Famous HK Tailors (Part One): the Cantonese – Tak Cheong, A Man Hing Cheong, Yee On Tai, Tailor Cheung, and Others
York Lo: Famous HK Tailors (Part One): the Cantonese – Tak Cheong, A Man Hing Cheong, Yee On Tai, Tailor Cheung, and Others
Earlier in the group, a SCMP article was posted about the rise and fall of the tailor industry in Hong Kong but the article primarily told the story of Sam’s Tailor. The following series of articles will cover some of the other key players in the industry (including ones which are no longer in business) which helped to put HK on the map by making suits and dresses for presidents and stars and some of them building billion dollar fortunes along the way. Since this is a history website, the focus is on firms that are over 50 years old (established before 1967) and the articles are arranged by groups. The first group of players to be profiled are the Cantonese tailors (specifically men’s tailors; firms which specialize in ladies dresses will be covered in a separate article). While Shanghainese and Indian tailors have grabbed the spotlight in the post-WWII era, Cantonese tailors (many of whom are Hakkas) have been around for longer and played crucial roles in the development of the industry. In fact, the industry’s leading trade group – the HK & Kowloon European Dress Merchants Association (港九洋服商聯會, hereafter refer to as HKEDMA), was founded in 1935 by Cantonese tailors and continued to be dominated by them. Below are the profiles of the firms based on chronological order of their inception:
Tak Cheong Tailors (德祥洋服)
Left: label of Tak Cheong in the 1960s (Source: eBay); Right: Tse Fook-sang
Founded in 1888, Tak Cheong Tailors was one of the oldest and most prominent tailors in HK operating for many years out of 52 Queen’s Road Central, a location which they appeared to have inherited from Sayle & Co, a British tailor shop from the 19th century.
In 1895, Tak Cheong sued W.G. Gray, the assistant headmaster of the boys department at the Victoria School on Caine Road, for $123 worth of goods supplied. In his 1898 book Yesterdays in the Philippines, Joseph Earle Stevens mentioned about buying thin suits at $6 apiece from Tak Cheong and was impressed with the fit. In the 1909 book The Chinese written by American author John Stuart Thomson (usually wrote about Asian subjects), Thomson was extremely skeptical of Chinese tailors in HK and their work but mentioned that “Ah Men Hing Cheong and Tak Cheong do some passable work”. Some of Tak Cheong’s famous Chinese clients included Dr. Chung Wing-kwong, the president of Lingnan University in Canton and the Yu family (Cambridge trained education inspector Yu Wan and his sons General P.T. Yu, Solicitor Yu Ping-chung, Barrister Patrick SS Yu and Brian Yu).
In October 1938, the roof of Tak Cheong at 52 Queen’s Road Central collapsed after heavy rainfall and fortunately the staff who were living in the sleeping quarters were evacuated just before the collapse. In the aftermath of the collapse, the building was torn down and rebuilt into Loke Yew Building in 1941 (which was rebuilt once again in 1966 to the current Loke Yew Building). During the reconstruction, a rumor spread all the way to Shanghai that the waste materials uncovered were silver buried by the previous owner in the 19th century.
In the 1940s, the head of Tak Cheong was Tse Fook-sang (謝復生). A native of Nanhai, Tse dropped out of Queen’s College to take over the family business. When the HKEDMA was re-organized in 1946, Tse was elected its first chairman, highlighting the status of Tse and the firm. (The vice chairman was Yau Tit, a fellow native of Nanhai who was manager of Wing Fong & Co 榮芳洋服 at neighboring 54A Queen’s Road Central which was founded in 1925) In October 1947, Tak Cheong was the first tailor shop authorized by the Price Control Advisory Board of the HK government to sell three piece suits at the price of HK$160 each. In the 1950s and 60s, a tailor by the name of Chan Sik-key appeared to have taken over Tak Cheong. In the 1960s, Tak Cheong was represented by several firms/individuals in America, including A & M Importers in Chicago and Wade Campbell in Texas. A firm by the same name was registered in 1979 and dissolved in 1985.
The China Mail, 1938-10-05, 1895-03-22
香港華字日報, 1939-05-14; 香港工商日報, 1947-10-15
A Man Hing Cheong (亞民興昌)
Two views of the old A-Man Hing Cheong store on Queen’s Road.
Founded in 1898, A Man Hing Cheong is the oldest continuously running tailor firm in Hong Kong and remains a top firm in terms of quality and prestige. The firm started out as Ah Men & Hing Cheong (亞綿興昌) at 8 Queen’s Road, later moved to 54 Queen’s Road Central and in 1931 merged with Hing Kee of the Shing Fat firm at 59 Queen’s Road Central and became A Man Hing Cheong. Two of the principals in 1931 were Yuen Tsze-wan (袁子雲) and Lee Chi-hang (李次衡).
