Charles L. Corn (陳耀坤, 1898-1973) – operator of quarry in Shau Kei Wan and Chinese leader in Guam
York Lo: Charles L. Corn (陳耀坤, 1898-1973) – operator of quarry in Shau Kei Wan and Chinese leader in Guam
Left: Ad for Charles L. Corn & Co in 1950 (HKBCA yearbook); Right: Charles L. Corn (left) shaking hands with Vice President C.K. Yen in Taipei (National Cultural Database)
In the 1950s, a colorful Chinese businessman in Guam and the Philippines with close ties to the US military by the name of Charles L. Corn (aka Charlie Corn) through his Charles L. Corn & Co (陳耀坤公司)operated a large quarry in A Kung Ngam (阿公岩) in Shau Kei Wan, which became a major supplier of stones as building materials for various public and private construction projects.
The Rise of Charlie Corn in the Philippines and Guam
The saga of Charlie Corn began in his native Toishan in Guangdong province and he went to the Philippines by the way of Hong Kong at an early age. In the Philippines, which was then under American rule, he started his career working as a cashier for a newspaper in Angeles City, Pampanga and learned English during his spare time. He also adopted the English name of Charles Lumen Corn – the origin of the name is unclear but it does sound somewhat like his Chinese name Chan Yiu-kwan.
Thanks to his charming personality and strong friendship, he opened a snack bar, which eventually expanded into a string of restaurants, bars and tailor shops under the “Charlie Corn’s” name in all US military bases in the Philippines before the Pacific War broke out and “Charlie Corn’s” is mentioned in many books/memoirs written by soldiers who had served in the Philippines. One memoir stated that Charlie Corn’s shops at Nichols Field provided “special laundry services” and “custom made shoes, tailored Army fatigues and fatigue hats, and tailored civilian clothes at remarkably low prices” although most soldiers got their fancy fatigues from him and bought civilian clothing from Chinese tailors in Pasay. He also had restaurants in the famous Clark Air Base on Luzon Island which served chow mein at all hours and Fort Stotsenburg in Angeles City. He also owned the Rice Bowl Hotel in Manila.
With a keen interest in aviation, Corn studied aeronautics and engineering for 5 years and opened a flying school in the Philippines which trained overseas Chinese pilots, some of whom worked for the Flying Tigers during the War. When the Japanese occupied the Philippines after Pearl Harbor in 1941, Corn stayed behind in the Philippines where he helped many Americans, Filipinos and Chinese to get to safety and passed on important intelligence to the US military. For his wartime contributions, Corn was praised by General Douglas MacArthur and in 1947, he was invited by the US military to set up businesses in US military base in Guam. Most of these operations had low overheads with staff imported from Guangdong, making millions for Corn. Aside from operations on the military base, he opened Hong Kong Garden in Tamuning which became a popular restaurant for the locals. Through Charles L. Corn Enterprises, he acquired and developed lots of properties in Guam – including the Corn Building in Anigua and built a large family residence on a cliff overlooking East Agana in Maite. He was elected honorary chairman of the United Chinese Association of Guam and maintained close ties to the KMT regime in Taiwan.
Charles L. Corn Quarry in Hong Kong
Mr & Mrs Charles Corn with other famous figures at the Miu Fat Buddhist monastery in 1962. Right to left: Fung Kung-ha (Sunkist orange), Mrs. Chiu Bun, Chiu Lut-sau, Sir T.N. Chau, Sai-chan (abbot of Miu Fat), unidentified Westerner, Mrs. T.N. Chau, Charles Corn, Mrs. Corn (WKYP, 1962-8-12)
With his profits from Guam and the Philippines, Charlie Corn established Charles L. Corn & Co in Hong Kong which operated out of Charles L. Corn Building (耀坤樓) at 26 Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan after the War. In October 1949, Charles L. Corn & Co started the stone quarry in A Kung Ngam. The A Kung Ngam area had been a stone quarry since the 19th century led by Hakka masons from Huizhou. By the late 1940s, there were a dozen quarries across HK but many of them such as the Marsman quarry in Leighton Hill (see article on Joseph Yen) were inactive due to the high capital investments required and the limited supply of business as everyone was unsure of the regime change in the mainland which occurred that same month. Charlie Corn foresaw the huge construction boom triggered by the massive influx of refugees from the mainland and with the means to acquire new equipment, made a huge bet with the Shau Ki Wan quarry. The quarry occupied 22500 square feet and total investment was over HK$600,000 (an astronomical sum at the time), $400,000 of which was the cost of procuring, transporting and installation of equipment from the Philippines. In the early 1950s, the quarry employed 120 workers, one-fifth of whom were technical staff with S.Y. Chiang, a northerner with quarry experience in the Philippines, Okinawa and other Pacific islands as chief engineer. Professor Tony Chan (陳繁昌), the former president of HKUST grew up in the Charles Corn quarry as his father, graduate of Sun Yat Sen University in Canton, was one of the engineering staff who worked and lived at the premise. He credited his childhood driving machines around the quarry as what piqued his interest in the engineering field.
