Almost always surrounded by breezy landscapes, an array of products, and dressed in traditional cheongsam dresses, the image of these two women have become a recurring motif in vintage Chinese posters and labels.
Their first appearance dates back to the 1900s. Chinese artist Kwan Wai-nung (1878-1956) was the “Calendar King” of Hong Kong in the 1920s, having produced thousands of similar illustrations on calendars and posters for clients. They were known as calendar girls, named for the calendars that the range of illustrated women originally appeared alongside.
His style defined the city’s early 20th century commercial advertisements: distinctly Chinese traditions of print and painting mixed with orient-inspired art nouveau and art deco.
But it's Kwan’s work for Hong Kong brand Kwong Sang Hong that really became iconic of the style.
During the turn of the 19th century, fine cosmetics were all foreign, shipped to China via Hong Kong and priced such that only expatriate workers and the considerably wealthy could afford it.
Kwong Sang Hong, established as the British colony’s first local cosmetics brand in 1898, sold its products at a way more accessible price. Suddenly, regular folks could buy talcum powder, creams, and oils off the shelf, all of which were represented by the two women on their labels.
The company quickly became a household brand, and with it, Kwan’s illustration of the two girls. The image is so intertwined with the brand that Kwong Sang Hong sells its products today under the Two Girls trademark.
The calendar girls—called ”yuefenpai” (月份牌) in Chinese—occured in almost all of Kwan's work, and were part of the larger visual trend occurring in China, especially in Shanghai.
The rise of the printing industry, a newfound commercial culture, and the increased influence of the West made the chinese-adapted calendar advertisement the country’s most prominent advertising style. Thousands of artists produced them. Beautiful women were their selling point. They were hung up in almost every household, given as gifts, as marketing incentives, and sold in shops.
Its visual culture strengthened to the point that the calendar was irrelevant. Cigarettes, liquor, confectionery, cosmetics—a large range of products were endorsed and branded with smiling calendar girls. Their faces have become intertwined with vintage Chinese advertising, their cheongsams conjuring images of old Shanghai glam.