After the war, the firm was managed by Chui Cheong-tai (徐昌泰), who was a long time director of the HKEDMA. The son of a former coolie laborer in San Francisco who was involved in the founding of A Man Hing Cheong, Chui started out as an apprentice and messenger for the firm at the age of 16 in the 1920s. According to Chui, he was rounded up by Japanese soldiers during the Japanese occupation but fortunately was only forced to make a suit. While the 1950s saw the emergence of the “24 hour suit” in the HK tailor industry, A Man Hing Cheong focused on quality and customer satisfaction over quantity, price and speed, buying only the best materials from the UK and Canada and taking up to 6 days and at least 2 fittings for a first client. After the Mandarin Hotel opened in 1963, A Man Hing Cheong moved in. Its reputation for the highest quality which rivalled that of Savile Row tailors attracted top celebrity clients including many Governors, US presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush and entertainers such as actor William Holden and comedian Joey Adams (husband of gossip columnist Cindy Adams). In 1976 when Chui was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, he had 2 shops at the Mandarin and 60 employees working in 2 nearby workrooms and proud of the fact that none of the 135 compliants lodged at the HK Tourism Association and 20-30 complaints per month with the Consumer Council were directed at the firm. By the 1990s, the firm was run by Chui’s son Norman Tsui and the current managing director Poon Ying-ko (潘應高) joined the firm as an apprentice at the age of 15 in 1954.
HK Government Report (1931) ; 華僑日報, 1947-10-31
Veronica Huang “For This Tailor, Needles and Pins are Fabric of Life “ Wall Street Journal, Sep 23, 1976
Yee On Tai (怡安泰洋服)
Founded in 1906 in Canton and closed in 2016 in HK, Yee On Tai was one of the oldest and largest tailors in South China. Its founder Chan Jor-kin (陳佐乾, 1884-1973) was a native of Shunde (Shun Tak) in Guangdong province where his father Chan Shek-ngai (陳石崖) was a famous expert in calligraphy and stone carvings. Jor-kin followed his father’s footstep into stone carvings at the age of 13 and became an expert within a year. His mother Fung Shee however determined that stone carving was too narrow a business and sent Jor-kin to work for a traditional Chinese bank in Foshan when he turned 16. The bank failed in 1905 and the next year, his parents shut down their stone carving business and set up the Western tailoring business of Yee On Tai in Canton, placing Jor-kin in charge.
Business at Yee On Tai was difficult at first but took off after the 1911 revolution as civilians and soldiers alike all converted to Western style clothings. Together with merchants such as bank comprador Chan Lim-pak (see article), silk merchant Shum Pak-chu (岑伯著) and medicine tycoon Wong Lo-tong (黃鷺塘 of Wong Cheung Wah U-I Oil), Jor-kin formed the Canton Merchant Volunteer Corps in 1912 to maintain order in the city, and the Corps eventually grew to 13000 members by 1924. It is very likely that Yee On Tai supplied military uniforms to the Corps and in fact Chen picked a picture of himself in the Corps’ uniform for his bio in a 1935 publication. In 1925 (the year after the uprising by the Canton Merchant Corps against Sun Yat-sen was crushed), Chan moved to Shanghai where he established Lien Hwa Knitting Co (聯華毛織廠) with Chang Shao-tong (張劭棠), the manager of Nanyang Shirt and Sock Factory. Under the leadership of Chan as manager and factory chief, Lien Hwa prospered and its Tricycle brand became known for its swimsuits and other garments within a decade.
Left: Yee On Tai store on Des Voeux Road before its closure; Right: Yee On Tai founder Chan Jor-kin in his Canton Merchant Corps uniform (Source: 現代實業家, 1935)
Meanwhile the tailoring business in Canton continued to prosper and Yee On Tai was known as one of the big four tailor shops in old Canton alongside Shun Foo (the only one still operating to this day), Kam Shing and Wong Him. In 1937, Yee On Tai set up shop in Hong Kong in 228-230 Des Voeux Road, Central, across the street from the Wing On department store with dozens of tailors sent from its Canton head office. Chan Jor-kin became involved with the HKEDMA which he served as honorary chairman and Yee On Tai was often regarded as one of the top four tailor shops in HK during the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, it moved to Man Yee Building, which was a top retail location in Central at the time.
Outside of work, Chan Jor-kin was active in community affairs, having served as chairman of the Chung Sing Benevolent Society, Shun Tak Fraternal Association, Shun Tak Chamber of Commerce and various Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist groups. In 1969, he donated his collection of paintings by the late Ching Dynasty mandarin Liang Yu-wei (梁于渭), whom his father represented as an agent, to benefit the HK Buddhist Hospital.
