Wah Mei Electric – Leading Distributor of Electronics from the 1920s to 1960s and related firms  

York Lo: Wah Mei Electric – Leading Distributor of Electronics from the 1920s to 1960s and related firms

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Left: Wah Mei ad in 1927 (8th Far East Games brochure); Right: the old Wah Mei store in between Sunlight Hing Kee and Kin Ming Radio on Des Voeux Road Central

Wah Mei Electric was one of the oldest and largest distributor of electronics in HK and China, with branches in HK, Canton, Fatshan and Shanghai (in fact its Chinese name before the war always started with 港粤滬 or “HK Canton Shanghai”) and expanded to Taiwan and Malaysia after the War. The firm was regarded as the leader of the industry from the 1920s through the 1960s and members of the Chan family which owned the firm also started HK Communications, a leading distributor of telecom equipment and Tung Tai Trading, which introduced Italian electrical appliances to HK and a fellow clansman and staff member started Winning Commercial, which popularized electric stew pots in HK.  

Wah Mei Electric (華美電器行) – Pre-War Development

Wah Mei was founded by Chan Ching-to (陳靜濤, 1883-1967) and Chan Chi-son (陳知新, 1890-?), natives of Nanhai in Guangdong province. One source mentioned that the latter was the nephew of the earlier which if true likely meant the latter was the son of a brother from a different mother or a cousin given the 7 years age difference between the two. The exact year which Wah Mei was founded is to be determined but it was likely sometime after 1912. Chan Ching-to was enrolled at the Yucai School in Canton as a teenager but dropped out to support his family. He became a Buddhist in 1910 and remained highly involved in various Buddhist causes for the remainder of his life. He was also involved in the revolutionary cause but after the formation of the Republic he went into business instead and ran a stationary and Western medicine business in Canton before launching Wah Mei Electric.

In 1925, Wah Mei had 2 stores in HK – 113 Des Voeux Road Central and 225 Queen’s Road Central. For many years, its main store was located at 135 Des Voeux Road Central in Hong Kong, next to Sunlight Hing Kee (代月電器行), a friendly competitor founded by the Lee family which according to some was the oldest electronics store in Hong Kong. As shown in the ads in this article, the key products in the pre-war era were torchlight, electric fans, record players, irons and radios. By the late 1920s, Wah Mei had branches in HK, Shanghai (at 432 Nanking Road), Canton (28 Sap Pat Po Street and 23 Wai On Street) and Fatshan. It was also the sole authorized distributor of Westinghouse electric fans in Shanghai and one of 8 distributors of RCA radios (others as shown below include Wing On department store, Robinson Radio and the XMHA radio station). In Shanghai and Canton, the Chan family also owned Hung Ming Electrical Co (孔明電料行) which specialized in radio and communications equipment.

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Left: Ad for Westinghouse electric fans in Shanghai in 1927 listing Wah Mei as its sole distributor (The China Press, Jan 16, 1927); Right: RCA Victor ad in Shanghai in 1938 listing Wah Met as one of its 8 distributors ( The China Press, 1938)

Aside from first mover advantage, Wah Mei’s success could be attributed to selecting prime retail locations in major cities and also its effort to popularize the usage of electrical appliances. In 1932, the Shanghai branch of Wah Mei launched a radio station at its Nanking Road location to promote the use of radios. In 1936, the Shanghai branch of Wah Mei published a 128 pages pictorial about electronics (港粤滬華美電器行滬行電器圖).

Wah Mei also played an important role in the development of the pre-war domestic electrical manufacturing industry. HK government reports from the 1930s below show that Wah Mei was the agent of the Chinese-owned electric bulb maker Oppel Electric Maufacturing and the local electric fan manufacturer Wahson & Co, and helped register their trademarks in Hong Kong. These two major brands emerged in the 1920s and 1930s to compete with imported brands from Japan, US and Europe and captured significant market share thanks to the endorsement of retailers like Wah Mei. In addition, Wah Mei also registered the Foot-ball trademark in 1934 for electric wires, electric heating and cooking appliances, which might have been a house brand it marketed in its stores.

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Wah Mei’s trademark registration for Football brand of electrical appliances (left), Oppel bulbs (middle) and Wahson electric fans (right)

Chan Ching-to not only protested Japanese aggression in China in the 1930s through his business support of domestic electric brands but also acted as coordinator for a Buddhist-led anti-Japanese effort in Southeast Asia with HK as a hub. As a result, he was briefly arrested for several days by the Japanese military administration during the Japanese occupation of HK but was released and participated in Buddhist charitable relief effort. After the War, he was recognized by the KMT regime for his effort.   

