Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The First Chinese Rice Cooker?

Wow....it's been almost two years since I last posted at this blog. I am so sorry for the lack of new posts since then. Between being tied down with my own eBay business and other projects, it just became hard to find the time to post anything new. Now that I have a little more time to post some new material, I'll be sure to post here as often as I can.

Now I'd like to take the time to share a little something with you guys that I found while doing a web search on Baidu the other day. It's an old Chinese news article, but still fascinating nonetheless!

In 2007, a giant kettle dating back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE-9 AD) was found during the excavation of ancient tombs in Dayi county, which is located in China's Sichuan province near the city of Chengdu. This kettle was unique in that it is actually a double-layered "kettle-within-a-kettle!" The main iron kettle is wrapped in an additional clay lining that kept food such as rice warm long after the water had stopped boiling and the kettle had been taken off the fire. This double-layered technology is essentially the same technology used in modern-day electric rice cookers!

The kettle is 28 cm. tall, 32 cm. in diameter, and 45 cm. round. According to an interview with one of the archaeologists who excavated it, one of the layers is shaped like a pottery lamp, which is rare for ancient Chinese kettles. A few other artifacts such as beans, pottery pieces (adorned with animal decorations), and coins were also found in the same burial pit with the kettle.

The advanced iron smelting skills of the people who lived in and around ancient Chengdu during this time are well-known. They had a smelting industry dating back to the ancient Shu state that existed in Sichuan prior to the Han dynasty. This double-layered kettle is proof of that advanced industry. Furthermore, the kettle is a demonstration of the important role that Sichuan people played in the Western Han Dynasty. And of course, for those of us living in the modern age, this kettle is a demonstration of modern-day cooking technology used in devices such as rice cookers at work in the ancient world!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Namazu-e: The Art Genre That Challenged the Tokugawa Shogunate

A Namazu-e print titled "Shin Yoshiwara ōnamazu yurai". In this print, Namazu has devastated the "pleasure district" of Shin Yoshiwara in Edo. The ladies of the night (and others) attempt to take their revenge, but Namazu gets a thrill from having them come into contact with him and threatens to thrash around and cause some aftershocks. (Wikimedia Commons) 
In 1855, a massive earthquake struck Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and killed over 10,000 people. At the time, the earthquake was widely blamed on Namazu, the monster catfish and water deity that, according to legend, lives in the waters underneath Japan. Out of the rubble of Edo arose a short-lived art genre that ridiculed the Tokugawa government and the upper strata of Japanese society and challenged the Tokugawa government's censorship laws. This art genre was known as Namazu-e.

"What/who is Namazu," you ask?  Namazu is one of the many monsters (or 'yōkai') of ancient Japanese legends. According to the legend, Namazu is restrained by the Shinto god Kashima, who keeps a stone on top of him. However, when Kashima is not looking, Namazu will roll around or wiggle his tail, causing the nation's violent earthquakes. The legend of Namazu is believed to have its origins in the ancient Chinese and Japanese belief that earthquakes were caused by dragons or dragon-snakes living underground. Dragons were also worshipped as a water deity by the Chinese and Japanese people and they associated it with flooding and heavy rains.

Namazu-e prints were a genre of woodcut prints, or ukiyo-e (浮世絵) that were popular for two months in 1855-56 after the earthquake. The first prints went into publication a mere two days after the earthquake. During the period of November 1855-January 1856, over 400 namazu-e prints were published and distributed around Edo. Namazu-e prints satirized the people who profited from the Ansei Edo Earthquake, and offered a little bit of entertainment and humor to the quake-stricken city. They also depicted traditional Shinto beliefs about the disaster, promised protection from future earthquakes, and even have a connection with a major event in both Japanese and American histories. Nearly all of these paintings were painted anonymously and could be found throughout Edo during this disaster.

First and foremost, many Namazu-e prints showed all the citizens of Edo coming together to defeat Namazu and chase him out of their city. Usually these prints showed Kashima subduing Namazu or in pursuit of the giant catfish. These prints were meant to inspire the people to keep moving and rebuild the great city of Edo.

