Ringing the changes

By Liao Fangzhou Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-25 17:48:01

A visitor to the Shanghai Telecom Museum tries to figure out an old switchboard and telephone. Photo: CFP
A visitor to the Shanghai Telecom Museum tries to figure out an old switchboard and telephone. Photo: CFP

 The impressive four-story Renaissance-style building at No.7 on the Bund once housed the Great Northern Telegraph Corporation (GN), a Danish company that became Shanghai's first telephone company. In May 1881, five years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, GN applied to the Shanghai International Settlement and the French Concession for permission to introduce the new telecommunication device to the city. The building (completed in 1908) is now home for the Bangkok Bank and the Royal Thai Consulate General.

When GN installed a telephone switchboard in January 1882, the city's telephone system officially came into being. Initially GN had 10 clients - foreign banks, businesses and restaurants, which each paid 150 yinyuan (silver dollars) a year for the service.

The company soon had a rival. In March 1882, the British entrepreneur J.D. Bishop, who had also sensed the business opportunities, set up the Mutual Telephone Exchange Association of Shanghai. The company offered telephone services in the same area, but it only charged 100 yinyuan per year.

And Bishop was good at publicity. Shortly before he officially opened his telephone exchange, he set up two public telephone booths in Shiliupu area so potential customers could try and experience the new invention.

A clever trick

For a few cents, the curious citizens of Shanghai tried the experience. Couples arrived at the telephone booths at the time they were booked and heard themselves talk after being connected by an operator. It was initially an amazing experience but many suspected it was a trick being played by clever foreigners. Some couples came back and talked again but this time they used key words and responses that no one else would have known. The magic remained and grudgingly they became convinced that the newfangled telephones were for real.

Both companies adopted magneto telephones which featured hand-cranked generators that users turned to ring the bells at the exchange. There were no dials and callers were connected with operators at a switchboard at the exchange who then connected them with the people they wanted to call. 

But the two companies were steadfastly in competition - their customers could not talk to anyone connected with the opposition company.

The inconvenience was fixed a year later when the China and Japan Telephone Company took over both GN and the Mutual Telephone Exchange Association of Shanghai. Under the new operator, customers of the old companies could at last talk to each other.

A new era

The Astor House Hotel (known as the Pujiang Hotel in Chinese) was the first Western hotel in the city and one of the earliest telephone connections in Shanghai. And the telephones installed at the hotel were not the old magneto telephones but automatic versions where people could dial the numbers they wanted, no longer needing operators to connect them.

Other hotels in those days could only envy the Astor House Hotel's opulence in installing an automatic telephone in its great hall and later in each of its guestrooms. When Shanghai welcomed another landmark hotel, the Broadway Mansions, decades later in 1934, it was no surprise that a modern telephone system was included in its construction. Its telephone number (46260) remained unchanged after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Other early subscribers, by 1904, included the Gibb Livingston Company, the Standard Chartered Bank and the Little Company.

As a city of trade and commerce, Shanghai's business telephones substantially outnumbered the residential connections. In 1907 in all the city's concessions, business telephones accounted for 82 percent of the subscribers. While more homes were connected over the years as the phone companies adjusted pricing, in 1934 a total of 56 percent of the telephones in these areas were still dedicated to businesses.

The telephone promoted new ways of doing business for hundreds of companies. Customers were encouraged to order goods by telephone and enjoy home deliveries. In the 1930s when taxis cut their fares to attract more customers, they began offering a telephone service. Shanghai's first taxi company, Xiangsheng, used the number 40000 to promote its call-a-taxi service.

The number of telephones in private homes registered with the Shanghai Mutual Telephone Company, which was established in December 1899, soared from six in 1900 to 9,638 in 1930. After the monthly charges were slashed in 1932, this number reached 20,139 by 1938.

Although telephones were growing in popularity for the most part, they remained the instruments of the privileged - many of the home telephone subscribers were the wives and daughters of prominent and wealthy businessmen, who would spend time discussing the latest fashions from the department stores on Nanjing Road, the latest movies screening at the Grand Cinema, and the newly-installed air conditioners in the dance halls. Or they might just be calling department stores asking for deliveries. 