Chan Jor-kin had 5 sons – all of whom worked for Yee On Tai. His principal wife was the mother of the two eldest sosns – Chan Yu-man (陳雨民) and Chan Chi-man (陳志民). Yu-man was the first to join the family business but died early so it was up to Chi-man to take over the business as managing director. Chi-man graduated from a tailoring school in Chicago and was chairman of the HKEDMA and the Winter Swimming Club of the Chung Shing Benevolent Society (which operated a swimming dock that was popular with the neighborhood community in the waterfront of Kennedy Town). He also presided over the 7th Congress of the Asian Master Tailors in 1977 (when HK was the host) and was the managing editor of the group’s publications in the 1960s-70s which were referenced by tailors across the region. Upon Yu-man’s death, Jor-kin was asked by his mother to have more offsprings and three other sons – Pui-man (陳沛民), Ho-man (陳浩民) and Kit-man (陳潔民) were born through his marriage to three different women. All three worked in Yee On Tai as managers and were active in the swimming circle.
The Chan family at the reception in 1966. Left to right: Chan Kam Kin-wah, Chan Chi-man, Chan Jor-kin, Chan Pui-man and Chan Ho-man.(Kung Sheung Daily News, 1966-7-20)
Left: Yee On Tai suitcase to carry its suits; Right: Chan Jor-kin in the late 1940s
In June 1986, Yee On Tai moved into the ground floor of Des Voeux Commercial Centre (德輔商業中心), a 22-story office building it jointly developed at 212-214 Des Voeux Road, Central with Yuet Wah Music Co Ltd. For three decades, the décor of the shop was low key and stayed pretty much the same so most pedestrians would not have guessed that its suits average over HK$10000 each and its clients included billionaires Sir Run Run Shaw and Chan Kee-wah. In 2016, the Chan family decided to sell its half of Des Voeux Commercial Centre including the space occupied by Yee On Tai for HK$120 million to Tai Hung Fai Enterprise (controlled by retail property investor Edwin Leong, known as “King of Shops” whose father Henry G. Leong, the developer of Henry House in Central was a Yee On Tai client). As a result, the 110 years old tailoring business of Yee On Tai, with its 7 remaining employees (youngest of whom was 70) also came to an end. The famous graphic designer Kan Tai-keung (靳埭強) started out as a tailor at Yee On Tai where he worked for 7 years in the 1960s.
華僑日報, 1973-12-12, 1986-06-14,1979-12-04
Tailor Cheung (張活海)
Tailor Cheung on the left (Mow Kie Ladies Tailor – to be covered in part 3 of this series is on the right)
“Tailor Cheung” was the English trading name of the famous tailor Cheung Wood-hoi (張活海,1910-1989), who was known as the “Tailor of the Stars” as he counted many celebrities including Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, William Holden, Audie Murphy and Curt Jurgens as his clients. Tailor Cheung himself is the father of one of HK’s greatest stars – the late Cantopop singer and actor Leslie Cheung (張國榮,1956-2003).
A Hakka native of Weichow in Guangdong province, Cheung Wood-hoi founded Tailor Cheung in HK in 1936. In the 1940s, Tailor Cheung operated out of 120 Queen’s Road Central next to the Queen’s Theatre. Aside from his superb tailoring skills, Cheung was a marketing genius who seized every opportunity to promote himself. One of the first articles about him was the 1955 visit of the store by famous movie director Alfred Hitchcock and whenever a celebrity stopped by store, he made sure that the press was there. In 1958, the Queen’s Theatre was being re-developed so Tailor Cheung moved to 6 D’Aguilar Street. In 1961 it re-opened at Luk Hoi Tung Building. In 1967, Tailor Cheung relocated to Yip Fung Building on Wyndham Street in Central. As of 1976, he was still active, receiving the Canadian Financial Minister as a client but appeared to have retired by the 1980s.
Left: scenes of suit production at Tailor Cheung in 1957 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1957-10-15); Right: Tailor Cheung ad from the late 1950s highlighting his status as the “Tailor of the Stars”.
Outside of work, Cheung was socially active. In addition to being a long-time director of the HKEDMA and head of the Swimming Club of the Chung Sing Benevolent Society (which the Chans of Yee On Tai also belonged to), Cheung was chairman of the Cheung Family Association and the Lung Kong (Four Brothers) Association (a group which included family members of the Lau, Kwan, Cheung and Chiu families who believe they are descended from the four heroes with the same surnames from the Three Warrior States period). Aside from Leslie (who studied textile at the University of Leeds before pursuing his showbiz career), Tailor Cheung had over 10 offsprings including Ophelia Cheung MacPherson J.P. (張綠萍1938-), the first executive director of the HK Consumer Council.
