Shanghai ’49 - Last Brand standing: The Rise and Fall of Major Drapkin in Republican China

1933 Chinese print advertisement for Major Drapkin's Federal cigarettes. From the MOFBA collection.
1933 Chinese print advertisement for Major Drapkin's Federal cigarettes. From the MOFBA collection.

This stunningly illustrated 1933 advertisement for Federal cigarettes from our collection tells the history of the British company Major Drapkin, which was one of the last foreign companies to ever advertise in Republican China.


Major Drapkin & Co was a tobacco manufacturer founded in England in 1898. Its best-selling brand was The Grey’s, named after the Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment of the British Army. The company eventually became part of the United Kingdom Tobacco Co which got listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1929. 

By that time, China was already the largest tobacco market in the world, but it was firmly in the grip of the British American Tobacco (BAT) company, a behemoth born from the merger of British Imperial Tobacco and the United States' American Tobacco Company in 1902. Yet, that didn't stop the ambitious U.K. Tobacco Co. from venturing into the lucrative Chinese market that same year and opening a rep office in Shanghai. Its subsidiary Major Drapkin brought with it two of its power brands to tempt the Chinese smokers: The Grey’s, a traditional and unfiltered cigarette introduced as Dà kè léi sī (大克雷斯) in Chinese; and Federal or Fādá ěr (发达尔), a newer brand that debuted in China in 1931 with a splashy front-page ad in the Shenbao, the leading Chinese language newspaper of the era.

In contrast to The Grey’s, Federal cigarettes were cork-tipped and advertised as mild, fresh, mellow and cool. Cork historically was used as the first material to prevent tobacco flakes from getting on the smoker's tongue and even today, most cigarette tips are still patterned to look like this original material. Just like for The Grey’s, local production of Federal cigarettes in China was licensed to Huamei Tobacco (华美烟公司), part of the Shanghai Tobacco Company (上海烟公司).

As a U.K. concern, Major Drapkin’s two brands were most likely marketed in China by the British Millington Ltd. advertising agency, which was renowned for its innovative marketing tactics. In 1933 and 1934 for example we can find a heavy advertisement push in both the Chinese and English language press. An additional publicity stunt for promoting Federal was radio advertisement, enticing consumers to Limerick or singing competitions. In July 1935 for example 8-year-old Frankie Fonseca made the news for wining the recent radio popularity contest sponsored by U.K. Tobacco’s Federal cigarettes. The little crooner sang in multiple languages and apparently garnered over a million votes. Luckily for young Frankie the first prize of these frequent and popular contests was $25, while second or third place would have gotten him 500 or 250 Federal cigarettes, respectively…

During 1934 and 1935, Federal cigarettes were ubiquitous in the streets of Shanghai by the way of prominent double-decker bus advertisements, captured in many iconic photos at the time. 


The brand also booked several more full-page front-page advertisements in the Shenbao and other leading Chinese newspapers during these years. 

Despite the significant investments in advertising the Federal brand, it ultimately turned out that Chinese consumers preferred traditional, unfiltered cigarettes like The Grey’s. The weaker, because cork-tipped, Federal’s were regarded as inferior to traditional unfiltered cigarettes which provided a bigger bang for the buck. But these were the least of Major Drapkins problems in Republican China. When the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, it became increasingly hard to sell outside of Shanghai or the other international treaty ports. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, also these last “solitary islands” were taken by the Japanese and all Western cigarette manufacturers in China seized. 

After the end of the war, Western tobacco companies, first and foremost BAT, tried to regain their former dominant position in the Chinese market. Times had however changed in favor of Chinese companies such as Nanyang Brothers or Hwa Ching Tobacco that now reigned supreme on the streets of Shanghai: By the late 1940s the formerly number one player, BAT, seemed to have gone up in smoke and entirely disappeared from outdoor advertising as well as print ads in the Shenbao. The only foreign firm holding a last stand with their brand The Grey’s was Major Drapkin & Co as evident on 1948 photos of prominent billboards in Shanghai or newspaper ads up to 1949. 

In fact, when Communists troops already marched on Shanghai’s main thoroughfare Nanking Road on March 23rd 1949, Major Drapkin still ran ads for The Grey’s in the Shenbao, defiantly themed with British aristocratic imagery.


However, before the end of the year, Major Drapkin, BAT and all other foreign tobacco companies were expelled from the market after the declaration of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.


The Major Drapkin business in Britain soon also took its final puff and was closed. The brand rights to Federal and The Grey’s were taken over by the company Godfrey Phillips. While They Grey’s were still continued to be sold internationally throughout the 50s, the Federal brand was discontinued and disappeared in the annals of history. 

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