Britons of a certain age will remember Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney pies. They may even be eating them again: the 1970s favourite has made a comeback in UK supermarkets, according to the Guardian newspaper, and sales are up 41%. Supermarket chain Asda also reports a 20% increase in sales of Bisto gravy.
Nostalgia is big business. Earlier eras often seem to get resuscitated and relived. Food, fashion items and cars are notable examples.
In China, mainlanders are now embracing products they once shunned too. “Retro” Chinese brands like Flying Pigeon bicycles and Feiyue sneakers – usually associated with the Communist era – are now attracting younger buyers.
Take Flying Pigeon, for instance. The Tianjin-based bicycle maker, which has manufactured 1.3 million bikes annually since the 1950s, is benefitting from a burst of retro-cool.
According to Tianya.cn, a popular internet portal, hipsters around Beijing were seen riding Flying Pigeon bikes and wearing big mosquito-like sunglasses. Growing wealth brings a growing pretension to irony, it seems.
The last time Flying Pigeon hit the media spotlight was in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush was given one as a gift.
But as more mainlanders traded in two-wheels for four, Flying Pigeon’s popularity waned. In 1998 the company incurred over Rmb300 million in losses and had to restructure.
Things have improved since then, and the company has widened its product range. It originally sold only single-gear bicycles in one colour, black. Now it makes 300 models, in a number of colours.
Similarly, Feiyue, a forgotten 1950s shoe brand, is suddenly a must-have item again for young mainlanders.
The brand dates back to the 1920s and was popular under Mao. But then it lost ground to the Nike and Adidas newcomers. Feiyue became associated with migrant workers who couldn’t afford a little foreign sophistication.
Not any more. Netizens in Guangzhou complain that it is hard to find Feiyue shoes because so many stores are sold out.
Li Xiao, a 28-year-old photographer, said he was attracted to the “rebellious feel” of the sneakers: “It’s different because you are not chasing after the foreign brands like everyone else.”
Part of the resurgence in nostalgia also stems from collectors, who have been snapping up vintage pairs of trainers (or sneakers).
Jia Wei, who blogs about vintage Chinese sneakers, said: “It is quite natural for Chinese to rediscover something that they or their parents grew up with.”
Similar memories have driven many young people to DaFang Department Store in Beijing.
The department store, which is only a few minutes drive from two trendy shopping malls, has decor and merchandise largely recognisable from 30 years ago. It carries products that only people of 50 and above will recognise, says the South China Morning Post.
“Our plan is to target middle-aged and elderly customers,” says store manager Xue Hong. But increasingly young people are shopping at Dafang too, attracted by the old-style shopping experience. You can’t get any more retro than this: Dafang’s cashiers still use the abacus.
And Dafang sells products targeting the younger generation too, like a Rmb22 perfume pouche. These are old keepsakes sent by women to their lovers. The store claims the brand it sells first hit shelves 178 years ago.
Critics are sceptical whether the nostalgia brands are sustainable. Studies have shown that they are rated high in “character and personality” but low in “fashion and elegance,” He Jiaxu, Director of Brand Science Research Centre told China Weekly.
Which seems like a fancy way of saying that old things that become cool again can easily become undesirable once more.
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