Buy an enamel mug next time you visit China

Ming
4 min readAug 12, 2023

Why? Because they look soviet and have funny captions.

Here’s what you’d get if you search for the English phrase, enamel mugs:

Low-key, adorable and decent for most occasions, aren’t they?
But if you search for the term in Chinese, 搪瓷杯:

You’d get cups that look like they were awarded to outstanding laborers by a soviet government.

In the last century, enamel containers were everywhere in China. From workers to governors, people drank from these glazed steel cups everyday. Of course, none of those you can buy today were actually manufactured from the 1970s. They are nostalgic spin-offs of the 50-year-old art style with a self-mockery twist that makes you chuckle.

What do I mean by “self-mockery twist”? If you look closer to one of those mugs (and happen to read Chinese):

This one says “high-level mingong”, or “advanced migrant workers”. In this context, “migrant workers” refer to those who migrated from villages to cities for physical labor, often on construction sites or in factories.

But it’s the office workers who love buying this design. It serves as a self-mockery joke that essentially says, “although I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room and dressed in shirts and ties, I’m nothing more than a better-paid worker left their hometown for employment.”

As a Chinese guy working in the States under H-1B, I so relate.

A similar design is this “the whole village’s single hope”:

It’s a meme on the Chinese internet that says, “I’m from a poor village, and all the villagers are counting on me to earn money so that we can escape the vicious circle of poverty”.

(How could my earnings could help my neighbors become rich, you ask? Remember that this is a communist art style. Under communism, my earnings will be shared by everyone in the community.)

Of course, few would literally enter a scheme of distributing their own salaries with all fellow villagers. It’s just 1) a gesture of humbleness towards one’s own hometown and 2) an excuse of one’s diligence at work. Therefore, the humor would work best if you are from a well-known metropolis, such as NYC or downtown Shanghai.

Not all slogans are self-deprecating:

This one says “wholeheartedly think about life / everything are for the wife.” (Yes; even the original Chinese text rhymes.) Might make a good Father’s Day gift.

Or, if gift-shopping for your comrade:

(This is honestly the only one that I found with English, hence the special mention.)

Just because the artwork is giving off a 1970s vibe doesn’t mean we can’t add a MacBook to it:

(Source of this photo.)

The caption says, “the proposal (that you’re/I’m drafting) WILL get approved.” It’s a prayer we all say to ourselves once in a while.

Besides captioned portraits, another classic design for enamel mugs is the fan-out typography. Here’s one that says “Beijing Anding Hospital / Psychiatric Division / Souvenir of Discharge”:

If you have this mug, you are essentially saying, “I was a psycho who have been hospitalized”. Between the lines, you are implying, “don’t mess with me, or I might relapse into madness and hurt you, in which case I won’t even be legally responsible for the damage” (IANAL).

That’s probably enough funny designs to get you interested in Chinese enamel mugs. Did I mention that each costs only ~$2 online, shipping included?

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