Namazu-e also satirized the profiteers who made a fortune from the disaster, such as the construction workers, lumber merchants, blacksmiths, newspaper editors, celebrities, and so on. These people are shown standing around watching and cheering Namazu on while the ordinary people suffer and die. Many people blamed the quake on the greed of the profiteers of Edo, and the Tokugawa bureaucracy in particular.  They believed it was punishment for their excessive greed. Even before the quake, corruption had been rampant. Prices of everyday items were getting higher and merchants were deliberately hoarding items from store shelves to induce an artificial shortage of goods. When the quake struck Edo, they saw the perfect opportunity to make a fortune knocking. After the quake, a great number of these people quickly rebuilt their homes and re-opened their businesses with their inexhaustible supply of money.

Apart from Namazu himself, another deity who was blamed for the quake was Ebisu, the Shinto god of fishing and commerce. According to legend, Namazu is restrained by the Shinto god Kashima, who keeps a stone on top of him. However, when Kashima is not looking, Namazu will roll around or wiggle his tail, causing the nation's violent earthquakes. Ebisu was said to have temporarily taken over the job of guarding Namazu while Kashima was away and fell asleep on the job. While he was asleep, Namazu got away and caused massive destruction. The theme of a sleeping Ebisu recurs throughout many of these prints.

Another underlying theme in Namazu-e was the arrivial of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of black steamships two years earlier to negotiate a trade treaty on behalf of President Millard Fillmore. These trade negotiations began the opening up of Japan. The fleet of black steamships terrified the people of Japan greatly, both literally and emotionally. Most Japanese had never seen a steamship before and a whole fleet of them in Japan's harbors was terrifying to see. The threat of war shook up the Tokugawa shogunate and the samurai, whose weaponry and tactics were outdated at this point in time and were no match against the advanced weapons of Perry's fleet. Also, pressure and the threat of possible military action caused uncertainty in Japan and gave the merchants an excuse to keep upping their prices.

Many prints and illustrations of Perry's ships from this time depicted the ships as bearing a strong resemblance to Namazu, and when the Edo earthquake struck in 1855, Commodore Perry was still fresh on the minds of the people of Edo. In many namazu-e prints, Namazu bears a resemblance to Perry's steamships. The underlying message was very clear: Perry and his fleet were Namazus who were "rectifying" Japan and ushering in an era of change.

Daikoku, the Japanese God of Fortune, showers coins down on the quake-stricken people of Edo while a grinning Namazu rides on. Kashima stands on Namazu with his sword drawn, indicating that he has Namazu under control. A poem praises the water god Suijin for sparing the lives of the artist's family. (Wikimedia Commons)
Despite all the destruction he caused, Namazu was also viewed as a savior. He was regarded by many people as the agent of world rectification sent from the gods above and, in the eyes of many people living at the time, would change Japanese society for the better. Many Namazu-e prints offered inspiration to the citizens of Edo by depicting Namazu, in his role as a yonaoshi daimyojin, spewing coins (often with Daikoku, the god of wealth, looking on) to people all over the city, promising a new era of prosperity through rebuilding Edo. Others even depicted Namazu (or numerous Namazus) apologizing and helping to rescue people, claiming that it was the profiteers who wanted Namazu to go on his rampage! Many of these prints were said to have special powers that gave the owner protection from Namazu and his wrath, thus boosting the popularity of the Namazu-e genre of woodcut.

Naturally, it wasn't long before the Tokugawa shogunate caught wind of this genre and decided that they couldn't have the people mocking the government and breaking its strict censorship laws. In January 1856, the Tokugawa shogunate officially banned Namazu-e prints from production. Since a lot of Namazu-e prints were one-of-a-kind prints made by relatively unknown local artists, many of them vanished forever.

One legacy of Namazu-e is that it was a "protest art". It emerged at a time when social discontent was very high in Japan and protests had been becoming more and more common over the decades. The Ansi-Edo earthquake in general brought all this discontent and anger out to the surface, and Namazu-e was the perfect way to express it.

Namazu-e was a very small genre of Japanese art that existed for only a very short period of time in the Edo area. It depicted and satirized the huge divide between rich and poor that existed in Edo society, the changes that were brewing in Japan underneath the surface of Edo society, and the changes that were soon to come. Furtthermore, Namazu-e prints gave the people of Edo a sense of safety and security and gave them a reason to smile and laugh. In this sense, Namazu-e was a two-sided art genre.

