Vintage electronics have been making a comeback in recent years, and are attracting much younger collectors. These enthusiasts appreciate the nostalgia, fine design and lasting quality of old-fashioned technology. Radios, telephones and black-and-white TV sets of eras gone by are among the most popular - and valuable - collectables.
A luxury gadget in the 1970s in China, the vacuum tube radio was once considered a must-have for newlyweds and a display of a family's wealth. While the radio advanced to be powered by transistors in the '80s, they are now almost entirely replaced by digital counterparts. The rarity of the these old radios has sparked a craze in collectors.
Qi Jiangang, 33, who owns a film and TV production company in the Songzhuang Artist Village, Tongzhou district, started collecting vintage radios about 10 years ago, spurred by his childhood interest in the gadget. Back in 2006 and 2007, he made money buying and selling old radios. As the number of valuable sets on the market declined, he started to build up his own collection.
Today Qi owns about 5,000 radios, now on display in his company's building. Valuable models include a 123-year-old RCA, a Bakelite radio produced in the '60s by China's well-known radio brand Panda and an American Zenith vacuum tube radio given to China's patriotic hero Chang Hsueh-liang in the '40s by Soong May-ling, wife of the late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek.
The fervor over old-style radios has been going on for about eight years. Collectors have been skewing younger, with people in their 20s joining in. It's a change observed both by Qi and Zhang Li, a radio collector and owner of a secondhand radio and film projector store at the Beijing Bogu Yiyuan Trading Market near the Babaoshan Subway Station on Line 1 in Shijingshan district.
"The young collectors rarely saw radios while growing up. Once they spot one, they become fascinated," said Zhang. The old models are often exquisitely designed and more durable than many modern electronics, he added.
Some young collectors are in it purely as a hobby. Others consider it a sign of wealth if they have a full collection of the gadgets produced from different periods from the past, Zhang said.
Popular radios are often judged by the time period they were produced, the outlook and the brand, Qi explained. Besides displaying the old gadgets for his own appreciation, Qi also set up Daqi Qingye Culture Company in 2010 to rent them out as props to movie and TV production companies. The museum for his 1,000-plus radios and projectors is set to open in Songzhuang in May.
The most popular radios are those kept from the '20s to '50s, a majority of which were imported from the US and European countries, and domestic brands such as Peony, Panda and Shanghai started up in the early years of the New China that was founded in 1949, said Qi.
Foreign brands such as Germany's Grundig and Blaupunkt often have more stylish arch shape and carved patterns on the wood boxes, said Zhang. The most sought-after domestic brand is Panda 1510, produced in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, as the brand was once used by late Chinese premiere Zhou Enlai when only about 500 sets were on the market. Qi says a Panda 1510 can be worth 100,000 ($16,058) to 200,000 yuan.
While radios have been taking off among vintage geeks, old-fashioned telephones and TV sets are late to the antiquing party, said Sha Lei, 29, who has been collecting old-style telephones for 10 years.
Sha, a native Beijinger, started his collection in 2003 while he was working as an advertising designer. His interest was sparked by the rarity of old-fashioned phones when he was a child. After he learned more about them, he was taken by the industrial design of vintage phones, often enhanced by the use of both metal and wood materials, and the complicated mechanics inside. Sha now works as a freelance designer in order to have more time to manage his collection.
"Unlike telephones in the West that were mass produced, most telephones in China made before the 1980s were unique in design and mechanics, thus creating a unique value for collectors," said Sha.
He now owns more than 1,000 telephones, including wooden, wall-hanging telephones, corded phones and cradle ones produced in both China and the West from the '30s to the '80s. A majority of them still work. The collection cost him a fortune, with some pieces costing as much as 6,000 yuan. Sha estimates that there are about a dozen other antique telephone collectors in Beijing.
TV sets are less popular than radios and telephones because a lot of them are non-functional and can only serve as decorations, said Qi, who also owns about 200 antique TV sets. He finds and purchases his antique radios and TV sets from online shops, secondhand markets or waste recycling venues.
Collectors still need to wait a little longer before the value of antique TVs increases, said Zhang.
Although these old gadgets are becoming rarer, Sha is positive that they will survive.
"As long as there are people who love these, they won't disappear," he said.