The Huge Influence of the Early 20th-Century Chinese Department Stores

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This kettle and stand is typical of the early Wing On Company silver production.

Department stores were first introduced to China in the late 19th century but they came in the guise of foreign chains or investors who were doing nothing more than trying to establish lucrative colonial implants that had previously appeared on the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In Shanghai, the first stores were Hall & Holtz and Whiteaway Laidlaw & Company; both sorely underestimated the Chinese mindset and found they were only able to relate to the minority foreign community and the then relatively marginal affluent Chinese.

The whole concept of the department store is the absolute antithesis of Confucian culture; a culture that holds a disdain for merchants and commerce and a culture that was firmly embedded in the Chinese psyche. While Chinese merchants had certainly been successful in the 19th century as a result of the Chinese having an almost default gene that allows them to naturally be one step ahead, that gene was kept private and subjugated because Chinese society had not changed its mindset significantly for almost 2,000 years. Merchants, as a result, had to remain subdued and almost apologetic for any commercial successes they managed to attain.

The names of Chinese silversmiths we today might be familiar with would fall into this category because they were all retail silversmiths and often general luxury goods merchants. There is no Western comparable to this phenomenon and, even though 21st-century China may have moved onto a virtually different planet, the same Confucian tenets remain, albeit they have now been subdued and confined to the realms of the sub-conscious.

Until the early 20th century, Chinese merchants were subjected to special taxation, licensing fees, travel and trade restrictions. Commercial law was rarely codified, leaving the merchants at the mercy of the system that didn’t favor them. Five years after the formation of the Republic, a commercial revolution was set to take place and it could only happen because of Chinese merchants that had left China in the 19th century to make their way and their fortune in Australia. Bearing the psychological burden Confucian dogma imposed upon them, these Chinese émigrés used the clan-based network that had been already established in Australia to overcome both the psychological and practical barriers. Their individual and collective experiences abroad transformed them into modern merchants capable of taking highly calculated risks; they were bold and they were broad-minded.

In 1897, Kwok (Guo) Lok had created the Wing On Fruit Store Australia. In 1901, at the age of 16, Guo Shun—born in 1885 in Zhuxiuyuan Village in Guangdong Province—had boarded a boat in Hong Kong bound for Australia. He was the sixth in the family. The oldest brother came to Australia in 1882 but died not long after his arrival. Guo Le, the second brother, arrived in Australia when he was 18 and went to work in a vegetable garden and later became a hawker, selling vegetables door to door. Later, he joined several fellow-villagers from Xiangshan County in founding the Wing On Fruit Store in Sydney. The store also handled money deposits and doing so, attracted a great deal of capital. It was the second brother, Guo Le, who invited his youngest brother Guo Shun to come to Australia in 1901.

Shortly after he arrived in Sydney, Guo Shun went to work as an apprentice in a firm run by another Xiangshanese County resident to learn all about modern business. Three years later, he left his fellow townsmen’s company to join his brother at the Wing On Fruit Store. His elder brother, Guo Le, soon left Sydney for Hong Kong, where he started up another branch of the business. Guo Shun then took charge of the family’s Sydney operation.

An envelope advertising Wing On & Coy., LTD. in Sydney, Australia.

At that time, the Australian government legislated that only Chinese immigrants who came to Australia before 1901 had the right to permanent residence. This restriction caused great difficulties for Chinese businessmen. As Guo Shun had already become established in Australia, he helped new-comers to resolve the problem of residency and to start businesses of their own.

The Guo (Kwok) brothers’ successful Wing On Company venture was followed by an unsuccessful foray into shipping, hoping to ply the route between Australia and Hong Kong. And it was Hong Kong where the start of their real success began when they opened an emporium—or department store, as they liked to call it—in 1907. It was later to make a successful entry into banking, drawing on their expertise learned during their prior Australian experience.

The Guo (Kwok) brother’s Wing On emporium on Des Voeux Road in Hong Kong.

At first, Wing On sold mainly imported goods, such as French cosmetics, British woolens, Bohemian glassware and Swiss watches. When a widespread campaign was launched to advocate buying Chinese goods, Wing On opened up new sources of homemade goods by creating its own workshops and processing factories. Engaging well-known technicians and skilled workers at high wages, Wing On then shifted to self-production and self-marketing, and soon made a name for selling own-brand goods. The brothers also gave financial aid to a number of small- and medium-sized factories and workshops in an effort to recruit special manufacturers, which is exactly how Wing On Chinese Export Silver came into being.

The benefit of hindsight clearly demonstrates how it was necessary for the latent Chinese entrepreneur to gain foreign experience and to do so within the safety of the Chinese clan structure—in fact, it would be more correct to say Cantonese clan structure. It was only thus that the shackles of the ingrained passive mentality of the traditional Chinese merchant mind could be jettisoned in order to overcome the institutional barriers of Imperial China. The importance of the clan structure cannot be emphasized enough; it is based on regional ties known as jiguan—a perceived place of origin that become all the more pronounced and effective when moved to a new place.

