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Still standing — Shanghai’s grand art deco retail havens built by Chinese Australians

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Few visitors to Shanghai's busy Nanjing Road shopping strip would know that four of its early 20th-century department stores were started by Chinese-Australian merchants.

The department stores of Shanghai, looking west along Nanjing Road.

While the names of the stores have changed, all four grand buildings — three of them with art deco features — still stand today.

"A lot of historic architecture from colonial times and the art deco period has been destroyed," author Peter Hack said.

"I think it's totally remarkable that they're still standing in Shanghai."

Strangely, it was Mr Hack's inheritance of a finely crafted Japanese vase that inspired him to delve into the story.

His research led him to publish a book titled The Art Deco Department Stores of Shanghai: The Chinese-Australian Connection.

Preparing for the White Australia Policy

During the 1890s, four Chinese-Australian merchants created Wing Sang & Co Ltd, an import and export business in Sydney's Haymarket district.

Four Chinese-Australian men dressed in business attire sitting around a table.

Among them were Ma Ying Piu, Choy Hing, George Kuok and Mark Jo.

Despite their success, they were nervous to expand business into other areas.

"I think if they opened a department store like Anthony Hordern and Sons or David Jones in Sydney, they might be boycotted I suppose because of the White Australia policy," he said.

"But if they went back to the treaty ports in China, like Guangzhou (Canton) and Shanghai, they had the protection of British law and they also couldn't be touched by the White Australia policy."

A Wing Sang & Co Ltd building corner of Hay and Sussex Streets, Haymarket, Sydney.

To Hong Kong and beyond

Samuel Hordern operated Sydney's largest department stores at the time including the four-storey Palace Emporium and its successor the New Palace Emporium.

An engraving depicting a large 1889 department store in Sydney.

He openly encouraged the Chinese-Australian businessmen to take his department store concept to Hong Kong and China, which they did with great success.

Ma Ying Piu was a founding partner of the Sincere chain of stores; members of the Kuok family started Wing On; Choy Hing created the Sun Company.

Another department store, Sun Sun, was created by a partnership between three other Chinese-Australian businessmen.

A studio group portrait of several Chinese-Australian men dressed in business attire.

One of the Wing Sang employees was Sydney-born William Liu — the son of a Chinese labourer father and an English migrant mother.

In 1936 he was sent to establish the Sun Company store in Shanghai after the success of earlier ones built in Hong Kong and Canton, now modern day Guangzhou.

"Shanghai was the commercial centre of China, the 'Paris of the Orient'," Mr Hack explained.

"Ultimately it was Shanghai where they could set up the model they had perfected and where it would really bring in the enormous commercial success."

Mr Liu would also journey to Japan to acquire ideas from that country's department stores and meet with suppliers.

In the decades to follow he would become a vocal campaigner against the White Australia policy and advocated for opening up trade and tourism opportunities with China.

Shopping with a difference

The businessmen were taking a risk because the Chinese consumers weren't accustomed to the novel shopping experience being introduced, Mr Hack said.

Aerial view of commercial buildings along Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China.

"Goods were on display, [with] fixed prices and no haggling," he explained.

However, the concept took off with locals and many of the stores boasted entertainment options including, opera theatres, exhibition areas, food stores, restaurants and even hotels.

"They weren't just about shopping; they were about entertainment and having a good time."

A symbolic gift

In 1936 William Liu returned to Sydney bearing gifts which included an early 20th-century Japanese made art-nouveau vase featuring a chrysanthemum flower.

An early 20th-century Japanese vase decorated with a flower.

He gifted the vase to his former teacher Barbara Stephenson, who later gifted it to her nephew's wife — Mr Hack's stepmother — as a wedding present.

When his stepmother died he inherited the vase and subsequently donated it to the National Gallery of Australia.

Mr Hack believes the item was part of surplus stock when Chinese consumers boycotted Japanese goods after the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

"To me it's more than just a family treasure and a great work of art.

"It has a link to the establishment of the Sun Company Department Store in Shanghai, but it's also a symbol to me of a struggle throughout that period against discrimination and the White Australia Policy," he said.

"And it's a symbol of quite a unique friendship that developed between an Australian family of mainly Chinese origin and another Australian family of mainly Scottish origin."

Barbara Stephenson and William Liu

Original Article

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