Go to CAPS Home Page

Go to CAPS Home Page

Antique Phonograph News
Canadian Antique Phonograph Society
1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
Jan-Feb Mar-Apr May-Jun Jul-Aug Sep-Oct Nov-Dec
The Development of Chinese Records to 1911

Original photo of the "Velly Good Talkee" trademark
Catalogue supplement, June 1905

In the first decade of the 20th century, on the eve of a regime change in China from the Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China (1912-1949), almost all of the world's leading record companies came to China and Hong Kong for recording business. Even though very few records made during this period have survived, we are still able to outline clearly the history and development of the early recording industry in China.

When we talk about the birth of the record market in China, we must mention in particular one person and one disc. This person was a Frenchman named E. Labansat who launched the initial sales of records in China by playing his own disc, titled "JOYEUX RIRES" (a laughing record), to the public on the streets of Shanghai. He set up an outdoor stall on Tibet Road to play this record, and said that "anyone who is able to resist laughing when hearing this record does not need to pay fees, otherwise, a 10 cents coin need to pay". Without exception, this disc has become the first milestone in the history of Chinese records. Nowadays, many Chinese people older than 60 are still able to remember this remarkable record. Its name was translated into Chinese as "Yang Ren Da Xiao", or "Five People Laughing", which means "Laughing Foreigners". Bearing catalogue number 32606, it was first issued on the French Pathé label as an 11.5" vertical-cut record with an etched label (fig. a). Around 1918 or 1919, and for many years after that, it was issued in the same format but with a Chinese paper label, Yang Ren Da Xiao (fig. b). Some ten years later it was re-issued in a lateral-cut format, 10 inches in size, with a new, Chinese paper label, Yang Ren Da Xiao, in a variety of blue, orange and black colors. Pathé sold its records in China through its office in Shanghai. Some years later they set up their own factory in Shanghai and became the most important and biggest record factory in China until RCA built its factory in Shanghai at the beginning of 1930 and became Pathé's strongest competitor.

Fig.a. Joyeux Rires 11.5" Etched-label, double-sided
Fig.b. "Yang Ren Da Xiao" 11.5" paper-label
(Courtesy of Wang Yue Jin)


The earliest discs recorded in Chinese territory were by Fred Gaisberg for The Gramophone & Typewriter Company Limited between March 18th and April 26th, 1903. A total of 476 records, titled in Chinese, were listed in its 1904 Chinese catalogue. Three hundred and twenty-nine Mandarin dialect records were recorded in Shanghai and one hundred and forty-seven Cantonese dialect records were recorded in Hong Kong. These discs were issued in 7" and 10" sizes with the "Recording Angel" trademark on the reverse (fig. c). Matrix numbers E429 to E618 were used for 190 10" records and E1503 to E1788 for 286 7" records. According to the agreement made between The Gramophone & Typewriter Company and the Victor Talking Machine Company on August 3, 1904, some of these records were first re-issued by Victor in America in 1904. These reissues carry "Velly Good Talkee" trade marks on a label depicting a Chinaman listening to a Gramophone. The earliest issues of this label were cream-white in color; later issues appeared in a yellow color. (fig.d)

Fred Gaisberg's recordings and trips to China were arranged by Moutrie & Co., a British Company originally established in 1875 that began commercial business in gramophones and records in Shanghai in early 1906. Moutrie & Co. later became the first and exclusive sales agent for Victor's gramophones and records for the entire Chinese market. Its Chinese name, "MOUDELI", has long appeared on the labels of early Victor records. In 1925-26 its Chinese factory was set up in Shanghai to produce pianos and organs.

