Visit any major city in the world or, for that matter, any famous attraction and you’ll likely be surrounded by myriad junk shops loaded with trinkets containing the name of whatever monument is nearby. If we use the Eiffel tower as an example, you’ll begin to “run the gauntlet” of questionable sellers of Eiffel-themed keepsakes before you even come close to crossing the river. If you’re looking for fiber-optic Tower earrings or an Eiffel back scratcher, they probably have a solution for you. However, when traveling the globe, if you’re looking for tourism-themed watches, you’ll typically find loads of copycat “Swatch-like” pieces with customized dials depicting something from whatever memory-making trip you’ve taken. Boring, I know. So, what is one to do if they wish to buy a keepsake that combines their love of mechanical timepieces with a memorable journey? Friends, there’s really only one answer: the Waving Chairman Mao, or, for the purposes of this article, simply “the Chairman”.

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Let’s get one thing straight before I start typing about the Chairman: neither Fratello Watches nor I are here to give a political opinion or pass judgment on Chinese politics. This article is meant to be fun and to highlight what might be one of the world’s best selling watches…ever. Now that we have our disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk some Chairman.

First, a little background; the Chairman is named after Mao Zedong who is depicted on the dial of the watch that I’ll discuss. For those of you who have lived under a rock or have failed to recognize China’s ever increasing importance as an economical powerhouse in today’s world, Chairman Mao established the Communist party in China in 1949 and ruled until his death in 1976. Furthermore, his picture is seen throughout China and most consider him the spirit behind China’s current success.

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Moving onto the watch itself, the Chairman can be found in markets all over China but more readily in the big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. It was commonly found with the dial seen in this article but today seems to be more typical with a red background. It’s notable for having a waving hand of Mao that operates independently of the red-star tipped seconds hand. The other notable feature is the grossly overwrought (read: bad) hooded lugs.   Yes, I ‘ve surely piqued your interest.

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While most sellers at Chinese markets will wish to offer you a Faux-lex, the authentic Chairman will peer at you, by the hundred, from the table begging to be held and taken back as a chuckle worthy conversation piece. You, as a seasoned traveler who has been taken to a street market by your local colleague to buy fake Gucci and Chanel for your loved one, will likely pass over the Chairman as a laughable piece of junk that is only purchased by tourists who don’t share your fine taste in fake handbags and sports jerseys. Well, fellow preferred-status traveler, you’d be wise not to overlook the Chairman and I’m going to tell you why.

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When I was researching this article, I actually did a little research…for real, I found something interesting out about the Chairman that has made me look at it in a slightly different light. You see, I received my Chairman from a colleague and friend who visited China in the early 2000’s when we both worked in the automotive industry. My colleague, who was the first person I ever knew to own a Panerai, brought back the Chairman for me as a fun little hoax as he knew I was deeply interested in watches. What neither he nor I knew at the time is that the goofy Chairman contained a vintage Chinese manual movement.

During my research, I came to find out that the Chairman contains all manner of manual wind movements. Some happen to be 17-jewel movements and some are 19. Some also happen to be vintage. Oh, and some work well and some, well, don’t work at all. I have read, though, that all are serviceable but you’ll later realize that unless you’re a DIY-er, that’s likely a losing proposition. When I unscrewed the back of my Chairman just before writing this article, which, by the way, made me glad for my tetanus shot due its sharp case back edges, I found a vintage ZLN movement inside that has been modified to allow for the waving hand. ZLN, if your wondering is the Liaoning Watch Factory (now the Liaoning Peacock Watch Company, Ltd.) in Dandong City, Liaoning Province.  It’s one of China’s largest movement factories.  As you can see, it’s workmanlike for sure but quite cool for something as pedestrian as a tourist watch. Winding it, however, is a springy affair at best. It takes some deliberate action to get it moving but it works out in the end. Amazingly, this one gets wound about once every 5 years and it somehow keeps very good time.

