Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People and the hybrid pathways of Chinese modernity

In this chapter, Alice Tsay tracks the global history of a patent medicine known as Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, from its invention in Canada in 1866 to promotional spreads in Chinese-language publications in early twentieth-century Shanghai. By the time they made their appearance in Shanghai in the early decades of the twentieth century, Dr Williams’ pills were widely derided in England and North America as an archetypal example of quackery, with commentators identifying the pills’ continued ubiquity as a sign of the public’s refusal to recognise scientific progress. Foreign advertisements for Dr Williams’ pills, however, engaged with notions of modernity from within their own social and cultural framework. Rather than simply translating their Anglo-American counterparts, Shanghai advertisements for the pills came to articulate a distinctly Chinese vision of twentieth-century society in their depiction of new gender roles, their absorption of non-Western medical discourse, and their use of baihua, the emerging vernacular. The discourse of the modern, in the case of this consumer product, was carefully tailored to its audience, and was part of an ongoing dialogue between producers and consumers.

in Progress and pathology