Fig.c. G&T Chinese record 10" single-sided, ca. 1903
Fig.d. re-issued from G&T matrix 10" single-sided, ca. 1904 (a later "Velly Good Talkee" yellow label)


The earliest disc records made for Chinese people were made between August 1902 and May 1903 by the early Chinese Colony in America and issued by Victor in the United States. These records appeared in a Monarch 10" series, 164 records of 32 Chinese titles (fig.e). They were sold basically to the Chinese Colony in North America, so are rarely seen in China and Chinese society in Southeast Asia. This series was originally numbered in different blocks between 1557 and 2371, then renumbered in 1903 from 7160 to 7323. A second lot of similar Chinese records was made just 3 months later, in August, with 59 records of 6 Chinese titles, numbered from 7101 to 7159. Their labels were identical to the earlier Monarchs. Two sessions recorded 223 records of 38 titles. Some copies of later issues from my collection indicate that these earliest Monarch Records were re-issued in 1904 with the yellow "Velly Good Talkee" trade mark label.

Fig.e. Monarch 10" single-sided earliest Victor Chinese record, ca. 1902
Fig.f. Victor 10" single-sided first records recorded in China, ca. 1905

Victor's first discs recorded within Chinese territory were in Shanghai in the first half of 1905 (fig.f). Their labels appeared in a 7324- 8299 series and show different colors such as orange, green, silver, and later light blue, etc. They were later re-issued in the period from 1907 to 1909 with different Chinese names such as "Yì Cuò" (fig.g) and "Wù Kè Duo" (fig.h), which was a Chinese translation of 'Victor' by people who spoke different Chinese dialects.

Fig.g. Victor 10" re-issued as "Yì Cuò", single-sided, ca. 1908
Fig.h. Victor's 10" re-issued as "Wù Kè Duo", single-sided, ca. 1909
(Courtesy of Wang Yue Jin)


As early as 1903, Columbia also recorded some Chinese records which were issued in a 1260- 1350 series. I have seen more than 17 surviving copies in this series. All of the titles are of Cantonese Opera. According to Tim Brooks' book "The Columbia Master Book Discography Volume I", they were made in Shanghai in early 1903 (fig. i). From physical features on different labels and actual discs in this series, I believe they were re-issued at least two times after their first issues. A copy of Columbia's Chinese record 1037 survived in excellent condition and seems a little earlier than those in 1260-1350 series (fig. j).

Fig.i. Columbia 10" single-sided, ca. 1903
Fig.j. Columbia 10" single-sided, ca. 1903

By 1906, Columbia had made more than 1000 records in China and these recordings were issued in a 1000, 15000, 57000, and a 60000 series, with labels designed in different styles. For example, Dragon label in red color, American stars and stripes flag and Chinese Qing-Dynasty's dragon flag label, Columbia Concert Record with Lion label, and so on. They are all single-sided records. Columbia's record sales in China were through its early agent named J. ULLMANN & Co. from France in the period from 1905 to 1908 (fig. k) and later through its new agent named MUSTARD & Co., after 1908 (fig. l). On its earlier record label up to 1905, and on its later label depicting a Chinese golden dragon on a red and green background, there is no mention of an agent in China.

Fig.k. Columbia 10" single-sided Sold by J.ULLMANN & Co., ca. 1906-1907
Fig.l. Columbia 10" double-sided sold by MUSTARD & Co., ca. 1909-1910

Beka, Favorite, Odeon and Lyrophon

Some famous record companies from Europe were also making Chinese records in Shanghai and Hong Kong by early 1906. The German company, Beka, arrived in Hong Kong on Feb. 18th and Shanghai on March 12th, 1906 and issued more than 500 records in a 19xx to 24xx block (fig. m). Favorite, another German company, issued records in 1910, according to date information on its label. There is no information when they began recording activities in China, and their labels suggest very limited issue (fig. n).

Fig.m. Beka 10" single-sided, ca. 1906
(Courtesy of Guo Zeng Fu)
Fig.n. Favorite 10" double-sided, ca. 1910
(author's collection)

Variant labels from different actual discs indicate that they were either later re-issued or first issued in more than one version. Odeon, in 1907, made double-sided, 11" Chinese records with a very special Chinese-styled label design (fig. o). These were later re-issued in a similar design in different colors (fig.p). Beka and Odeon sold their records in China through their sales agents among foreign and local companies.