For more info about Namazu-e, check out:
-http://pinktentacle.com/2011/04/namazu-e-earthquake-catfish-prints/ (Blog post from Pink Tentacle about Namazu-e. Includes a gallery of Namazu-e prints and background info on these prints.)
-http://shinku.nichibun.ac.jp/namazu/ichiran.php (A very comprehensive gallery of Namazu-e. Japanese language only.)
-http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/g/j/gjs4/Shaking_Up_Japan.pdf (Paper about Namazu-e by Gregory Smits.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Here's wishing all of you out there a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! May 2013 be a happy and prosperous year for each and every one of you and may all of your New Year resolutions come true.

Also, thank you so much for your visits to this blog since I started it earlier this year and I do apologise for not having posted anything new over the past month. I've started some new blogs here as of late and have been busy getting those set up. I plan on making some new posts sometime soon now that I've got a little more time, so stay tuned!

Anyway, enjoy the rest of your 2012 and thanks again for dropping in.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Konosuke Matsushita and the "Bullet Lamp"

A Japanese motorcycle policeman with a "bullet lamp" circa 1925. (Wikimedia Commons)
Konosuke Matsushita was a man of many talents who truly changed the world around him with his ideas. He was a man who started a little company out of nothing that became a major international corporation. He made a number of inventions that were highly innovative during the early 20th century, such as two-way socket light bulbs, light sockets that could charge any electrical appliance, and electrical plugs and sockets that were more efficient than any others available at the time.

However, Matsushita's one invention that propelled Matsushita Industrial Electric, Co. (now better known to the world as Panasonic) into the national - and eventually the international spotlight (no pun intended) - was the battery-powered bicycle lamp, or the "bullet lamp" as it was nicknamed.

In 1923, bicycle lamps were a necessity in Japan. Many people used bikes as their primary mode of transportation everyday and needed a guiding light when riding at night or during bad weather. Bicycle lamps were very much a necessity. However, the bicycle lamps of the time were very inefficient. Battery-operated bicycle lamps were available during this time, but could only provide about several hour's worth of light before the batteries ran down. Candle or oil lamps would flop around a lot and were not very useful at all during a wind or rain storm!

Matsushita, who was himself an avid bike rider, also saw a need for a better light and invented a far more superior bicycle lamp for the market. Matsushita's lamp was a battery-powered lamp that was oval, or bullet-shaped, and was powered by dry-cell batteries and lighbulbs. The light casings were proudly manufactured by his company. Most importantly of all, the bullet lamp could provide light for 40 hours compared to a paltry 3 hours for other bicycle lamps!

At first, the bullet lamp was a hard sell. Retailers weren't convinced that the technology behind a battery-powered bicycle lamp would appeal to the average Japanese consumer. After being rejected by the mainstream market, Matsushita took his invention to a place he knew well and a place which would happily try to sell it: the local bicycle shops. He provided display models to the bicycle shops to use to demonstrate the lamp and, of course, the lamps themselves to sell to the public. Over time, the public saw how these lamps worked and they gradually became hot-sellers across Japan.

Statue of Konosuke Matsushita in Japan.
Matsushita capitalized on the success of the bullet lamp. This little lamp not only turned the fortunes of his company around (which had been faltering prior to this point in time), but expanded it! As the bullet lamp's popularity grew, he rebranded his company National, lowered the price of the lamps, started an advertising campaign in the national newspapers, and watched the success of the bullet lamp grow beyond his wildest dreams.

Over the course of the 20th century, National would manufacture new and improved bicycle/home lamps known as National Lamps as well as other light products such as flashlights. They continue to manufacture these products today.

The bullet lamp found another important use among the Japanese public besides its primary purpose. Many Japanese found the bullet lamp useful inside the home! Since these were battery-powered and had a long life,  many people replaced the traditional kerosene lamps with bullet lamps. This, in turn, led to the creation of the National Lamp, which could be used on a bicycle or in a home. Also, bullet lamps were no doubt a safer alternative to kerosene and oil lamps, which can be a fire hazard.

