The Rise and Fall of the HK Ivory Industry and some of its key players
York Lo: The Rise and Fall of the HK Ivory Industry and some of its key players
Catalog of Man Hing Ivory Factory (Memoires of a Travelholic, 2014)
While many industries in Hong Kong went away due to rising production costs and soaring property values, ivory was one industry that was shut down by a worldwide ban enacted in 1989 by 103 countries who signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) in Switzerland. Before then, Hong Kong was the largest producer of processed ivory with over 3000 carvers and over 300 factories involved in the business at its peak.
Before the War, the ivory industry in HK was relatively small with less than 100 carvers working in the industry and even by 1947 there were only 200 workers in the business. The regime change in China in 1949 sparked significant growth in the HK ivory industry as many ivory craftsmen and traders moved from the mainland to HK and also driven by strong post-war export demand, there were 1500 ivory craftsmen in HK by 1960.
By 1959, the US had become an important market for HK ivory, accounting for half of HK’s total ivory exports with HK$2.4 million (this number probably exceeded $3 million if purchases by American tourists visiting HK were included), which was more than double the HK$1.1 mil recorded in the previous year. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US government imposed a strict ban on goods manufactured in mainland China or comprised of raw materials sourced from mainland China but many products such as wigs made with hair from the mainland still made their way into the US. As some players in the HK ivory industry outsourced some of their work to craftsmen in the mainland, the US began to restrict the import of ivory from HK in 1960 through the CCO system (certificate of country of origin) and asked the Department of Industry and Commerce in HK to qualify ivory factories for exports to the US. In 1961, 8 out of the 37 ivory factories in HK which exported to the US were disqualified while 9 of them made the cut. Despite the regulation, the HK ivory industry did well during the decade and HK emerged as the largest importer of tusks in the world with average annual imports of 224 tons in the 1960s, nearly all African ivory imported directly from Africa or via Europe and the Gulf states through 50 importers, 12 of whom were controlled by Indians and Pakistanis. The total number of ivory craftsmen in HK reached its peak of 3000 in 1970.
By 1971, the annual production of ivory products in HK exceeded HK$30 mil in value, with 50% exported overseas, 40% purchased by visiting tourists and under 10% bought by local customers. That year, the HK ivory industry faced another headwind as the cost of raw materials doubled and the Western economies struggled. In the 1970s, the adoption of electric tools significantly increased outputs and reduced the need of craftsmen and as a result, the number of carvers dropped to 1500 by 1982. In 1978, there were 156 ivory workshops in HK, each typically employing 6-8 craftsmen.
Things turned worse in the early 1980s as ivory exports from HK dropped by half driven by the global economic recession while costs soared due to supply issues. The US still represented 30% of HK’s exports while France which was once an important export market had dropped to 4% and was replaced by Japan. The rise of wildlife protection around the world brought increased regulations and reduced demand, coupled that with cheaper alternatives such as China resulted in severe decline of the HK ivory industry in the 1980s. Average annual import of tusks dropped from 479 tons in the early 1980s to 186 tons in the late 1980s and during the decade the number of ivory craftsmen dropped by two thirds to 600 (retirement of aging workers also contributed to this).
At the time of the ban in 1989, the HK ivory industry imported US$32 million of raw ivory and exported US$33 million, 90% of which went to Japan. HK was also the holder of the largest ivory stockpiles in the world worth over US$128 million totalling over 670 tons. Although technically no new ivory products were manufactured in HK and exported after the 1989 ban, ivory products produced before 1989 or made with tusks acquired before 1989 continued to be sold in HK and HK remained a center of legal and illegal activities connected with the global ivory trade. In January 2018, HK legislators passed a law to completely ban the sale of ivory in HK, to be implemented within 3 years.
Detailed statistics and history of the HK ivory industry can be found on page 43-58 of the 2003 report on the Ivory Markets of East Asia at the following link:
KSDN, 1982-05-29, 1971-10-27
Below are the profiles of some of the former key players in the HK ivory industry such as Kwong Fat Cheung and Tsang King Kee, which traced its origins to the 1910s:
Kwong Fat Cheung Ivory & Mahjong Factory (廣發祥象牙蔴雀廠)
Kwong Fat Cheung ad from the 1950s (HKBCA yearbook)
Kwong Fat Cheung’s logo (left) and ivory mahjong set (right)
Founded in the 1910s, Kwong Fat Cheung was known for its ivory mahjong and according to its owner, was the first Cantonese firm to manufacture this product. It took the founder a while to master the technique of making ivory mahjong and over time he opened a branch under the name of San You (three friends, unclear as to why it did not use the Kwong Fat Cheung name) at 44 R. da Madeira Macau. The firm exclusively focused on ivory mahjong in its first four decades but extended to ivory sculpture and carvings in 1950.
