Imagine yourself on a wet Sunday, walking Shanghai’s streets through the kind of persistent rain that, despite an umbrella, works its way in drips into the inside of your jacket and runs across your collarbone.
It was a rainy day like this when I visited the site of what was once the Shanghai Watch Factory (Shanghai Shoubiao Chang 上海手表厂)
The Shanghai Watch Factory was the very first in China, founded in 1958. Watches became important status symbols, one of the ‘Three Bigs’ (san da jian 三大件) necessary for a groom to bring to a marriage. The evolution of the ‘Three Bigs’ over time is a telling narrative on the startling development of China’s market economy and the sophistication of its consumers. In the 1970s the three desirables were a watch, a sewing machine (or radio), and a bicycle. In the 1980s this became a watch, a television, and a refrigerator, and in the 1990s a television, a refrigerator and a car. By the 2000s a wedding in Shanghai was unlikely to proceed unless the groom could deliver a car, an apartment and a computer.
My first Shanghai watch came about by accident when I stumbled into a tiny closet of a shop in Tianzifang, an area of shops and cafes off Taikang Lu in the former French Concession that was rapidly becoming a major tourist trap. But in early 2009 it was just a jumble of laneways and small shops, including one selling watches and sunglasses from old factories in Shanghai. I bought the watch on a whim, but I instantly loved its handsome black face, its gold numbers and hands, and its red-tipped second hand like a fine arrow.
No one was as surprised as I was when it proved to be extremely reliable and very hardy, surviving all kinds of traumas and scrapes until one day I knocked the face clean off in a bicycle crash. I learned the history of Shanghai watches when I took it for repair. “Ah!” said the watch repairer. “It’s an A-581!” He seemed to approve.
The A-581 was manufactured from 1958 until 1967 and was the watch Zhou Enlai wore (there’s a very detailed collector’s website here
if you’re interested).
The Shanghai watch Factory is closed to visitors, but the street is lined with small watch shops selling the company’s modern watch range. If you’re looking for a vintage watch, the tiny watch repairer at 356 Jingxing Lu（just around the corner）has a great selection in the front cabinet and an even better selection in his safe at the back of the shop.
Zhou Kai Sheng started working at the Shanghai Watch Factory when he was just fourteen years old, and has now been repairing watches for fifty-four years. While we were there a customer explained he had brought his seventy year-old father’s watch all the way from Guilin for repair, because only Zhou Kai Sheng did a careful job.
His workshop was wonderful, all tiny instruments and watch parts, tea thermoses and newspapers. His wife worked with him most mornings.
Before I knew it I had purchased a late 1950s A-581 with a delicately ridged pale gold face. What got me was the reassuring sound of its tick – like a little mechanised heart. Zhou Kai Sheng set about making the band small enough for my very small wrist.
And just like that, on a rainy Sunday in Shanghai, I officially became a vintage Shanghai Watch collector, collection size: two.
Shanghai Watch Company
201 Yulin Lu
Yangpu District, Shanghai
Watch Repairer and Vintage Watches
356 Jingxing Lu
Yangpu District, Shanghai