Three Decades of Children’s Consumer Experience

sinakidconsumethumbA spread in Southern Metropolis Weekly features writers recalling their childhoods in China, from the ’60s through the ’80s. These brief essays follow the thread of China’s modernization and opening up, from the simple, hopeful lives of the Cultural Revolution to the first big influx of products and ideas two decades later. Here’s the translation…

Three Decades of Children’s Consumer Experience

childhoodsmw1pThe children of the 1960s lacked money to consume, and lacked consumer stores; they were dedicated to education, under the firm belief that in the future, “we can have bread, and milk too.” Children of the 1970s had snacks, children’s books, and also TV and movies; it was a beginning step toward realizing a “tandem physical-spiritual bumper harvest.” Children of the 1980s weren’t lacking for physical things nor for time: they had foreign dolls, game machines, and newly created extracurricular classes.

1960s: No Concept of Consumption, Self-Made Toys
Interviewee: Liu Xiaohui, female, born in 1964, assistant professor in higher education institute

childhoodsmw2pI simply didn’t have a concept of spending money; there was a particular lack of material goods. Even if the family had money we could not buy things. If someone wanted a small item from the store, it would be treated as if they have a “capitalist tail” and needed to be dealt with. Therefore, I would go into the elementary school class period, and all around the school there were no snacks sold.

That was a difficult decade; everyone’s days were all tight, with barely enough. Before 15 years old, I was not passed down any genuinely new clothes, all were big brother’s and big sister’s hand-me-downs, and the clothes had lots of patches on them. If on Chinese New Year I could have some new clothes made by my parents out of some useless cloth or old clothes, I was indescribably pleased.

I didn’t even have a concept of purchasing toys; I made toys by myself. Girls liked to fly kites, to jump rubber ropes, and boys were crazy about slingshot guns. I loved flying kites in spring, finding some sliced bamboo and some pieces from a used exercise book which could be made into a kite. Boys used some iron wire and some rubber ropes to make a real “weapon,” and fearing they’d be found by the teacher, boys in class always hid them in girls’ desks, because teachers never checked on girls.

At that time, life was rough; still I think my childhood was fairly happy. This might be related to the red brand we had when we were born — from an early age we had been required to dedicate ourselves to inheriting the glorious tradition — therefore my feelings toward consumption were just like the classic dialog “we will have bread and milk” in the movie “Lenin in 1918.” Toward the future, the people in our generation had a happy sense of anticipation.

1970s: Snacks, Pocket Comics, and Movies
Interviewee: Xiong Fang, male, born in 1972, Private business owner

childhoodsmw3pWhen I went to primary school, it was not long after the Cultural Revolution ended, and my father, who had been characterized as a reactionary, returned to work at the “Institute of Classical Literature” with a monthly salary of 60 yuan. Meanwhile, my brother and I had 1 mao daily pocket money, which increased to 2 mao by Grade 5 or 6.

We spent almost two thirds of our pocket money on buying snacks. Snacks were cheap at that time: 1 fen for candy, 2 fen for a packet of salty nuts, 5 fen for 2 ice sticks, and 5 fen for cotton candy. With more lenient policies, there were more and more people running small businesses; at the beginning, there was only one small store near the school, which became four when I graduated.

I bought some writing supplies every week, like a pencil for 1 fen, an eraser for 2 fen. During Spring Festival, our parents bought us new clothes and gave us pocket money, most of which we had to turn in, though we could keep 5 yuan. Besides food, the largest expense in my childhood was to buy pocket comics such as “Shuo Yue,” “Journey to the West,” “The History of 3 Kingdoms,” “Dingding’s Story,” etc. I had all of them. It seemed to be 7 fen for one. I remember that I sorted and found over 300 pocket comics when we moved to a new home during high school.

TV was a rarity at that time, so all the neighbors in the building would run to watch TV at whosever home had one — TV programs like “Curdled blood,” “Fearless,” etc. I have a fresh memory of it still. Then father took us to the cinema, 5 fen per person. Before screening the film, generally there was a cartoon like “Atom,” which was the happiest moment for the kids. It was always full in the theater no matter what movie was on at the time.

1980s: Popular Entertainment Everywhere
Interviewee: Wang Yizhu, female, born in 1985, senior student in university

childhoodsmw4pWhen I was studying in primary school, I had 2 yuan for pocket money everyday. I spent 5 mao or 1 yuan on breakfast, and the rest went to the small shops in or around school. I still remember the 2 mao chopstick candy, 1 mao red fruit skins, 1 mao sour plum powder, 5 mao Big Big Bubblegum etc. But I liked the 1 yuan package of jumpy candy, which was the kind of candy that will ping pong and jump around when you put some in your mouth. Sometimes in order to eat the jumpy candy, I had to save two or three days of pocket money.

As far as playing goes, for girls it was role-playing games, except for rubber-rope-jumping. Dolls were seen quite often, and a doll that could change clothes was over 30 yuan. In order to own a doll, I had to beg my parents for one or two months.

As far as playing goes, boys were different from girls; for example, one year my older brother would save 1 yuan each day, in whatever way he could, to play computer games. When he was in grade 6, father bought him a video game player close to 1000 yuan. It was absolutely the most expensive toy at the time, and every weekend there were many boys coming to my home to play games. My brother liked to read comics, 2 yuan for one, and every month he would beg our parents to buy him two; now there are still over ten “Saint Seiya” comics he bought in childhood at home.

Chinese New Year was the most cheerful for my brother and me, because our parents bought us new clothes and shoes. I still remember, in Grade 5, Mom took me to buy new clothes — a 40 yuan white shirt, an 85 yuan princess dress, a pair of 50 yuan red boots — which were my most expensive clothes during primary school. We surely had New Years pocket money, about 200-300 yuan every year, but we had to hand them in before Grade 3. Soon we went to secondary school, where we could receive 500 a year and save 50 or 100 for ourselves.

Now, I am thinking, true play is the theme of our childhood — not too much homework, and not as many extracurricular classes as nowadays. Our generation neither lacked for entertainment, nor for material things, nor time.

Additional notes:
1 yuan = 1 RMB
1 mao = .1 RMB
1 fen = .01 RMB

kuaizitangChopstick Candy (筷子糖 Kuaizi tang)
Chopstick-shaped candy in different colors, sizes and flavors, which kids like to suck and chew. Very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

guodanpiRed Fruit Skin (果丹皮 Guodanpi)
A popular snack with kids, sweet and sour, made of a dry, bright red fruit like hawthorn, or produced from apples and pears. Still can be found in shops today.

sourplumpowderpSour Plum Powder (酸梅粉 Suanmei fen)
A very sour, salty powder made from preserved plum.

dadagumpBig Big Bubblegum (大大泡泡糖 Dada Paopao Tang)
A roll of bubblegum similar to “Bubble Tape” in the United States.

jumpycandy“Jumpy” Candy (跳跳糖 Tiaotiao Tang)
A candy that pops in the mouth, like “Pop Rocks” in the United States.

Pocket Comics


Original Story: 三代儿童消费体验

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