Chinese UltraNotes

Posted on 7/16/2019

Chinese UltraNotes are the Cracker Jack of currency.

“What are you looking for?” the dealer smiles in English.

It was the afternoon of the final day of the May 2019 China International Coin Expo (CICE) in Beijing and he clearly hoped to make one more sale. I flipped through an album of world paper money. The man pointed out many colorful banknotes from various countries, but none sparked any desire. There is one kind of Chinese note that interests me, though. In English, it is called an “UltraNote.” I describe them to the dealer.

“Do you have these?”

“They are sold out,” he replies. I thank him and walk away.

A canopy of foliage shades the streets of the Bagua Food District in Shenzhen. In winter and early spring it is pleasant to walk here. Bagua 2nd Road, a wide thoroughfare, is sprinkled with eateries. A local guide is handy to have around, though. All the side streets are also named Bagua; either Bagua Road, or Bagua Street. Each of the tributaries has its own number, though, like 6th Bagua Road or 7th Bagua Street.

In this area it might be easy to miss the offices and factory of Zhongchao Guanghua. A wall shields it from street view and the entrance gate has a military guard. This is the research home for China Banknote Printing & Minting (CBPM), a branch of the country’s central bank – the People’s Bank of China.

China’s current 100 Yuan, or RMB, note with a portrait of Mao Zedong on it has strong security features, among them watermarks, a complex layering of inks and a security strip. Even so, the wiliness of counterfeiters is a constant incentive to improve currency security. Here in Shenzhen, the team at Guanghua works to develop new methods to protect the integrity of the RMB. One of their inventions is a patented printing process they call UltraNotes.

Sometimes, when I talk to coin dealers outside China, I try to describe UltraNotes. Often, they reply, “Oh, yeah, such and such mint is doing something like that.” Then I show them some photos. First there is silence and then, “No, I have never seen anything like that.”

Past the mint’s guards and the gate, my hosts and I enter a white multistory office building. First, they lead me up three flights of stairs and then down a hallway. We stop in front of a blank patch of plaster. “Is this it, the UltraNote wall?” I ask. A moment later, with the flip of a light switch, the city of Shenzhen — its buildings, birds, cars, trees, clouds in the sky — bursts into view on the “blank” wall. “Brilliant” can hardly describe the vibrancy of the colors. Dazzled, I stand there for around ten minutes, fascinated by the details and snapping photos. Inks that fluoresce under ultraviolet light are nothing new, but CBPM has taken this technology to a never-before-seen level. And it’s completely invisible in normal light. UltraNotes are the Cracker Jacks of currency, a surprise hidden in every design.

The placid appearance of this uncut sheet of 2018 China Banknote Printing & Minting UltraNotes
conceals a brilliant map design visible only under ultraviolet light
Click images to enlarge.

In 2015, Zhongchao Guanghua printed a technical sample. This was publicly released to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. The Mint titled it “Vast Sea and Wide Sky.” On one side, the note presents a pleasant pale blue underwater scene in which fish swim past stalks of coral. The opposite side displays a butterfly. Shine the correct wavelength of light on either image and another more brightly colored world reveals itself. This sample note has become much sought-after by collectors, and it sells for well above the when-issued price.

A sample Ultranote sheet with a hidden aquatic design. Notice the currency security strip.
Click images to enlarge.

My guides take me back down the hallway. Next to the staircase is the art studio. This room is not huge by any means. In the center are four computer workstations in a circle. Perhaps half a dozen other desks with computers line the walls. I stop to admire the many sample prints that hang from a bookcase. Around the room are some of the original drawings for the souvenir notes and other projects. It’s quite a sight.

A 2019 Certificate of Authenticity that uses UltraNote technology, the first COA of its type.
Click images to enlarge.

I pick up one project that was created for the Chinse Soccer League. Inside a large, ingenious box is a book that holds two UltraNote items: a sheet of three notes and a large certificate of authenticity. In visible light, one side of the sheet features a championship trophy. Under UV, a glowing picture of a swooshing ball and a field of players appear. The other side of this sheet and the certificate both have hidden designs, also. The book contains one more numismatic treasure: an unusual silver medal. It is deeply rounded like a sphere and looks like a soccer ball. This is from the Shanghai Mint, another part of China Banknote Printing & Minting that often collaborates with Guanghua.

The first business release of a souvenir UltraNote came in 2016. The mint released a portfolio with two notes in it. One is called, “The Yellow Emperor” and the other shows a portrait of a monkey. 10,000 of these portfolios were printed – and sold out inside a week.

Vividly colored designs that are only visible in UV light,
plus modest edition sizes, make UltraNote collecting popular in China.
Seen here is a 2018 110th Anniversary of the Bank of Communications souvenir UltraNote.
Click images to enlarge.

That is nothing compared to what happened in 2018. To mark the opening of the world’s longest sea bridge, the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macao Bridge, Zhongchao Guanghua created a set of four souvenir notes. In visible light, each of the notes shows a symbol of the four connected cities: Zhuhai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macao. On the opposite side are representations of the bridge with the cities in the background, one per note. Ultraviolet light makes visible a detailed map that spans the four notes. Most sets were sold with cut notes, but some uncut presentation sheets exist. Once again, 10,000 sets were printed. This time, though, the sellout took only seven minutes!

The UltraNotes of Zhongchao Guanghua are among the most beautiful and intriguing paper notes in the numismatic universe. They have only one source, the edition quantities are not large and interest is strong in China. For interested collectors, many of the designs can be found in a catalog of souvenir notes that was published last year. It is called “Sample of People’s Republic of China Standard Commemorative Notes.” If there’s anything that stokes numismatic interest, it’s a new book. Unfortunately, this one is only in Chinese and doesn’t show the note's UV designs. An English catalog with those would really shed some light on this subject. Now, that’s a Cracker Jack idea!

Notes:

  • "That's a crackerjack!" is an old American expression meaning "of excellent quality." Since 1896 it has been the name of a caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts. Packages of Cracker Jacks were famous for containing a surprise toy.
  • The China Numismatic Museum in Beijing has a permanent exhibit that shows how to detect counterfeit banknotes. It is well worth a visit to see this and the many other outstanding displays there.

Peter Anthony is an expert on Chinese modern coins with a particular focus on Panda coins. He is an analyst for the NGC Chinese Modern Coin Price Guide as well as a consultant on Chinese modern coins.


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