As the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai prepares to celebrate 100 years in China as of June 2015, we take a look back to highlight some American products that changed daily life in China, bridged cultural gaps, and paved the way for decades of American-Chinese trade.
The Singer sewing machine was one of the first American inventions to make it big in China, paving the way for future American companies seeking the seemingly untapped Chinese market.
Isaac Singer invented his first sewing machine in New York City in 1851, revolutionizing the American garment industry. Due to the overwhelming success of the machine in the U.S. and other Western countries, Singer soon set his eyes to the East, opening Singer’s first Chinese office at 11 Foochow (Fuzhou) Road in Shanghai in 1883. Singer would be one of just four American companies recorded as having set up shop in China before the turn of the century.
Ads for Singer were among the first to be published in Shanghai newspapers, but the road to success in China proved rocky for the budding company, as many Chinese families were unable to afford the new Western technology at the price of £ 4.00 (39 yuan in today’s money).
However, as Western fashion became more popular around 1910, Singer’s machines became began to catch on with Chinese consumers until they became an essential household item. The speed and relatively low-skill level that the machine required meant boundless new fashion opportunities for local resident who may have lacked access to Paris boutiques, but could cut patterns from fashion magazines or order them through the mail.
In 1915, J.B. Southmayd, Manager for Singer’s China operations became one of several prominent American businessmen in Shanghai to found the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. The new organization was headquartered, at 5 Jinkee Road (now Dianchi Road, near Yuanmingyuan Road near the Bund), and was founded on the premise of upholding standards of American business practices and promoting the development of business interests between the “two great republics of the Pacific.”
Today, Singer has factories around the world, including in Taiwan and mainland China, and remains an icon in the garment production industry.