It is this very Cantonese clan-based network that made it possible for the Kwok brothers and the eventual owners of what were to become known as the “Big Four” department stores in China to gain sufficient experience and sharply re-focused business instincts in order to return to Hong Kong and China to raise capital and establish their businesses.

Back in China, for centuries merchants and artisans had worked within so-called guilds; in Canton alone, there were some 70 or so guilds. But these were not guilds in the Western sense; they were a more localized loose structure within which an alliance of like-minded merchants or artisans of a particular skill could collectively retaliate against the ever-present government pressures. The force that was created by these alliances was further bolstered by the clan factor—it became an invisible glue that created a very strong bond; a survival system, if you will. This guild-like structure was known as tongxiang hui and it acted and behaved very much in the Western masonic manner but without the ritual element. If one word could encapsulate this phenomenon, it would be “solidarity.”

In 1918, Wing On completed its transition from its Sydney fruit store chrysalis and opened its huge, purpose-built flagship store on Nanking Road in Shanghai.

An advert for Wing On Company from 1920.

Hong Kong was a necessary stepping stone to mainland China for a truly successful attempt at finally establishing what was to become a very definitive Chinese take on the department store concept. Hong Kong had already become a middle-ground of the Chinese/Western culture clash.

As a modern department store, Wing On had adopted the “fixed price” policy; a concept that was so totally alien to the traditional practice of hard bargaining. But one year before Wing On had opened in Shanghai, what was to become its arch rival, The Sincere Company, had opened its flagship on Nanking Road.

Sincere had pre-dated Wing On in opening in Hong Kong by seven years. It had opened on Queens Road in relatively modest premises in 1900 by Ma Ying Piu, also originally a Cantonese who had returned from Australia who had taken the model of the Sydney stores, Anthony Horden & Sons and the David Jones store as templates to create a workable Chinese version in Hong Kong. The Sincere Company quickly outgrew its original Queens Road building and moved into its grand new premises on Des Voeux Road, Central.

The Sincere Company had pre-dated Wing On in opening in Hong Kong by seven years. It had opened on Queens Road in relatively modest premises in 1900 by Ma Ying Piu, also originally a Cantonese who had returned from Australia.

The Sincere Company quickly outgrew its original Queens Road building and moved into its grand new premises on Des Voeux Road, Central.

Sincere created its own trademark based on its Chinese name Xian Shi, which proved a successful innovation and is still used to this day.

It was Sincere that served as the guinea pig and it was Wing On that was to watch and take note of the problems and mistakes that Ma Ying Piu was to make in those early years. Sincere created its own trademark based on its Chinese name Xian Shi, which proved a successful innovation and is still used to this day. Less successful was Sincere’s early attempts to introduce female shop assistants, which had to be terminated in dismissal, including Ma’s own wife and sister-in-law. Ma was successful, however, in adopting lavish window displays that were devoted to one specific category of merchandise; a totally foreign concept to the “pile it high and never price anything” concept the Chinese were used to. 

Ma was determined to gather highly skilled artisan craftsmen to produce own-brand quality merchandise in his own workshops for his own stores and silver featured quite high in that plan. What both Ma and the Kwoks were doing was to democratise shopping for the middle class while building into that democratisation a way of retaining the important element of the aspirational needs of that class. In silver production, this manifested in what was at the time an innovational blend of “middle of the road” silver items of quality with an “aspirational” range of quality items that equalled the best of many of the independent Chinese Export Silver retailers such as Wang Hing.

A Sincere cake slicer (top) would be perfectly comfortable with the Sincere reticulated comport (avove) that in both quality and detailing, is of a higher level, yet is still slightly subdued in its “safeness.”

Appealing to both the more aspirational middle class Chinese customer and the foreign resident or tourist, this pair of lobed vases carry the Sincere Xian Shi mark, as well as dated inscriptions for 1925. While they are of high quality manufacture, they do display a degree of “bland democracy” one would expect in silver from any good department store around the world in the mid-1920s.

This slightly earlier creamer and sugar bowl by Sincere still retain an attention to detail and, silver techniques. It would sit comfortably alongside contemporary pieces from Wang Hing or Sing Fat, both quality retail silversmiths.

In 1917, Sincere opened its Shanghai flagship store one year before the Wing On store opened its doors on Nanking Road.

So the scene was set: two archrivals whose owning families had almost identically parallel stories that came to rest opposite each other on Shanghai’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue—Nanking Road.

Shanghai’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue—Nanking Road—with Wing On on the left-hand side and Sincere Company on the right.

Not only were the family stories and the department store buildings parallel, but so was the silver production of both houses. Wing On sold silver that one would expect of aspirational middle class merchandise and would be on par with similar own-brand high quality department store silver around the world; Selfridge & Co. in London and Harrods both sold silver bearing their own hallmark, as did the prestigious Hong Kong store Lane Crawford have its own silver mark.