Another group of people who found good use for the bullet lamp were police officers, such as the one in the above picture. At the time the bullet lamp was invented, Japanese police officers patrolling on bicycle were - and are still today - common sights on city streets. The motorcycle police force, or Aka-bai Taiin (赤バイ隊員, or 'red bike personnel'. They were renamed shirobai, or 'white bike force' during the 1930s.) was becoming a mainstay of the Japanese police force. The bullet lamp was no doubt useful for these police officers navigating the streets of Japan's cities at night or through stormy weather. Also, as the country experienced a number of natural disasters during the 1920s and 30s such as the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (which devastated cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama) and Typhoon Muroto of 1934, these lamps were no doubt essential to police and rescue personnel as they rescued victims trapped by the disasters or navigated their way through debris.

Matsushita's bullet lamp was a highly innovative invention that turned Panasonic into the multi-national corporation we all know today. However, it was also an invention that made life a lot easier for a lot of people and most likely saved lives as well.  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konosuke_Matsushita (Konosuke Matsushita at Wikipedia.)
http://panasonic.net/history/founder/chapter2/story2-02.html (Panasonic's webpage about the bullet lamp.)
http://www.quoteswise.com/konosuke-matsushita-quotes-2.html (Quotes from Konosuke Matsushita about his bullet lamp.)

Image Copyright:
*Statue of Konosuke Matsushita: Rsa via Japanese Wikimedia.

*This blog entry references information from the following:
-布卢姆斯伯里出版公司, Business: 英文. Beijing: Citic Publishing House, 200?, pg. 1114.
-Kamioka, Kazuyoshi, Japanese Business Pioneers. Tokyo: Heian Press, 1988, pg. 65
-Alexander, Jeffrey W. Japan's Motorcycle Wars. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009, pg. 46

*This blog post is not endorsed by, affiliated with, nor advertising products manufactured by the Panasonic Corporation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

King Naresuan and the Wild Tiger Corps

Statue of King Naresuan at Naresuan University, Pitsanulok, Thailand. 
One of Thailand's most famous national heroes is King Naresuan. Naresuan was the king of the Ayutthaya kingdom who, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, drove the Burmese who occupied a large part Siam (Thailand) out of the kingdom and basically crushed their empire, returning Siam to its full glory. In essence, he is much like America's first president and military commander George Washington and the American Revolutionary War guerrilla leader "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion rolled into one.

In the year 1600, the Ayutthaya kingdom (Siam) had been at war against the Burmese for over three decades. Most of the kingdom had been invaded and occupied by the Burmese in 1567. However, that changed in 1583 when Naresuan, who was then the king of Sukothai (a kingdom that consisted of what is now northern Thailand), led a war of independence from Burma. After driving Burmese forces out of Ayutthaya proper several times (which culminated in a historical duel with his childhood nemesis, the Burmese prince Mingyi Swa, on the backs of elephants), he followed up with an invasion of Burma and its Mon allies in modern-day Cambodia.

As part of his campaign against the Burmese, Naresuan created the Wild Tiger Corps (กองเสือป่า) to harass and observe the enemy armies. They were an early example of a guerrilla army.

Naresuan wanted all of his men in the corps to be experts in Muay Thai kickboxing, weapons, and jungle warfare. During the 16th century, Siam and its neighbors were constantly at war with each other and it was not hard to find men who were good at martial arts. Many young men in Siam learned Muay Thai and swordfighting from a very young age. Some became elite martial artists thanks to training in sword and pole fighting at the nationally-renowned Phudaisawan Sword Training Center in Bangkok. These were exactly the men who would come in useful for King Naresuan. Most importantly of all, men in the Wild Tiger Corps were men who had lost their homes and families since the beginning of the Burmese invasion in 1563 and had a burning desire to see their country become a strong, independent nation once again.

Mural at Wat Suvandaram in Ayutthaya depicting Siamese and Burmese forces in battle.
During this period of time, the Wild Tiger Corps were a thorn in the side of the Burmese. Scouts from the corps lurked in the jungles, observed, and reported Burmese troop positions, strengths, and numbers to the Siamese commanders. They also launched ambushes on enemy soldiers, putting their jungle fighting and Muay Thai skills to good use. They were instrumental in the ultimate Siamese victory over the Burmese.