Article about 12 workers buried alive at the Charles Corn quarry in 1956 (WKYP, 1956-8-15)
Left: Quarrying machine at the Charles Corn quarry in A Kung Ngam in 1951 (WKYP, 1951-8-22); Right: front entrance of the Charles L. Corn Building in Sheung Wan (since been renamed Charles L. Corn Commercial Building).
Charlie Corn’s bet paid off and by 1951, stones supplied by Charles L. Corn & Co were used in major private construction projects such as the Bank of China building and Alexandra House in Central, Embassy Court in Causeway Bay and godowns in Sai Ying Pun and public works projects such as the reclamation work in North Point, civil servant quarters on Hollywood Road and army barracks and new roads in New Territories. The daily output of the quarry was 200 cubic yards and the output were stored in godowns owned by the company in North Point and Hunghom for distribution to different construction sites in HK. The work however was highly risky as the quarrying involved drilling holes that were 24 feet deep and then setting off explosives and then breaking the rocks into pebbles or powder using drills and other machinery and in 1956, an accident took place which resulted in 12 workers being buried alive, with 2 deaths and 10 injured.
Death, Family and Legacy
Article about the birthday party of Mrs. Charles Corn (Lui Chung-tak) in 1957. Left to right: goddaughter Kam Yuet-ngor, Mrs. Corn, Miss Wong Tai-yam (WKYP, 1957-11-13)
In March 1973, Charlie Corn died in Guam at the age of 75. His funeral in Guam was attended by Carlos Camacho, the Governor of Guam and various US naval and air force commanders and government officials while Chiang Kai-shek and C.K. Yen, the president and vice president of the Taipei regime also sent their condolences. His family in HK also organized a memorial service at his home at 2 Magazine Gap Road in the Mid-Levels. Corn was initially buried in a large memorial site which include a Chinese pagoda and pavilion on the northwestern slopes of Mount Alutom in Guam that had a spectacular view of most of the island. The body however was later removed for burial in China together with his second wife so the memorial site, which is only accessible by regular vehicles during dry season, has sadly fallen into disrepair over the past few decades. The Charlie Corn name lives on in Guam through the Charlie Corn Scholarships which sponsor engineering and architectural students in the US military and an annual golf tournament to support the scholarships continues to run to this that.
Charlie Corn was married twice. His first wife Esmeranza Elwick (1910-2003) was a native of Cebu and together they had a son Anthony Corn (married to Pacita) and 2 daughters – Helen (married to Cesar Makapugay) and Josephine (1931-2009, married to Choc Y. Lee). In Hong Kong, he married his second wife Lui Chung-tak (呂重德), who was a Chinese doctor and well-known community and religious leader who had served as director of Po Leung Kuk and Pok Oi Hospital and co-founder of the Taoist temple Yuen Yuen Institute (圓玄學院) in Tsuen Wan. She was also the co-owner of Mee Shing Record (美聲唱片), a leading Cantonese record label in HK in the 1950s and was friends with many Cantonese opera stars. She died in 1991 at the age of 86 and was survived by her son Alfred Charles Chan Kwok-chiu (陳國超) MH JP. Alfred had served on the board of Yan Chai Hospital, Pok Oi Hospital and Yan Oi Tong and is currently the chairman of Yuen Yuen Institute. Through Wing Cheung Investment (永昌置業, incorporated in 1957), the family invest in real estate and sold 26 Wing Lok Street in 2017 to Tai Hung Fai Enterprise for HK$156 million.
Mr. & Mrs. Charlie Corn on the right with their son Alfred Chan (center) and restaurant mogul Liu Fai-ting (廖輝亭) and his wife on the left at the banquet celebrating the Lius becoming the godparents of Alfred Chan in 1962 (WKYP, 1962-11-17)
華僑日報, 1973-5-6, 1991-04-03, 1951-8-22
“Corn’s legacy still going strong” Pacific Daily News, Guam, 13 July 2011: 32.
Marquez, Adalia (2017) Blood on the Rising Sun: A Factual Story of the Japanese Invasion of the Philippines
Hubbard, Preston (1990) Apocalypse Undone: My Survival of Japanese Imprisonment During World War II, Vanderbilt University Press
Willebone, Charles (1986) Something about a Soldier, Random House
校長視野, Sing Tao Publishing, 2016
This article was first posted on 11th March 2019.
Related Indhhk articles:
- A Kung Ngam quarry
- Tracing Roots: Joseph Yen (嚴錫榮), post-war chairman of Marsman HK China and the father in the book Falling Leaves
We have many articles about quarries in Hong Kong all of which can be found in our Index.