Wah Mei Electric – Post-War Development

By the 1940s, the second generation of the Chan family had joined the family business and assumed leadership positions. Chan Ching-to eldest son Chan Kwan-chak (陳君澤) was deputy manager of the HK branch before starting Kung Ming Electric and was vice chairman of the South China Athletic Association.  Chan Chi-son’s eldest son Chan Ching-yu (陳澄宇), who was born in 1916 and graduated from University of Tokyo, served as deputy manager of the Shanghai branch. His younger brother Chan Ching-chow (陳澄宙), who graduated from the Sun Yat Sen University in Canton with an electrical engineering degree, was manager of the Canton branch.

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Left: Ta Kung Pao’s report of problems associated with Tai Wah Electric in Taiwan in 1958 (TKP, 1958-5-11); Right: The wedding picture of Chan Ching-pun and Wong Wing-ching in 1952 (WKYP, 1952-1-11)

With the regime change in the mainland in 1949, the Chan family closed their stores in the mainland and re-directed capital to Hong Kong and Taiwan where they established Tai Wah Electric (泰華電器) in Taipei with Chan Ching-yu at the helm. According to the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao, Tai Wah ran into financial troubles in 1958 and Chan Ching-yu was detained by the Taiwanese authorities who were seeking payment of HK$2 million.

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The opening of the records department at Wah Mei by actress Tang Pik-wan, actor Mak Bing-wing and soccer champion Lee Wai-tong in 1952 (KSDN, 1952-11-12)

In the 1950s, many HK businesses invested in Borneo and Chan Chi-son sent one of his sons – Garke Chan Ching-pun (陳澄品), a graduate of Lingnan University in Canton to Kota Kinabalu (then known as Jesselton) to establish a branch of Wah Mei. This was managed by Garke and his wife Wong Wing-ching (黃詠清) whom he married in 1952.

Back in HK, business was good in the 1950s and 1960s as radio and television began to take off and Wah Mei became the sole distributor of the Dutch brand Siera Radio in addition to selling many other foreign brands such as Sony and Philips (see article on Chung Yuen Electrical and Goddard).  

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Chan Chi-sun with Chan Ching-to, Chan Shiu-kan and his family at Kai Tak after he returned from his 7 months stay in Borneo (WKYP, 1954-1-28)

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Chan Ching-to (second from the right) with guests celebrating the 25th anniversary of Siera Radio which was represented in HK by Wah Mei in 1958 (WKYP, 1958-12-2)

Outside of work, Chan Ching-to was very involved in Buddhist causes and was chairman of Tung Lin Kok Yuen in Happy Valley and many other Buddhist organizations, responsible for building the Buddhist Hospital and the Buddhist Cemetery in HK. He was also a leader of the South China Athletic Association for decades and his second son Chan Kwan-hau (陳君傚) was headmaster of the HK Buddhist Association’s  Wong Cheuk Im Primary School from 1959 to 1971 and Lam Bing-yim Memorial School from 1971 to 1978. He died in 1967 at the age of 84.  

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Obituary of Wah Mei founder Chan Ching-to (KSDN, 1967-2-28)

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Left: Wah Mei in the 1960s next to Hop Fat (maker of TAT electric fans, see article) and Tamiya department store; Right: Chan Ching-to with Buddhist monk  

As a firm, Wah Mei Electric Co Ltd was incorporated in 1951 and dissolved in 1990.

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Chan Kwan-hau (left) shaking hands with government official Au Wai-sum in 1063 (WKYP, 1963-12-7)

Chan Ching-kwok (陳澄國, 1928-1984) and HK Communications Equipment Co (香港通訊器材公司)

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Obituary of Chan Ching-kwok (WKYP, 1984-1-25)

One of Chan Chi-sun’s younger sons – Chan Ching-kwok (also spelled as 陳澄郭 in Chinese) branched out on his own and achieved success in the distribution of telecom equipment. While Wah Mei missed out on the opportunity of becoming sole distributor in major electronics brands such as Sony, National, Sharp or Pioneer to other entrepreneurs, Chan Ching-kwok identified a market niche in office telephone systems and intercom systems and secured the distributorship of two leading Japanese brands in the respective areas – Nitsuko and Aiphone through HK Communications Co (hereafter referred to as HKC), which he incorporated in 1970. The technology was quickly adopted in the 1970s and the business took off. In 1975, he expanded to Singapore through the establishment of Singapore Communication Equipment Co (Pte) Ltd. Well-connected in the Asian business community, Chan Ching-kwok was made honorary publisher of Thai Rath Daily, a leading newspaper in Thailand and director of Funai Asia, the HK subsidiary of Japan’s Funai Electric. He also had stake in a Chinese restaurant and invested in U.S. real estate.   