In 1911, the Wild Tiger Corps would be resurrected in name by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) on the day he ascended to the throne. However, unlike their namesake, this corps wasn't exactly a guerrilla army. This one was a paramilitary corps created by the King to provide military training to those civil servants who were exempt from national military service a chance to receive training. The Wild Tigers, which were based on the pre-World War I volunteer service in the UK, were initially created as a ceremonial guard. However, over time their ranks and duties grew. In the event of war, the Wild Tigers would act as both a police force and army reserve and observe the enemy's positions. In addition, they also acted as bodyguards to the King and were expected to be fiercely nationalistic. All mid-to high level civil servants were required to join the Wild Tiger Corps. Throughout the course of 1911, the Wild Tigers became just as powerful as the army itself and some of its officers became high-ranking army officers and right-hand advisers to the King!

The King could often be seen socializing with and lecturing the Wild Tigers. He invested a lot of time creating this organization and they had his implicit trust.

A year later, the Wild Tigers were disbanded by the King after the failed Palace Revolt, which was carried out by a group of army officers. However, the youth wing of the Wild Tigers, the Tiger Cubs, would set the foundations for the Thai Boy Scouts, which still exists today.

Over the centuries, the legend of King Naresuan has never been forgotten by the Thai people. Nor has the legend of the famous guerrilla army he created. Their stories have been told and retold in the Thai imagination  for four hundred years and in recent years, have been introduced to Westerners thanks to the series of King Naresuan movies!

If you're interested in learning a little more about King Naresuan or the Wild Tiger Corps (both the 17th and 20th century versions), here are some sites for you:

http://www.ajarn.com/blogs/john-quinn/the-battle-of-nong-sarai/ (Very good blog post about King Naresuan and the Battle of Nong Sarai.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naresuan (Wikipedia entry on King Naresuan.)
http://histclo.com/youth/youth/org/nat/tha/nattha.htm (Webpage about King Rama VI's Wild Tiger Scouts.)

Image copyrights:
King Naresuan picture: Mixvasuvadh
Wat Suvandaram picture: Toutou

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hanyang Arsenal and Its Place in Chinese History

Hanyang Arsenal. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of China's largest and most famous weapons manufacturers of the 20th century was the Hanyang Arsenal. Located in the city of Hanyang, Wuhan province, Hanyang Arsenal not only supplied the various armies of China with weapons, but also to several Cold War hotspots...long after the arsenal itself  ceased to exist.

The Hanyang Arsenal was founded in 1891 by Zhang Zhidong, a prominent Qing official and governor of Hubei province who advocated modernizing China's military by strenghtening its iron and steel-producing capabilities. At the time it opened, Qing rule was under serious threat from Western imperialism and home-grown revolutionary movements.

Along with the historic Hanyang Steel Mill (now Chongqing Iron and Steel), Hanyang Arsenal opened its doors in 1894. Despite a fire that took out much of the machinery of the plant a year later, Hanyang manufactured and supplied the Qing military with a huge portion of its weaponry, particularly rifles and rifle ammunition. When it first opened, Hanyang Arsenal hired German managers to run the plant. It mainly manufactured German rifles such as the Type 88 Mauser rifle as well as other German weapons such as Krupp artillery pieces. During this time, German arms were some of the most sophisticated in the world and these were the arms the Qing wanted for their military. Also manufactured at Hanyang was smokeless powder ammunition. Smokeless guns (i.e. bolt-action rifles) were gradually introduced to Western countries such as the US and Great Britain during the 1890s-1900s and during this time, Hanyang had an upper-hand on this new technology in Asia.

Not long after it first opened,  Hanyang Arsenal would play a vital role in one of the nation's conflicts: the Boxer Rebellion. In 1900-01, over three thousand Mauser rifles and ammunition were supplied to Boxer fighters fighting the armies of the Eight-Nation Alliance. The Qing and the Righteous Harmony Society lost this conflict, but the arsenal would keep producing arms for the Qing military for another decade to come.

In 1911, Qing rule was crumbling and anti-Qing fervor was spreading across the nation. In October, the first major uprising against Qing rule, or the Xinhai Revolution, broke out near the Hanyang Arsenal in Wuchang. During this incident, revolutionaries stormed the arsenal and took a number of rifles and other arms. When all was said and done, Hubei province fell to the revolutionaries and the officials at Hanyang Arsenal actively supported the revolutionaries, supplying them with much-needed guns and ammunition and helping to deliver a major blow to the Qing authorities.

After the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912, Hanyang Arsenal would produce weapons for the new Republic of China. Under the Kuomintang, Hanyang Arsenal would expand and in 1917 a ordinance and weapons-manufacturing school opened at the arsenal. It continued to produce mainly German weapons, such the Type 88 and the Gewehr 98, which was the standard rifle of the German Army during World War I. Also during this time, Hanyang began manufacturing German and American machine guns, such as the Browning M1917 heavy machine gun. Many of these guns were used in the First Northern Expedition of 1926-28 against Communist forces.

Hanyang was also a site where a number of modified Western weapons and innovative arms were created. Modified versions of some of the latest Western arms such as the British Maxim machine gun (the Type 24 HMG) and the Type 88 (also called the "Chiang Kai-Shek" or "Chungcheng" rifle) were created at Hanyang during the late 1910s-1920s. These versions were distributed to the Nationalist army and later on, would be used by the Communists as well. Hanyang was also the birthplace of the famous - and extremely rare - General Liu rifle. This rifle, developed in 1916 by the commander of Hanyang Arsenal Gen. Liu Qing-En, was one of the world's first semi-automatic rifles. Only a dozen or less were ever manufactured and they were all made at Hanyang.

Nationalist, or KMT soldiers, during WWII. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1933, China found itself at war with Japan and Hanyang Arsenal manufactured a great deal of the weapons used at the front. In 1937, the Chinese government ordered the arsenal to be dismantled and relocated to several locations in Hunan province before the Hanyang area fell to advancing Japanese forces. The facilities kept manufacturing Mausers throughout the anti-Japanese war and World War II.

Hanyang-manufactured guns were used not only by KMT forces, but by the Red Army as well. Even though much of their arms were Soviet or captured Japanese weapons, Communist guerrillas fighting the Japanese - and the KMT itself after WWII - took pride in their Hanyang guns and stockpiled them. Many captured and defecting KMT soldiers brought their Hanyang guns with them, leading Mao Zedong to claim that the CPC "had a claim on the output of the arsenals of London as well as Hanyang"! (Griffith, 49)

After World War II, production of Mausers resumed at Hanyang. But not for long. At that point, more advanced arms such as semi-automatic rifles were becoming the norm worldwide and bolt-action rifles such as Mausers were becoming increasingly obsolete. In 1947, Hanyang Arsenal was ordered closed by the KMT government and the site was eventually razed to the ground.

However, the Hanyang story does not end there. Many of the weapons manufactured at Hanyang were still in the hands of Mao Zedong's forces, who were growing by the number. In 1949, mainland China came under Communist control and with it much of what remained of Hanyang Arsenal and its guns.

Many of these guns were used several years later during the Korean War. Mausers and other weaponry manufactured at Hanyang were used by Chinese volunteers who fought in Korea against US and UN forces. Likewise, a few Hanyang guns such as Chinese K-98s even made their way to Indochina where they were used by Viet Minh forces against the French and, another decade later, by the Viet Cong during America's war in Vietnam!

The Hanyang legacy also made its way to Taiwan with the Nationalists who fled there in 1949. Many of Hanyang's senior staff went there with the KMT government and military and helped lay the foundations for Taiwan's own military arsenals during the Cold War.

Hanyang Arsenal only existed for over half a century, but during this period of time it supplied weapons for numerous conflicts ranging from the Boxer Rebellion to the Cold War. It was a very advanced arsenal for its time and it certainly left its mark on the history of China...as well as countries just beyond its borders.

Much more about Hanyang Arsenal can be found at:
http://www.cloudaqua.com:8080/showItem/showDetail/12820793.html (Blog post from Chinese blogger roomx. Includes info about her visit to the old Hanyang Arsenal site.)

*This blog post references information from:
-Sun Tzu and Griffith, Samuel B. The Art of War. London: Oxford Press, 1971: pg. 49.
-Waldron, Arthur. From War to Nationalism: China's Turning Point, 1924-1925. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003: pgs. 66-67.
-MacKinnon, Stephen B. Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008: pg. 9

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A History of Asia's Neon Signs

One of the most profound features of almost any of the major urban landscapes in Asia are the neon signs that illuminate the city. Over store entrances, on the sides of buildings, and elsewhere, neon signs and billboards light up the night sky in many an Asian city. They have made the atmosphere of countless movies (both in Asia and abroad) a little more saultry and made travel ads for these countries much more appealing. Tourists make special trips to cities such as Tokyo just to see the neon lights at night!

