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Blast from the past

By Ren Xiaojin | China Daily | Updated: 2018-02-21 07:31
Japanese camera maker Fujifilm's instant camera is now enjoying a boom. [Provided to China Daily]

Old brands and types of cameras are finding acceptance among young consumers who crave nostalgia

Technology has been shaping modern life at an unpredictable speed, and many things can be done by a simple click on a mobile phone. But that has not deterred some young Chinese people from immersing themselves in nostalgia and bringing new life to items from the past.

Nowadays, anyone can shoot a picture and, within minutes, Photoshop it and then upload it online to share with millions. But some still prefer the old ways of photography-mechanical single-lens reflex, rangefinders, instant cameras and point-and-shoots, whose names have been forgotten by many-which has opened the door to making money from people's obsession with the past.

Lin Fei, a 22-year-old undergraduate, is one of them. Born and raised in the digital age, she is still fascinated by the texture of a film picture and prefers to stay in the darkroom, process the film and wait for them to be developed, even though it takes a day or two.

"Unlike digital cameras that can take loads of photographs in a minute, it really makes one think about framing and lighting before pressing the shutter," she said.

Beside her studies, she runs an online shop that sells vintage cameras she collects from all around the world.

"Most vintage cameras you see in the market are incredibly cheap, ranging from 50 yuan ($7.9) to 100 yuan," she said. "Those sellers import electronic product waste from Japan and Europe by metric tons, pick cameras from the garbage, and then sell them whether they are working or not."

Lin realized from her observations that there was a huge market for quality vintage cameras in China and decided to launch her own business two years ago. "I have buyers in Europe and Japan that go to vintage shops and hand pick the cameras," she said.

Now her shop sells thousands of cameras every year, with each camera sold bringing her a profit of about 200 yuan-a good side income for an undergraduate.

A collector (left) shows off his extensive collection of vintage cameras to some camera enthusiasts in Beijing. The collection also includes rare brands such as vintage Leicas. Vintage cameras are gaining in popularity with collectors due to their durability and resale prices. [Provided to China Daily]

There are many shops online like hers that sell film cameras. For some high-end kinds such as Contax T-series, even a second-hand camera can sell for up to 6,000 yuan, which is more expensive than many digital cameras, not to mention Leica, which commands five figure prices.

Today, most brands have stopped selling film cameras, and film rolls are also hard to find as they are replaced by memory sticks. But Fujifilm, one of the earliest commercial film manufacturers, is still carrying on the mission of reviving film photography.

The Japan-headquartered Fujifilm has put high hopes on the Chinese market, which contributed 12 to 13 percent of the company's global revenues in 2017.

The Chinese market is the third largest market for the company, following Japan and the United States. Currently, Fujifilm has 29 branches in China and will also expand its staff strength in the country for future growth.

"Since the advent of digital (camera) in 2000, global demand for color film has fallen sharply by 20 to 30 percent every year," said Hiroyuki Matsuura, general manager of the photo imaging production division of Fujifilm (China) Investment Co Ltd. "Since then, the company has been facing its biggest crisis since inception."

Matsuura said the company decided to preserve its business and even expand it globally.

"First of all, it is more reliable to use film to preserve historical moments," he said. "Also, film is a more sentimental medium, compared with a digital record in a smart phone or a camera. We make the memory warmer by preserving it in film."

Rather than considering it as a dying business that thrives on nostalgia, Fujifilm has turned traditional film photography into a modern fashion by developing instant camera instax, and turning the camera roll into instant color print film.

"In 2007, the instax was first shown in a television soap, and it has been a hit in the Asian market since then," he said.

Now, instax can be seen at most parties and is regarded as a popular gift. Its cute design has attracted many young consumers.

Last year, the company developed a new model. Unlike a traditional point-and-shot instant camera, it allows users to preview the picture through the digital screen.

According to a report by Chinese media company Sina, Fujifilm teamed up with Changhong IT Information Products Co Ltd, a Sichuan-based marketing company, in July to increase instax's sales in the country.

"Fujifilm is rocking the tradition in the Chinese market," said Zhu Jianqiu, president of Changhong IT. "As one of its partners, teaming up with Fujifilm has been a very promising attempt for us."

Leica, one of the most expensive camera brands, also believes that film photography will not die out in the digital age and may even make a comeback.

Jane Cui, president of Leica's Asia division, said while Leica values the traditional photography culture, it will not turn a blind eye to modern technology.

"Many people choose to use social media to save and share their photos. But just like the movie industry, there is a growing demand for movies shot on real film," she said.

"The demand for real pictures has seen a comeback. For example, people are using their photos to decorate their walls, and smartphones cannot meet this new demand."

Film photography is not the only classic that is witnessing a revival.

Late in 2017, many classic games, such as Mario Bros, Punch-Out!!, The King of Fighters '95, announced their return to Nintendo Switch, the Japanese game giant's new product released last year.

The development is going to make gaming enthusiasts who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s nostalgic. Cafés and restaurants with vintage loft designs can also be found everywhere in Beijing and Shanghai.

Maybe just as F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in his signature novella The Great Gatsby, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

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