Fig.o. Odeon 11" double-sided, ca. 1907
(Courtesy of Dieter Schulze)
Fig.p. Odeon 11" double-sided, ca. 1908-1909
(Courtesy of Liu Rui Peng)

Lyrophon is also a German company that made Chinese records. Their records, and those by Favorite, are very rare today. I can find little information about Lyrophon's early recording trips to China, except an ad dated August 1913 in "The Talking Machine News". The appearance of the 10" double-sided record referred to in the ad is very interesting. It has different colors on its two sides, and the catalogue numbers on each side are not continuous, so I doubt that this was a reissued copy from its previous version which was probably single-sided. Lyrophon sold its Chinese Northern music records (fig.q) through a foreign agent in Shanghai and Chinese Southern music records (fig.r) through Behr & Co., in Singapore.

Odeon and Columbia have copies similar to Lyrophon in special style.

Fig.q. Lyrophon 10" double-sided, ca. 1913
Fig.r. Lyrophon 10" double-sided, ca. 1913
(Courtesy of Guo ming Mu)


"The Zon-o-phone Record", a book by Ernie Bayly and Michael Kinnear, mentions that Universal Talking Machine Manufacturing Co. made some Chinese records in late 1903 and early 1904 for issue as Zon-o-phone records. These Chinese records were never released by Zonophone, but the matrix numbers used on Victor Chinese records in the 7324- 8299, 9100-9234 and 10000-10350 series are from those Zonophone recording sessions (fig. s) and on some re-issues of records in these Victor series by Gramophone & Typewriter Co., Ltd., at least until 1909.


Beginning in 1908, Pathé began a massive schedule of recording in China through its office set up in Shanghai in 1907. Pathé's recordings covered almost all early Chinese famous Beijing and Cantonese Opera performances. The artists who made the recordings for Pathé served in Beijing and Cantonese operas' famous theatrical troupes by the end of the Qing Dynasty. Some of them served as teachers and performers in the Beijing Opera for the Imperial Palace during the Qing Dynasty. The records were 9.5", 11.5" and 14" in diameter, double-sided, vertical-cut with an etched-label (fig. t). Pathé's etched-label has become very popular to many Chinese collectors.

Fig.s. Victor 10" single-sided with Zonophone matrix number, ca. 1907
Fig.t. Pathé 11" double-sided etched-label, ca. 1908

Canadian Berliner and Victor

Let's now talk about Canadian Chinese records, which is surely a new topic for most readers. As a new member of CAPS, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss with and learn from members who know early Chinese records, or who own copies of records or paperwork such as catalogues covering early Chinese records.

By observing and comparing two labels, we can draw some conclusions about early Canadian Chinese records. One is Victor Monarch 1773 (fig.u), which was later renumbered 7184. It was recorded on November 17th, 1902, according to Ted Fagan and William R. Moran's book "The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings – Pre- Matrix Series". The other is Berliner 5417 (fig. v), which I assume was pressed in 1904 after Berliner had concluded an agreement to be a distributor of American Victor records. The Chinese characters that form the titles of these two records are apparently identical to each other, including the size of the letters and the style of handwriting. From this I conclude that this Berliner Concert-Grand 5417 was pressed from American Victor's matrix of 1773. It is probably the earliest Chinese record pressed in Canada. The website of "The Virtual Gramophone – Canadian Historical Sound Recordings" has a photograph of a Berliner Gram-o-phone Company of Canada "Concert Record - 7173" label with Chinese characters, circa 1905. The title of this record was also covered in the early American Victor Chinese catalogue, so it seem to be another example of a reissued copy by Berliner Gram-o-phone Company of Canada of an American Victor matrix.