Alongside the luxury of the telephone ran the emergency services that telephones offered - phones became the first choice for residents having to deal with robberies, fires or illnesses.

A novel view

The growing presence of the telephone in the city was illustrated vividly in noted writer Mao Dun's novel Midnight. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, one of the characters is Feng Yunqing, a former landlord who became a speculator in the stock exchange and used the public phone in the exchange's hall to buy and sell shares at crucial moments. 

Most people in Shanghai then, like Feng, only had access to public telephones. Some of these could be found in restaurants, teahouses and nightclubs and anyone could use them if they paid for the call.

But most people had to use public telephone booths and to use the phones in these people had to buy bronze tokens issued by the Shanghai Telephone Company. The company came into existence in 1930 and oversaw telephone services in all the city's concessions. Customers bought the bronze tokens from the company.

While the tokens were meant to simplify book-keeping for the phone company, they encountered problems as many people held on to the tokens and didn't use them immediately, creating a shortage. The Shanghai Telephone Company launched several newspaper appeals trying to encourage customers to exchange their unused tokens for cash. The tokens remained in use until just before the founding of the People's Republic of China.

In the early 1950s, there were two places where people could find telephones in Shanghai: in government departments, or in the tiny tobacco and grocery stores at the entrances of longtang (traditional lanes).

Shanghai began offering neighborhood telephone services in 1952. Telephones were shifted to special windowed booths located near longtang entrances. Designated residents manned the booths and answered the phones, calling people to the phone or taking messages for them if they were not available. By the end of 1953, these neighborhood telephone services could be found all over Shanghai.

The ideal and usual choice for the neighborhood telephone duties were down-to-earth middle-aged local women. Often they were too busy with the phones or their own affairs to bother knocking on doors to tell people of a phone call or message and just yelled the messages down the laneways. Privacy was a luxury and neighbors didn't, or couldn't, hide much from each other.

The neighborhood phone booths were open between 7 am and 7 pm, but after a few years they were not enough to handle the demands of the citizens. In 1985 the Shanghai government set up night emergency telephone services covering its 11 districts. These telephones, available from 10 pm to 7 am, were to help people who needed to make emergency calls at night.

Landlines arrive

The early 1990s saw the long-awaited installation of private landlines. For a home phone, it cost 4,500 yuan ($724.60), several times the then average monthly salary, and this inevitably excluded many households. But more than enough people applied for landline connections, creating seemingly endless queues at post offices and telecommunications centers.

In those days it usually took four to five years after signing up to have a telephone actually installed. Priority was given to retired government officials, people who used telephones at home as part of their work and those paid with foreign currency. A cash payment of $1,500 could save a person from having to queue and could guarantee a private phone installed and working within a week.

Home telephones became the norm through the 1990s. Certainly by 2000 they were home essentials. The once popular neighborhood telephone services were an anachronism and in 2011, 1,000 neighborhood phone booths, more than a third of the total, were demolished.

While the earliest inter-provincial telephone calls dated back to May 1926 when a line between Shanghai and Wuxi was put into service, it was not until the 1960s that Shanghai was truly connected with many cities across the country. According to a report in the Wenhui Book Review, a 16-year-old Shanghai youth visiting Beijing rushed to the post and telecommunications office next to Tiananmen Square to call his mother after seeing Chairman Mao. After waiting in line for two hours he made the historic 2-minute telephone call, the first long-distance call he had ever made in his life.

The first international call from China came from Shanghai and was made to Tokyo on February 15, 1936. In the late 1980s, international calls were in demand with many Chinese students studying overseas. As few homes then had private telephones, the parents of children studying abroad had to go to telephone company offices to contact their offspring. Sometimes the queues there could last an entire day and so they took meals along with them for the wait.

 When home phones were installed in the early 1990s most parents of these students applied for international services. But it was costly getting these connections. A few words could set a family back 60 yuan. Most developed a technique of calling, telling their child to call back and hanging up quickly.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, Meeting up with old Shanghai

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