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Moving on to the rest of the Chairman, the case comes in around 36mm and is some sort of chrome-plated base metal. Let’s hope it’s not hexavalent… The case, from the side, is extremely beefy and looks like it has a big cap on it that separates it from the defined lower half of the case. However, that’s not the “case” as it’s one piece and this is perhaps just a casting line. Those lugs, by the way, look ridiculous from the side and don’t even reach down to the case bottom. So, no, it does not taper with the wrist. The crystal, if you could call it that, is a curved affair that has a greenish tint. It seriously looks like something from the Coca-cola factory, but in this case likely comes from Tsingtao.

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The dial on the Chairman, which is the highlight, is so kitschy that it’s almost impossible to resist. It looks like a bad paper printing and I’m not so sure that Mao would actually smile if he saw himself in this rendition. The waving hand, by the way, is just as blurry and malformed and looks like something I can’t quite recall from South Park. The hands, on the other “hand”, look like something appropriate for an inexpensive dive watch with their arrow tips and green lume. So, yes, we have hooded lugs, dive watch hands, and a paper-esque dial. Is the Chairman simply eclectic or badly designed; I’ll let you be the judge. Aside from the waving “complication”, I do like the seconds hand with its red-star tip.

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Wearing the Chairman is a task best reserved for the infrequent. First off, it sits weirdly with its oddball lugs and flat caseback. Furthermore, the 18mm leather strap that is marked “Genuine Leather” honestly smells of kerosene and does its best to resist bending to conform to one’s arm. Perhaps, like the Chairman himself, this watchstrap is steadfast in maintaining its ways. I wore the Chairman while typing this and upon removal, the buckle shot across the room as it decoupled from the spring bar. Yikes! In taking a closer look at the pin that accompanies the buckle, I see that it was stamped with a jagged edge. When bringing this watch over from the USA recently, this little pin poked through a pocket in my brief case and managed to slice my non-fake, thank you very much, Montblanc passport holder. Yikes again!! So, now, we can even introduce a little danger to the prospect of ownership of the Chairman.

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So, if I’ve been a little hard on the Chairman, I do apologize. Honestly, I have no real reason to be as the watch represents some light humor in my watch box. Furthermore, we’re not talking about a huge investment. Granted, the Chinese RMB has increased in value, but the Chairman can still be purchased in China, if you’re a shrewd negotiator, for roughly $10. Heck, the vintage hand-winding movement alone makes that a worthwhile bargain!

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We hope you enjoyed this thought-provoking (well, maybe not) piece on the Chairman. If you’re part of the Chairman’s owners club, feel free to share your picture and brief story below. I should note that my research did uncover similar watches featuring President Obama and Queen Elizabeth for those who simply cannot get enough of the “waving watch” theme. And finally, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention one final nugget; April Fool’s Day!!

Michael Stockton

Michael Stockton

Contributor at Fratello Watches
Michael has worked in the Automotive Industry and is currently in the Electronics Industry. When he's not cruising at 30,000 feet, he calls Germany home. Michael became interested in watches at a young age through the influence of his father. His interests lie in a wide array of watches, but he has a real passion for vintage chronographs.
Michael Stockton
  • MikeInFrankfurt

    Life will never be the same!

  • I’ve been looking this watch everywhere but to no avail. Stop writing about these hidden vintage jewels! Every time you do this unwashed peasants flood the ebay and sweep good deals like locusts. I’m not filthy rich collector that can flip $25 on a mint sample.

  • forbes

    The real Shanghai Tang watches have a red face and are engraved on the back and strap and come in a presentation box. Can’t find value as ebay is full of fakes but don’t think they’re worth a lot.

    • Kim

      The watch I have is engraved on the back and on the strap, but it doesn’t have a red face. There are raised silver dots at the number positions and the hands are silver with glow in the dark inlets. The seconds hand has a glow in the dark embossed circle about 3/4 down. I’ve compared it to many of the fakes, and this seems to be authentic and of much better quality. I called Shanghai Tang and they told me that they no longer make that watch. Thoughts?