Cigarette cards museum
Updated: 2015-04-01


A fashionable young lady wearing fancy qipao is common subject of cigarette cards. Photo provided to

The dazzling skyscrapers in Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial district are usually considered symbols of affluence and modernization of the city, but tucked in the ground floor of one of the high rises, a tiny private museum showcasing old cigarette cards is reminiscent of the business prosperity of old Shanghai and would revoke many local residents’ childhood memories.

Feng Yiyou, 82, set up the museum with more than 40,000 cigarette cards he and his departed father collected over the past century, with the oldest dating back to late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Cigarette cards originated from the US around the year 1870 and were introduced to China at about 1890. When package cigarettes were first produced, the packages are soft. But soft paper is not convenient for smokers to take with the cigarettes, so tobacco manufacturers added a stiff card, which then developed to cigarette cards, Feng explained.

The cards were first used to advertise cigarette brands, and then beauties’ profiles, plants and animals were printed on them to tout buyers. Tobacco manufactures racked their brains to make the cards appealing, some even invited renowned painters to draw for the cards.

The 300-square-meter cigarette cards museum houses more than 5,000 pieces chosen from Feng’s trove, covering a tremendously comprehensive topics: folk customs, legendary figures, cultural events, exotic flowers, rare herbs and many others. Famous painters in the 1930s in Shanghai, like Zhang Leping and Wu Youru, had shown their artistic skills on the tiny cards.

Feng collected the world’s first colorful cigarette cards---A set of 100 cards called World’s Army, released by a UK tobacco company in 1894. “This set depicts 100 soldiers from different countries. Every one of them is different in uniforms, facial expressions and movements. You can find four Chinese soldiers among them,” he said.

The museum preserves the first set of cigarette cards made by national tobacco company. In 1904, Sheng Xuanhuai, the minister of Qing Dynasty’s railway system, started the national Sanxing Tobacco Company to combat foreign rivals . The 32 cigarettes cards of Qing Dynasty’s beauties were void of any English words.

A lot of his collections are not regularly squarely shaped---they could be round, oval, triangular, gourd-shaped and many others. And they vary in materials: wool, cotton, silk and even glass.

Tobacco companies sprung up in China in early 20th century since China was forced to open its door to the outside world after the defeat in Opium War in 1840. Shanghai solely had more than 400 tobacco companies. Many Chinese smokers soon gave up the old-fashioned water tobacco pipe and considered cigarettes with a card in the package are authentic, high-level products different from those cheap, hand-rolled cigarettes. Thus, tobacco manufacturers spared no efforts to make the cards appealing.

"It was extremely difficult to collect a whole set of cigarette cards, which may be dozens of or even more than 100 cards,” Feng said.

He recalled that around 1921 the Nanyang Brothers Tobacco Company released a set of 100 cigarettes cards on heroic characters in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great literary classics in China. It stirred tremendous excitement among people. Children enthusiastically seeked and traded them, dreaming to collect the whole set.


Feng’s museum exhibits world’s first colorful cigarette cards – A set of 100 cards called World’s Army, released by a UK tobacco company in 1894.

Like stamps, cigarette cards at that time became items that people exchange, trade and collect. Some rare cards had significant value.

And it also developed into a popular game among children. They folded the cards slightly in the middle and arranged them in a line. Then they slapped each card with their palm in an effort to get the card to turn over. The one who turned over the most cards was the winner and got the others’ cards.

However, most companies had stopped releasing cigarette cards since the War Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945). Today, cigarette cards are only available in antique markets. Most young people have no idea of them.

"It is true that the artistic value of cigarette cards is not as significant as that of snuff bottles or water tobacco pots. But they draw a vivid picture of the society at that time and reflected common people’s lives and aesthetic taste. They revealed so much about Chinese culture, education, arts, history and civilization. I think they are of great historical and research value,” Feng said.

Although Feng was dubbed “King of Cigarette Cards”, the old man modestly attributed the title to his departed father, Feng Sunmei, who had been chief editor of a weekly on cigarette cards collection.

At his peak, Feng Sunmei had collected more than 800 sets of 60,000 cigarette cards, a large part of which, sadly, had been destroyed during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). During that time collecting cigarette cards was regarded as a sign of being “anti-revolutionary”. Cards on movie stars or fashion ladies were even considered pornographic.

Terrified they would be discovered, they didn’t burn the cards since smoke might draw attention. “Day after day, we sat together at midnight and watched my father tearing up the cards into pieces with tears on his face. My mother hid them in a basket till the next morning to throw them away secretly on her way to wet market,” Feng said.

After the “cultural revolution”, the family had only about 3,000 cards left.

Feng Yiyou is the fifth of the six children in family. He was determined to take over his father’s heritage and the endeavor to protect the cultural relics. Since the 1980s, he spent all his time and money in collecting cigarette cards from antique markets and bazaars in different cities.

In 2002, he established the Feng’s Cigarettes Cards Museum at his home in Hongkou district and opened it free to visitors. But the tiny family museum was forced to shut down five years later when the old community underwent renovation and his house was demolished.

Luckily, Feng’s daughters and son-in-laws decided to help carry forward the cause. They rent a house in Pucheng road in Pudong New Area and invited Feng to run the museum. The old man happily agreed.

"I wish more people, especially the young people, have a chance to see these precious cigarette cards and could love them,” Feng said.

890 Pucheng Rd, 9 am to 10:30 am, 2 pm to 4 pm, Tuesday to Saturday, Free of charge

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