embraced them, we simply have to set them apart in a category of their own.
Where these shakers were de rigueur in Shanghai in the Jazz Age, so are the shakers that survived with the new affluent Shanghainese.
One of my many mantras is that Chinese Export Silver is an ideal vehicle to demonstrate the sign of the times in China at the time of manufacture. As such, all the silver I have shown in this article is a good thermometer to show Shanghai as it was in the Jazz Age—a vibrant, stylish, international city that didn’t shun decadence. Scott Fitzgerald would have deemed it paradise, no doubt, and Gatsby would have probably moved there from Long Island!
My thanks to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his profuse translation skills and general encouragement. Images are from Adrien von Ferscht’s research archive augmented by images from Daniel Bexfield, London; AC Silver; Bonhams, London; and Silverman Antiques, London.
Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth