Watered gauze in Shanghai
2014.06.16

After the opening of Shanghai as a commercial port in the middle of the 19th century, the Cantonese people who were good at doing business came here to try their fortune, and gradually became an important part of Shanghai businessmen. As a result, the Cantonese culture also began to spread in Shanghai. Cantonese opera, Cantonese cuisine, and watered gauze (gambiered Canton gauze)began to gain popularity here in Shanghai. According to the ads in "Shenbao", watered gauze, as a Guangdong local product, started to sell in Guangdong grocery stores in Shanghai in the early 1880s and soon afterwards it was continuously sold well in Shanghai. And in the thirties of the 20th century, the watered gauze from Guangdong, the silk from Jiangsu and Zhejiang and the grass cloth from Hunan became the three great cloths in summer. According to what people said at that time, when the weather just started to get a little hot, watered gauze came to the market. In those days, as long as you walked up the road to have a look, you would find that each silk and satin shop, every cloths store was selling watered gauze. Every one, male and female, old and young, wore watered gauze clothes. In the hot summer days, besides various kinds of silk spinning, watered gauze was the most common and most popular cloth."

Why was this Cantonese specialty so popular in Shanghai? One reason was that it was easy to wash; breathable and dry, and the price was moderate. More importantly, the merchants’ marketing strategy and the movement of domestic goods also played a considerable role in achieving popularity. Looking at “Shengbao”, a noted newspaper at the time, it was easy to find not only the simple and short ads of watered gauze in the early days, but the intensified promotions in the following prosperous periods as well. A firm named Guangsan Chang not only indicated his watered gauze was from the "Dabang New Stock" of Guangdong, more important was that it offered a summer sale: if the purchase was ten silver yuan, the present was three and a half silver yuan worth of a trousering made from silk gauze; and if the purchase goods was five yuan, the customer would be presented with a pair of silver-coated chopsticks and one bottle of fruit syrup from Guansheng Yuan. In addition, the movement of domestic goods in the 30s also helped to make the watered gauze the first choice for citizens with the aid of this political trend of nationalism. "Shenbao" had a special column “Domestic Goods Weekly”, in which some articles to promote national goods to boycott foreign goods were published. Among them were “New Domestic Goods in Summer” and "the Summer Chinese Clothing", all of which advocated that the thin, tenacious, and sweat-free gambiered Canton gauze and grass cloth should take the place of foreign goods. Though it was a kind of political means of publicity, it virtually promoted the sales of gambiered Canton gauze.

But one weak point was that it was easily stolen due to the fact that it was thin and popular. The cloth was not as precious as gold and silver, but it was also a valuable at home. So the popularity of gambiered Canton gauze became the focus of the snatch. Ironically, not only the local people stole it, even the Japanese liars had evil intention to steal gambiered Canton gauze: they once bought some cloths and wanted to pay on delivery, but they escaped halfway. So police were called in.

All this suggested that watered gauze in Shanghai was so popular at the time. But with the tide of modern industrialization, it eventually declined. This is the trend of the market and is also the result of development. So when watered gauze and similar traditional crafts return back and come into the market in the global trend of both protecting tradition and returning back into the market, I think the laws of the market is still the only rule by which they can prosper. Because only when we have found the "golden finger" of the Midas touch, can our cultural heritage not only become reality from the "legacy", but also obtain real protection. Otherwise, the museum would be still a better place in which for them to stay.