Left: Cheung Wood hoi (third from the left) with family including Leslie Cheung (first from the right) at the Po Lin Temple. Right: Cheung Wood-hoi (right) with Japanese actress (centre) and her manager (left) in 1956. (Ta Kung Pao, 1956-5-20)
- 華僑日報, 1955-12-12
Cambridge Tailor (劍橋洋服)
Cambridge Tailor was a firm active in the 1950s and early 1960s founded by the Hakka tailor Tang Ping Hoi (鄧炳開). Born in 1915 in Ng Wah, Tang followed his uncle to Amoy at the age of 12 where he started working as an apprentice in a tailor shop. Three years later in 1930, he came to HK where he started working as a tailor in Central. He formed Cambridge before the War and in the post War period the firm was popular with those in the diplomatic circles. Tang was a director of HKEDMA.
Ho Chiu Tailor (何釗洋服)
Ho Chiu celebrating the birth of his fifth son Tat-ming in 1958 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1958-5-21)
Ho Chiu was supposedly one of the Big Four tailor shops from the 1950s-60s (the other three being A Man Hing Cheong, H. Baromon and Yee On Tai) but very little information is available about the firm. A merchant by the same name from the era was chairman of the Yaumatei Kaifong Association and Amateur Fishing Association and vice chairman of the Kowloon Taxi Owners Association and two related articles are posted here. According to directories, Ho Chiu Tailor operated out of 3 Morrison Hill Road and Ho Chiu was a director of HKEDMA. Any additional information about Ho Chiu is much appreciated.
Ho Chiu celebrating his birthday with his family and friends in 1989. (Source: Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1989-9-16)
Princeton Custom Tailor (榮懋行)
Dennis Sin and President Jimmy Carter in the 1980s. (Source: Lions Club magazine, 2008)
Founded in 1966 by Dennis Sin Chuck-fun (冼灼芬), Princeton Custom Tailor has operated out of the same building in TST since its inception over half a century ago and rode the ups and downs of the industry. A native of Nanhai, Sin was born into a wealthy merchant family. After studying geology in Beijing and New Asia College in HK, Sin joined the tailor trade, first working for a Shanghainese firm before striking out on his own. He chose to locate his tailor shop at the Mary Building on Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, then newly developed by the family of “Hong Kong Old Mary” (see article). Starting out with a few hundred feet, Princeton expanded to 3 units in the building covering over 6000 sq ft. Working with the HK Tourist Association from the start and making frequent trunk show trips in America, Princeton built up an impressive list of clients that included former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and NYC mayor Ed Koch. At its peak in 1988, the firm had 150 tailors in its workshop, 50 salesmen in its store and a factory manufacturing high end ladies clothings. At his 50th birthday celebration the same year, his guests included the famous painters Liu Haisu and Chao Shao-ang, the first HK police commissioner of Chinese descent Li Kwan Ha and tycoon and collector TT Tsui. The firm was also big on company-sponsored group orders. According to Sin, Princeton was raking in HK$8 mil a month in business in its heydays but by the early 2000s it was only doing HK$30000 a month.
Outside of Princeton, Dennis Sin was active in community affairs. He became a member of the Rotary Club of Kowloon West in 1971 through the introduction of his landlord – Old Mary’s son Jimmy Tse Sek-fui and later became president of the Club in 1983-84. From 1982-85, he was an inaugural member of the Yaumatei District Council and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1982. He was also involved with the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and was awarded OStJ in 2005. For many years, Dennis was assisted by his brother Simpson Sin (冼煜芬), who set up his own tailor shop Simpson Sin Tailor (正華洋服) in 2005.
Dennis Sin (centre) with Simpson Sin (left) and Sin Siu-wah on the 20th anniversary of Princeton Tailor in 1985 (Wah Kiu Yat Po 1985-8-25)
This article was first posted on 6th October 2017.
- 華僑日報, 1988-02-06
Related Indhhk articles:
- Famous HK Tailors (Part Two) – the British (Sayle, William Powell, Diss Bros, James. T. Shaw and Mackintosh’s) and the Indians (Tajmahal’s, Mohan’s, Harilela’s, J. Kima, Raja and Sam’s)
- The rise and fall of the Hong Kong tailoring industry – five hundred TST tailors in the 1960s
- Lo’s Mee Kwong and Join-In Shirt
- The Tales of the Two Smart Shirts – Standard Shirts Dyeing, Weaving & Finishing Mills and Smart Shirts Manufacturers Ltd