By 1955, the firm had over 100 staff with its ivory craft products exported to Africa, the Americas, the British Commonwealth, France and Italy and mahjong products exported to Singapore and the Philippines (each order typically being over 100 sets). The firm by then was managed by the founder’s 4 nephews – Huen Wing-yue (褟榮耀, 1928-), Huen Wing-bun (褟榮斌) and Huen Wing-kwong (褟榮光) and his niece Huen Lai-kuen (褟麗娟). The firm was an active participant at the HK Products Expo in the 1950s, with the brothers carving names on ivory chopsticks for clients, running lucky draws and displaying ivory sculptures such as one featuring the main characters from the Three Warrior States period which was acquired by a foreigner for over HK$1,000 in 1954.
Left: Article about Huen Wing-yue and Kwong Fat Cheung with his picture in 1955 (Ta Kung Pao, 1955-1-6); Right: The Huen brothers conducting a lucky draw for a crossword puzzle they ran in partnership with Ta Kung Pao in 1955 (Ta Kung Pao, 1955-12-16)
In 1961, Kwong Fat Cheung opened a new factory at 92A Heung To Road in Aberdeen to meet the newly imposed requirements on ivory exporters to the US. The same year, Huen Wing-bun married Lin Yun-ho, the third daughter of piecegood merchant Lin Kam-cheung, a director of the pro-Beijing Chinese General Chamber of Commerce. The wedding reception was attended by over 1000 guests including Ko Cheuk-hung, Woo Sze-tang, K.C. Wong, Tse Yu-chuen, T.K. Law of Tsang Fook Piano, Ho Chi-wong of Chun Hing, J.M. Wong and Lee Kwan, founder of Wofoo Plastics and manufacturer of plastic mahjongs (which would eventually replace ivory).
Wedding notice of Huen Wing-bun and Lin Yun-ho in 1961 (WKYP, 1961-11-14)
For its first several decades, Kwong Fat Cheung operated out of its main store at 111 Wellington Street in Central. By 1973, Kwong Fat Cheung opened its expanded main store at 27 Wellington Street in Central and had retail outlets at the Ocean Terminal and Star House in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Excelsior Mall in Causeway Bay. The same year, Huen Wing-kwong as managing director of the firm visited various European countries (including participating in a trade fair in Frankfurt) and the US to promote ivory exports. A younger brother Norman Huen Wing-kwan also joined the family business.
When the worldwide ban on ivory took place in 1989, Time magazine mentioned that “Kwong Fat Cheung Ivory once employed 100 carvers. Now there are five, all old men, who at night can be found sitting around a table eating a silent dinner of silvery fish, cabbage and egg. Behind them is a wall of ivory tusks in burlap sacks”. After the ban, Kwong Fat Cheung continued to deal in ivory and made the headlines in 1999 when an ivory dealer was convicted of taking HK$3 million worth of ivory from Kwong Fat Cheung’s store at 27 Wellington Street after he failed to collect HK$1.8 million in debts from Norman Huen. As a firm, Kwong Fat Cheung was incorporated in 1971 and dissolved in 2005.
Kwong Fat Cheong main store at 27 Wellington Street in 1973 (WKYP, 1973-4-13)
Ta Kung Pao, 1955-12-8, 1960-10-2; WKYP, 1961-1-12
Tsang King Kee Ivory Factory (曾琼記象牙工廠)
Tsang King Kee founder Tsang Min-King
Tsang King Kee was the largest ivory manufacturer in HK, employing close to 90% of the industry’s workforce (over 200 of 250) during peak seasons in the early 1950s. The firm was founded in 1912 by Panyu native Tsang Min-king (曾冕瓊）and was primarily focused on the wholesale trade of ivory before the War, importing tusks from Africa and selling them to ivory factories in HK as raw material. After the War, it ventured into manufacturing ivory products and quickly became the leader of the 7-8 firms in the industry at the time.
According to the article below about the firm from 1951, Tsang King Kee was manufacturing over 200 different products at the time with the bestseller being small decorative objects such as ivory Buddhas or ivory balls. 90% of the firm’s output were exported, of which 70% were to the Americas, and 20% to Europe and ivory products used by the US military headquarters in Japan under General Macarthur were supplied by Tsang King Kee. At the time, Brazil and Argentina had already banned the import of Chinese ivory and the UK imposed 100% import duties. The production of ivory ware was very time and labor intensive as it involved 8-9 steps, different carvers and could take up to 5 years depending on the complexity of the piece.
