Different people collect all sorts of strange and wonderful things. I used to collect Chinese cigarette packages, beginning in the mid-1970s.
Consumer packaging and branding is an interesting reflection of the times. When things change at a more rapid pace, packaging and branding keep pace.
Chinese cigarette packaging in the 1970s featured lots of red color in the graphics, with brand names like “Worker, Peasant”, “Bountiful Harvest,” “Torch”, “Hero”, “Red Flag”, “Labor”, “Longevity”, “Red Lantern”, “Unite”, “Big Production”, “Great Leap”, “Red Wave”, “Combat”, etc.
One of my favorite brand names was “Allaying Asthma and Relieving Cough” cigarettes, which deserved an award for deception. “Hey Comrade Li, you’re coughing up a storm ! Try puffing on one of these !”
On my first trip to Changsha, in 1977, I went into a little sundry goods shop to look for some local brands. Foreigners were a rarity in Changsha then, and I felt lots of curious eyes on me as I walked into the tiny shop wearing a khaki safari suit, with my camera slung over my shoulder.
Once in the shop, I checked out the cigarettes on offer and asked for a few packets from the old fellow in a loose white T-shirt who was the shopkeeper. I spoke to him in Putonghua.
From the shocked look on his face, I must have been the only foreigner he had met in his life, at least at such close range. There was a blend of terror and disbelief in his expression, like he had encountered a ghost.
I said again “Comrade, may I have one pack each of these cigarettes please ? “ and mentioned the Chinese brand names of the ones I wanted, while pointing them out to him, one by one.
He did not reply or respond, but continued to stare blankly right past my ghostly self .
I repeated myself slowly and clearly, and once again pointed at the cigarettes I wanted.
At last , he mumbled, hesitantly, in Putonghua, “ I don’t speak a foreign language” (Wo… bu hui… waiyu).
I responded in Putonghua “ I know. It’s not a problem. I am not speaking in a foreign language now.I am speaking to you in Chinese.”
Finally a light went on in his head, and he realized he was conversing with a foreigner, in his shop, in Chinese. Not a ghost.
He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, but the realization that the end of my visit was near seemed to energize him a bit.
He handed me the cigarettes and my Renminbi change. I thanked him and said goodbye.
I wonder if he’s told the story of this encounter as often as I have.
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