Go to any antiques market in China and you'll no doubt come across posters featuring elegantly style women in qipao promoting various products from tobacco to liquor to cosmetics.
Two of the most familiar faces on these posters are those of the "Two Girls" (雙妹) product line, one of the offerings of the Kwong Sang Hong Limited (廣生行) corporation. Kwong Sang Hong was founded in the late 1800s by an enterprising Guangdong native who eventually settled in Hong Kong where he learned the ins and outs of the pharmaceutical trade and then set up his own shop. It was the first Hong Kong cosmetics brand, and its products were a response to those of the foreign brands that were popular in China at the time. The brand enjoyed a quick rise to success, opening a shop on Shanghai's upscale shopping street Nanjing Lu and attracting celebrity customers, but met trouble during the Second World War when consumers' attention turned away from luxury goods.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Kwong Sang Hong's Shanghai plant re-emerged as a joint state-private-owned enterprise called the "Shanghai Star Household Chemicals Manufacturing Plant." In the 1960s it started promoting its "Friendship" skincare products, of which "Friendship Cold Cream" (友谊雪花膏) became immensely popular. Having undergone further structural changes in the early 1990s, today, Shanghai Jahwa (上海家化) is one of the largest cosmetics companies in China, with well-known brands such as Liushen and Herborist that are distributed in supermarkets across the country.
In the late 1980s, Kwong Sang Hong in Hong Kong decided to revive and re-promote the Two Girls Brand, and today its products are sold in vending machines, Watsons, and other contemporary venues.
But that's not all of the Two Girls Brand. The Shanghai-based Ling Lin Corporation (凌琳) also emerged in the 1960s with now-legendary brands like "Shanghai Brand" (上海牌), Hong Deng (宫灯牌), and Yongmei (咏梅牌). Today, one of Shanghai Brand's moisturizers features two very familiar faces on its round cardboard box (pictured).
Although many of these brands and products went into an apparent hibernation on the Mainland during the 1990s, there is a renewed interest in homegrown products and the vintage aesthetic, lending appeal to many of these brands' offerings to a new generation and recapturing the attention of those who enjoyed them the first time they were popular.
In Chengdu, a handful of such "retro" products are still widely available—flat tins of Pehchaolin (百雀羚) cold-cream balm, a product that originated in the 1930s, is sold in Hongqi shops. But those seeking a treasure chest of retro Chinese cosmetic brands should step into one of the two "Guohuo Skincare Products" (国货护肤品) shops (5 Nijiaqiao Lu No. 12 and Wai Caojia Xiang). In addition to a small selection of China-retro-style household goods (toys, flasks, cups, umbrellas, posters), these shops carry hundreds of skincare and cosmetics products that were originally popular in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In fact, they won't stock products from brands less than 20 years old.