Left: Tsang King Kee above How Sang Linen (see article on Swatow lace) on Wyndham Street (Gwulo); Right: Tsang King Kee ivory puzzle ball and base (Case Antiques)
Article about Tsang King Kee in 1951 (WKYP, 1951-3-20); Right: Tsang Fu-keung of Tsang King Kee (National Repository of Cultural Heritage)
By the 1950s, the firm was led by its second generation comprising of 6 brothers – Tsang Fu-keung (曾富強), Tsang Fu-chik (曾富植), Tsang Fu-wai (曾富偉), Tsang Fu-wah (曾富華), Tsang Fu-ming (曾富銘) and Tsang Fu-tong. Under the leadership of Tsang Fu-keung, the firm expanded to Taiwan in 1961 where it established an ivory factory to manufacture ivoryware for export to the US market and he made headlines as he was the first individual permitted to enter Taiwan under the KMT regime without the sponsorship of a local resident after gaining approval by the Taiwanese military with the endorsement of the Overseas Chinese Commission of the KMT and the Industrial group of the US Aid Committee. The only brother in law of the Tsang brothers – Chu Cheuk-lap (朱卓立), was also in the ivory business and was the proprietor of the Lap Hing Ivory Factory. Chu and his brother in law Tsang Fu-wai had both served as directors of the HK & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association.
By 1989 when the ivory ban came into effect, Tsang King Kee had shrunk to under 10 employees and was losing US$40,000-50,000 a month. As a firm, Tsang King Kee Ivory Factory Ltd was incorporated in 1977 and dissolved in 1991, 2 years after the worldwide ivory ban.
Sources (other than those listed above):
WKYP 1973-12-16 – obituary of the Tsang brothers’ mother Ma Sze
Tat Hing Ivory Wares Factory (達興象牙)
Storefront of Tat Hing Ivory-wares Factory
During the wave of anti-ivory activism in the late 1980s which ultimately resulted in the 1989 ban, international conservation organizations and investigative journalists (including Time and Asiaweek) tried to uncover the faces behind the controversial trade and the Poon family of Tat Hing Ivory-wares Factory and K.T. Wang from HK were singled out as major HK operators in the trade with significant global scale stretching from Europe to Africa and the Middle East. The book Fate of an Elephant contains the following passage: “according to information gathered through undercover investigations by the conservation community, the paterfamilias of the Poon family was Poon Chow, owner of the Tat Hing Ivory Wares Factory. (I had passed the factory in Kowloon, but a sign on the door said that it was temporarily closed.) He helped found the Hong Kong & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association in 1934 (Errata: should be 1966, he was not a founding director of the group ). These days, Poon was not well. Apparently afflicted by a stroke, he was thought to be living in a flat atop a high-rise complex he owned. The active members of this ivory dynasty were son Poon Tat Hong (潘達康T. H. Poon), who oversaw the Hong Kong operations; son Tony Poon (K. Y. Poon, from the Chinese name Poon Kwok Yuen), who ran Poon’s Ivory Carving Factory (潘氏象牙雕刻廠) in Hong Kong; George Poon (Poon Tat-wah), either a brother or a cousin, based in Paris and connected to French-speaking central African countries; Poon Moon Lee, possibly a nephew (other sources said he was unrelated), manager of the M. K. Jewelry Company in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and M. K. Poon, a partner of T. H. Poon, exact relationship unknown. Some said Tony Poon was M. K. Poon’s son. Obviously, the trail the investigators followed was a convoluted one. That trail led to the following holdings: in addition to Tat Hing Ivory and Poon’s Ivory Carving Factory in Hong Kong, there was Tat & Company (an ivory retail shop), Tat Hing Investments, and Kin Ming Ivory Factory. Along with the M. K. Jewelry Factory in Dubai, there was the Dubai Ivory Factory. Paris had a boutique called Hong Kong-France and Tat Hing Ivoire, both managed by George Poon. Macao had Son Ian Chop Hau, where T. H. Poon stored tons of ivory in 1986, before authorities tightened regulations there. Singapore had Fung Ivory Manufacturing Ltd., managed by Mrs. Choy, wife of Choy Tat Hing of Dubai, and Kyomi Handicraft and Trading Ltd. GBL & Associates in Dares Salaam, Tanzania, was also a Poon front, as was an ivory factory called Jewelry World, opened in Zaire.” Tat Hing operated out of 195 Queen’s Road Central and as a firm, Poon’s Ivory Carving Factory Ltd was incorporated in 1989, renamed Poon’s Handicraft in 1990 and again to Wilson Gem Stone in 1992 and was finally dissolved in 2006. From ivory, Poon Tat-hing appeared to have shifted to the other controversial business of sharkfins by forming Tat Hing Sharkfins Co Ltd in 1991 but the firm was dissolved in 2012.