This Wing On tea set, circa 1920, is what one would expect as aspirational middle class merchandise and would be on par with similar own-brand high quality department store silver around the world.

The same can be said of this Wing On tea set: good quality, “safe” merchandise having the added caché of the Wing On silver mark and a dash of panache with the raffia woven handle and the overall finely planished finish.

The fact Sincere and Wing On vied against each other from opposite corner seems to have also infiltrated their silver workshops, as many items used the same decorative motif and silver techniques.

This Wing On lidded butter dish could easily be from the same “range” as the previously illustrated Sincere cake slice—same decorative motif, same silver techniques.

Those same silver techniques were carried through into this contemporary Wing On jewelry box.

The third department store to make the leap from Hong Kong to Shanghai was the Sun Sun (Xin Xin) Company, which had established itself in 1912 and opened its Nanking Road store in 1926. [below left]. Liu Xiji and Li Minzhou, both Cantonese who had been successful in Australia, were the power behind the throne of Sun Sun.

The last of the “Big Four” to open in Shanghai was Daxin or The Sun Company. Unlike Sincere and Wing On, both Sun Sun and The Sun Company chose to either import goods or have them made in China—neither operated their own workshops and neither manufactured their own ranges of Chinese Export Silver. The Sun Company, however, was the first Shanghai department to successfully introduce female sales staff; a move the other three quickly adopted and did so in their own style.

The Sun Sun (Xin Xin) Company (left) make the jump from Hong Kong to Shanghai in 1912, opening on Nanking Road store in 1926. The last of the “Big Four” to open in Shanghai was Daxin (right).

The jiguan clan structure remained prevalent at the core of all four companies; as they expanded, extra partners were introduced who were either family members or people that were longtime friends from their original towns or counties.

The Kwok family at Wing On believed strongly in the character building of their staff through moral and intellectual education. They established a Department of Intellectual Cultivation (zhiyu bu) and organized night classes for teaching English, as well as a drama group and musical ensemble. A Department of Physical Education encouraged the martial arts, as well as swimming and football. Swimming became so popular among the staff that the Kwoks organized its own buses to take them after work to the North Point indoor swimming pool.

As we can see from the silver of Wing On and Sincere, they developed “safe” ranges that were repeatable lines. In doing so, they had consciously created a middle ground between traditional Chinese and Western tastes so that one single range would appeal to both the fast-growing Chinese middle class, as well as the equally expanding number of foreign residents; both probably felt more secure and comfortable in the department store environment rather than brave one of the Nanking Road or Queens Road Chinese emporia, such as Wang Hing or Hung Chong. Yet, in their own ways, both Sincere and Wing On had an influence on some of the silver the traditional retail silversmiths created. While we don’t know exactly what prompted Wang Hing to establish in Hong Kong, the success of the Hong Kong pioneer department stores most probably were at least part of the equation. Certainly, Wang Hing & Company did add what they probably considered “a more commercial” selection of silver when their Hong Kong Queen’s Road store opened; their core high quality bespoke business was still their mainstay.

This Wang Hing tea set corresponds approximately to the same date as the previously illustrated Wing On set. While this is by no means a bespoke Wang Hing piece, it is certainly of superior quality in terms of attention to detailing and quality of workmanship. Yet both this set and the Wing On set would have been considered their diffusion range—the dependable stock items that would be the bedrock of each store or department.

Compare the previous set with this Wang Hing set of some 25-30 years earlier. We can see the evolution brought about by the combination of modernity and, probably, commercial mindedness, with an intent to remain both traditional and a house of quality. How much of that latter evolution can be laid at the doors of Wing On and Sincere, we can only surmise.

As for the jiguan effect; The Wing On Company today still has a dominant Kwok family presence and the Ma family still own The Sincere Company. The Kwok family is now Hong Kong’s second-wealthiest dynastic family. Had Wang Hing & Company in Hong Kong not been decimated by the Japanese invasion, it, too, would probably still be thriving and run by the Luo family.

The jiguan effect is as relevant today as it was at the beginning of the 20th century and as it has been for many centuries. It is the invisible glue that is virtually impenetrable by an “outsider.”

Sincere Company founder Ma Ying Piu on the left and Wing On founder Guo Le on the right.

“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”

— Confucius (551-479 B.C.)


• Asian Department Stores, Kerry L MacPherson;
• Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, John Fitzgerald;
• Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of Urban Culture in China, Leo Ou Fan Lee;
• Shanghai: Its Urbanization and Culture, Xuanmeng Yu & Xirong He;
• Department Stores in Early 20th Century Shanghai, Brendan Sternquist & Yan Ma, Michigan State University.

Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions UK; AC Silver, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; Vantage Shanghai Magazine; Shanghai History Museum; International Centre for Chinese Heritage & Archaeology; La Trobe University Archive, Victoria, Australia; Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh, UK; Shanghai Municipal Council.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive.

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, a Fellow for Arts & Culture at the Asia Scotland Institute and works with museums and universities around the world. He is a consultant for Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and his ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. His new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at

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