Mr. William R. Moran states in Antique Phonograph News Nov. – Dec. 1992 that "in 1924. …. The company was called 'Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada Ltd'.... Its products were Canadian-made, and did not originate in Camden, as did recordings made for the Chinese trade." Up to now, all Canadian-made Chinese records I have seen were reissued from American Victor matrices. For example, all Canadian-made copies of 42000 and 43000 series records with different colors and designs of label from "Berliner Gram-o-phone Co. Limited Montreal" and "Victor Talking Machine Co. of Canada Limited Montreal" are from American Victor matrices, and carry the same catalogue numbers. None of them was recorded in Canada. All the time I expect to see an original Canadian-recorded Chinese record but it seems I have to wait for this dream to be realized.

Fig.u. Monarch 10" single-sided Matrix number 1773, ca. 1902
(Courtesy of Huang Zhi Cheng)
Fig.v. Berliner 10" single-sided brown color, ca. 1904, reissued from Victor’s matrix 1773
(Courtesy of George Pan, Taiwan)


Mr. Paul Charosh’s book, "Berliner Gramophone Records, American Issues, 1892-1900", says that 0402-Chinese Song No.11 and 0444- Chinese Song No.17 were made by Ching Ling Foo on Aug 2nd and Aug 10th, 1899. As a matter of fact, Ching Ling Foo was a very famous Chinese magician who went to the United States in 1898. It was said he was troubled with a stammer, so it’s very hard to imagine how he was able to record his songs. [NOTE: It is not uncommon that even bad stammerers are capable of singing songs without any noticeable stammer. Perhaps the combination of a well-known text along with a well-known tune keeps the stammerer's brain from feeding back confusion upon itself. -ed]

Mr. Michael Kinnear’s book "The Gramophone Company’s Indian Recordings 1908 to 1910" says a 7" Chinese record carrying catalogue number 10500 was issued by Berliner (first use, without paper label). This seems to be a very accidental appearance, perhaps a private recording; it was not something like an official recording session of Chinese music. "Vocal Recordings 1898 – 1925, Volume I, The Gramophone Company Limited (HMV), English Catalogue, by John R. Bennett" mentions a Chinese record with catalogue number 2422 recorded by Snazelle in June, 1900. A Berliner Chinese record with 15000 as its catalogue number was mentioned to be made in London, in February 1899. I think of all of these as accidental records.


All of the records mentioned above are Chinese disc records and all were pressed outside China, because at that early date China did not yet have a national recording industry. Before disc records became known to Chinese people, cylinders carrying Chinese songs were known to very few Chinese families. These cylinders were made by Pathé, Edison, private and unknown companies. Pathé's cylinders (fig.w) were recorded in Shanghai, at the turn of 1900, using blank cylinders. Some private cylinders from mainland China, Hong Kong, United States, Europe, etc. were boxed either hand-written in Chinese or briefly described in English or without any information (fig.x).

Fig.w. Pathé cylinder, ca. turn of 1900
Fig.x. late private record

Edison's cylinders were official commercial issues available to the market from early 1903. Forty-six records with 19 titles appeared in a red box (fig. y). These were re-issued many times before 1908 in a common cream-colored box. In 1909, with the introduction of the Edison Amberol series, 249 Amberol records were available in a green box (fig. z). "The wax cylinders of the Berliner Phonogram Archive" by Susanne Ziegler introduces many early Chinese cylinder records, some of them made by Mr. Berthold Laufer, a German-American, in Shanghai and Beijing during his expedition to China in 1901-1903. If Columbia made Chinese cylinders, it is still unclear.

Fig.y. first issued Chinese cylinder Red box, by Edison, ca. 1903
Fig.z. Amberol Chinese cylinder. green box, by Edison, ca. 1909

Finally, I must give special thanks to Bill Pratt. Since joining CAPS, he has offered great assistance to me at any time and encouraged me to start writing this brief summary of the historical development of early Chinese records to 1911. I have had to stop myself from including too many topics which would have made this article far too long. I sincerely hope anyone who is interested in discussing early Chinese records will contact me at dujunmin@ fibertel.com.ar. I am in fact looking for early Chinese records (disc and cylinder) and catalogues around the world. If you have any available, you are warmly welcome to contact me.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
December 2007