We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.


With the Brits about to hand Hong Kong back to the Chinese, let us remember that while the 1841 land-grab of a tiny, scantly inhabited island might not seem very impressive, it stands as a footnote to a truly historic triumph of free-market salesmanship. After Emperor Daoguang banned the lucrative British opium trade in 1839, the Home Office moved decisively to protect its merchants: By the time a treaty was signed, the British had occupied and/or torched Canton, Shanghai, and several other cities (and seized Hong Kong), reclaimed the right to hawk hard drugs to China’s 5 million junkies, and—a brilliant touch—forced the Chinese to cough up every penny of the punitive expedition’s costs. Now that’s marketing. By contrast, these ad posters commissioned in the ’20s and ’30s by British, American, and (to be fair) one or two Chinese firms represent a more gentle form of commercial insinuation. They are modern, mercantile versions of yuefenpai, calendar pictures traditionally given at the New Year featuring watercolor landscapes, scenes from opera and legend, and beautiful women in classical pose. Naturally, most of these Jazz Age ads feature foxy babes, yet in the earliest examples the subjects retain a dignified mien, and products are tactfully relegated to the bottom margin. But before long the 20th century works its transformation: Lipsticked models, skirts hiked above the knee, look the customer straight in the eye, and cigarettes sprout from fingers. Soon we recognize our own familiar, absurd world: A 1936 poster (not in the exhibit but in an accompanying book) shows sisters perched elegantly on a divan in a spacious sitting room; one grips a huge, black insecticide pumpÿ2Dgun, as oversize dead mosquitoes and flies rain down decoratively around the women. Revolution, anyone? At the Robert Brown Gallery, 2030 R St. NW. FREE. (202) 483-4383. (John DeVault)