Outside of work he was very involved with the local Boy Scout movement and served as chairman of its promotions committee. In 1984, Chan Ching-kwok died of cancer at the age of 55. He was succeeded in business by his wife Chan Shuk-ling, the third daughter of Chan Chiu-wan, the proprietor of the famous Chan Yee Jai (陳意齋) snack food company and their two sons – Hubert Chan Chung-yee (陳重義) and Roy Chan Chung-yin (陳重言). Under the leadership of his family, HKC continued to grow in the next three decades – entering China in 1985, became distributor of Nokia and started mobile phone distribution business in HK in 1997, became distributor of NEC office phones in 2000 and was listed on the Main Board of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong in 2001. Today, HKC remains a leading ICT solution provider in HK with a retail chain under the Circle brand and operations in HK, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.  

S.K. Chan (陳肇根) and Winning Commercial Co Ltd (永勝商行)

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S.K. Chan and his colleague Chan Po-tim (陳浦添) returning from their trip on behalf of Wah Mei to Japan to visit electronic manufacturers in 1959. Chan Kwan-chak was in the group as well (WKYP, 1959-6-13)

S.K. Chan was the manager of Wah Mei in the 1950s before starting Winning Commercial in 1960 (although the firm incorporated in 1962) to distribute Japanese electrical appliances, shortly after his trip to Japan on behalf of Wah Mei as shown above. The firm is best known for being the sole agent in HK and China for products such as electronic stew pots, slow cookers, ovens etc manufactured by Imanishi Kinzo Kogyo K.K. of Osaka, Japan under the Imarflex brand (伊瑪牌) since 1960.

Thanks to aggressive marketing and convenience, Imarflex became very popular in HK and Southeast Asia in the 1970s. In addition to Imarflex, Winning Commercial also distributed products made by other electrical product manufacturers such as BS, Luxo and Thomas.

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S.K. Chan delivering a speech in front of the president of Imarflex and his wife in 1974 at a lucky draw event promoting its products (KSEN, 1974-10-1)

Leo Lee Tung-hai (李東海, 1921-2010) and Tung Tai Trading (東泰貿易)

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Leo Lee (left) and colleague presenting bank coupon to the winner of the Chinese naming competition for Geloso recorder who was a student (KSEN, 1960-3-30)

Leo Lee was the son in law of Wah Mei founder Chan Chi-son but like his brother in law Chan Ching-kwok, he also chose to strike out on his own instead of working for the family business and achieved success. A native of Zhongshan in Guangdong province, Lee had some training in radio engineering in his early years and came to HK from Canton in 1949. He started Tung Tai Trading in 1952 to engage in general import/export trade. In the 1950s, low cost Japanese electronic products became popular in HK and everywhere else. Lee however, chose to work with Italian firms instead partly due to less competition but also driven by his sentiments towards the Japanese at the time. His initial interactions with the Italians were in food products such as tomato sauce but in 1960, he began representing Italian electrical appliances such as refrigerators from Zanussi (then known as 雪白牌) and tape recorders from Geloso. Zanussi became very popular, with sales jumping sixfold within three years and thanks to the sales and marketing effort of Tung Tai, consistently ranked among the top selling refrigerator brands in HK in the 1960s and 1970s. For his promotion of HK-Italy trade, he received many honors from the Italian government starting in 1966.     

In November 1972, Tung Tai Trading as distributor of over 20 brands and owner of several industrial properties became a listed company and Tung Tai Finance was formed in 1973. Leo Lee was also a director of many financial institutions – including Overseas Trust Bank, Union Bank, Asia Financial Holdings and Liu Chong Hing Bank. Over time, the Tung Tai group of companies shifted its focus from electronics to financial services.   

Outside of work, Leo Lee was very active in community affairs having served as chairman of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals in 1970-71 during which he built schools, elderly center and memorials hall and later as chairman of its Association of Chairmen. He was also a member of CPPCC. For his work, he had received many honors from the HK government over the years – JP (1971), MBE (1972), OBE (1983) and Grand Bauhinia Medal (2006).  

Sources:

http://www.hkbuddhist.org/zh/top_page.php?cid=1&p=chairman&ptype=2&id=17

http://zszx.zsnews.cn/Article/view/cateid/267/id/30546.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Lee_Tung-hai

hkcweb.cloudhost8.com/about-hkc-group/

上海百業人才小史(1945)

自由中國工商人物誌(1955), p 242

KSEN, 1967-10-20; WKYP 1963-3-12

Comacrib Directory of China, 1925

http://www.winningccl.com.hk/

This article was first posted on 26th April 2019.

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