Man Hing Ivory (文興象牙廠)
Au Wai-hung as chairman of the HK & Kowloon Ivory Mfrs Association giving a talk at the Rotary Club of Kowloon West on the artistic value of ivory in 1970. To his left was Cho Shiu-chung, president of the club and property developer (WKYP, 1970-3-5)
Man Hing Ivory Factory was one of the leading ivory manufacturers in HK controlled by the Au family with Wilson Au Way-hung (區偉雄) as the leader in HK. The firm operated out of 27A Nathan Road and appear to be connected to Man Hing Ivory Imports in San Francisco operated by Eddie Au Kwok-hung (likely a brother of Wilson Au) who was chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in SF Chinatown.
In 1966, the ivory merchants in HK decided to form the HK & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association (港九象牙商會) to protect their interests and Wilson Au of Man Hing was elected its first chairman with Huen Wing-yue of Kwong Fat Cheung as social committee chair and Chung Fat of Chung Fat Ivory Factory as secretary. The founding ceremony was held at a Chinese restaurant in the newly opened Ocean Terminal with Hilton Cheong-leen, the Urban Councilor as guest of honor handing out appointment certificates and encouraging the industry to establish an ivory design center. (WKYP, 1966-11-1). As a firm, Man Hing Ivory Factory (HK) Ltd was incorporated in 1975 and dissolved in 2016.
Nathan Ivory Factory (彌敦象牙廠)
Au Ming-chi (left) receiving the appointment certificate as chairman of the HK & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association from Cham Siu-lam in 1972 (WKYP, 1972-10-31)
Nathan Ivory Factory was one of the major players and its proprietor Au Ming-chi (區明志) served as founding treasurer and later chairman of the HK & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nathan Ivory Factory in TST circa 1981/82 (Photo courtesy of Dave Dewenter)
Au worked in a small ivory factory in Canton in the 1930s and 1940s with eight other ivory craftsmen. He fled to HK after 1949 and acquired Nathan Ivory Factory which operated out of 81 Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. In 1973, he was elected chairman of the Chi Kin Winter Swimming Club (智健冬泳會). In 1979, Nathan was burglarized and lost over $250,000 in ivory. That year, Nathan Ivory Factory was buying from 200 craftsmen in Hong Kong and exporting them all over the world. According to the legislator Wong Ting-kwong who is a friend of Au from the winter swimming club, Au decided to close up shop after the 1989 ban but to ensure that his aging former staff could continue to make a living gave some of them the remaining raw ivory in the factory’s inventory for processing. As a firm, Nathan was incorporated in 1979 and dissolved in 1993.
Shi Cheong Ivory Factory (時昌象牙廠)
Shi Cheong’s booth at the HK Products Expo in 1959 (WKYP, 1959-12-21)
Not much info is available about Shi Cheong Ivory Factory. Its proprietor was Ho Chu (何珠) who was a founding director of the HK & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association and head of its welfare committee. The firm operated out of 287 Queen’s Road Central.
Chung Fat Ivory Ware Factory (中發象牙廠)
Chung Fat delivering his speech as chairman of HK & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association in 1976 (TKP 1976-11-2)
Chung Fat Ivory Ware Factory was founded in 1957 by Chung Fat (鍾發) and its Chinese name is a derivative of the founder’s name. Chung Fat served as the chairman of the HK & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association in the 1970s and had the foresight in the late 1970s to shift his business to jewelry with the formation of Chung Fat Jewellery Ltd in 1978, which specialized in diamond, cubic zirconia and crystal jewelry for exports to markets such as the US, Europe, Japan and Australia. In 1998, Cubic Zirconia Manufactory Ltd was established to focus on the manufacturing of cubic zirconia jewelry.
Chung Fat Ivory Ware Factory operated out of 15 Cameron Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and continued to operate in the ivory business after the 1989 ban. In 2017, Chung Kin-wah (鍾建華) as representative of Chung Fat along with other licensed ivory merchants protested at Legco against the proposed total ban of ivory sale.
This article was first posted on 13th May 2019.
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