Early modern Hong Kong industrial design – Chuen Sun Knitting Factory Ltd

Mike T: There’s an interesting connection to the 555 undershirt brand made in Hong Kong by Chuen Sun Knitting Factory Ltd in the book “Design History: An Anthology”.

Early modern Hong Kong industrial design

Hong Kong industrial design during the first half of the twentieth century developed much the same adaptive and synthetic strategies as that of graphic design. The silversmithing of Wang Hing Jeweller and the furniture of You On Co., during the early 1900s, show the same articulation of Chinese, Japanese, and Western imagery, material, and technique. Wang Hing Jeweller’s silver matchbox in the form of a dancing bear is part miniature of a contemporary Japanese wine bottle design (in detailed chasing as well as modeling) and part Western dancing bear with collar and chain. Equally, the Italianate dolphins supporting the cardholder of the same date are Sinicized by transforming themselves into Chinese dragons. In the same way, the enameled products or glass lamps of the 1930s not only combine Eastern and Western forms, but also include motifs and details drawn from their markets in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Until recently, few Western designers worked for such markets, but following the Ottawa Agreement of 1932, products manufactured in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong could be exported to other colonies (and later to Commonwealth countries) without import duties. Hong Kong designers, as with designers anywhere else, had to work according to the demands and, more important, the limitations of their market. One of the founders of Star Industrial Co., Ltd., a large plastics company, explained that the use of bright red, blue, and yellow in their domestic plasticware was dictated by customers in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa who would not accept the tasteful brown and cream; and the company had the failures to prove it. Much the same story was told by the son of the founder of Sunbeam Manufacturing Co., which produced flashlights in Hong Kong, beginning in 1930. Although Sunbeam formed an engineering and design department after World War II and experimented with modern styles, customers in Africa and Asia rejected the slightest changes in pattern, regarding them as inferior imitations. Thus, the earliest products built a reputation for Hong Kong design that effectively prevented any improvements. At the same time, Sunbeam’s exports of aluminum ware to Europe now demand regular re-design.

The quality of such Empire Made products was surprisingly good. For example, the “505” and “555” cotton singlets, manufactured by Chuen Sun Knitting Factory, Ltd., used expensive yarn imported from Switzerland, a three-stage fulling process, and hand cutting to ensure maximum durability and fit. Production of these items was scaled down after more than 40 years, because of competition from cheap American T-shirts. However, as Chuen Sun Knitting Factory, Ltd., began fashion production (Marco Polo brand), the American film star Bo Derek appeared in a publicity poster wearing a “555” singlet and little else. By then, the decline in traditional quality and manufacturing made the rush of American orders for this item difficult to meet. That the very symbol of modern Western glamour should wear a garment first produced in Hong Kong during the 1930s is a delightful irony of design history.”

Source: Design History: An Anthology, ed Dennis P Doordan, The MIT Press, 1996

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