In Asia there are three cities where neon signs are particularly famous: Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, and Hong Kong. In each city these signs have their own history and their own special meanings. Let's learn a little more about the  neon signs of these cities!
Neon signs in Kabuchiko, Tokyo.

One of the world's "neon capitals" is without a doubt Tokyo. The very first neon sign in Japan was set up in 1926 by Tokyo Pan Bakery in Shinjuku district to advertise their business. During and after World War II, neon signs gradually became a popular form of advertising in the country and at the very end of 1957, the Totsuko company erected a huge neon billboard modeled after New York City's famous billboards in Sukiyabashi, which is located in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district. The switching-on of the lights on this billboard was a nationally-televised event, and when the lights came on, the new name of Totsuko was revealed to the world: Sony.

After this sign became an instant Tokyo landmark, more and more businesses in the city saw the value of having their own neon signs. Throughout the 1960s, Tokyo's shopping districts were plastered with neon signs ranging from giant billboards to tiny window signs, trying to outdo all the other nearby businesses and make their brand a popular one. Over the past few decades, entire streets blanketed in neon lights have become a trademark image in Tokyo. Also, other cities in Japan have followed suit and erected neon signs over their own businesses and shopping districts.

The neon lights of Dōtonbori, Osaka, Japan. Notice the Glico Man in the foreground.

One of these is Osaka - and in particular the part of town known as Dōtonbori. At night, Dōtonbori turns into an amazing paradise of bright lights and gigantic mechanical crabs advertising the many restaurants and stores up and down the street, as well as Japan's (and other countries') famous corporations. Dōtonbori can also lay claim to one of the oldest neon sign in Japan: The running man advertising the Japanese Glico candy brand! This sign, which has been around since 1935 (with some sources saying it was erected in 1919!), has become a city icon and has been used to advertise other sporting events and welcome international visitors to the city for venues such as the 2002 World Cup.

The 1960s saw neon signs start popping up in another major urban area of Asia: Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, neon signs can be found almost everywhere. As is the case with Tokyo, images of young couples walking underneath massive neon signs or lights of every color bouncing off a rain-soaked Nathan Road have become a trademark.

Portland Street in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Note the lucky bat in the top sign.

As was the case for Tokyo, the neon signs of Hong Kong were erected by shop owners to advertise their businesses and compete against "the other guys". The bigger and flashier the sign, the more business they could rake in. Over time these signs became a trademark of the territory that could be found everywhere from postcards to HK blockbuster movies of the 1980s and 90s. And of course, any person who has ever lived in or visited Hong Kong are all too familiar with the city's nighttime lights! Areas of Hong Kong such as Nathan Road and Portland street (see above) are particularly famous for their neon signs that turn the night into a dazzling landscape of colors.

As Christopher DeWolf discusses in his excellent article about the neon lights of Hong Kong, many of these signs use traditional Chinese symbolism to advertise their business. For instance, bats carrying coins are very common on pawn shop signs. In traditional Chinese beliefs, bats descending from the sky are a sign of happiness, as are bats featured on "eye coin" amulets. Naturally, coins themselves are also a sign of wealth! DeWolf also points out that many of these signs use traditional Chinese colors that were used to paint the signs of old. Red (traditionally a lucky color), white, and green were the most common colors.

Hong Kong is also famous for being the inspiration for the city scenes in director Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner. With all of its amazing neon signs illuminating the night streets in a blanket of light, Ridley couldn't have picked a better inspiration for a futuristic Los Angeles than Hong Kong on a rainy day!

Over the course of the mid to late-20th century, neon lights became as much a part of many Asian city landscapes as their temples, parks, restaurants, and other buildings. To some they may be an annoyance, but to others they are valuable pieces of the cities themselves that are more than just an advertising medium. They light up the city at night and create a beautiful nighttime atmosphere for everyone to enjoy.

For more about the neon signs, here are a couple of sites for you:
http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2007/09/japans-neon-vision-lights-up-night.html (Steve Levenstein's article about Tokyo's neon lights.)
http://randomwire.com/hong-kong-nights (A blog post from Random Wire about Hong Kong's neon signs.)

Image Copyrights:
Tokyo: Puffyjet 
Dōtonbori: JoopDooresteijn
Portland St.: UCLARodent
All images used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.