Norman F.C. Li (李福杖): Audio Visual Equipment and Plastic Bag Pioneer
York Lo: Norman F.C. Li (李福杖): Audio Visual Equipment and Plastic Bag Pioneer
Elephant founder Norman Li introducing the “Victoria 8” film projector with a dual 35/70 mm film gauge produced by the Italian maker Cinemeccanica in 1963 (Elephant Holdings FB page)
The Li family of Bank of East Asia, as covered in Frank Ching’s Li Dynasty and known for its century of involvement in financial services and the legal and political arena, has indirectly supported the industrial development of HK through the loans provided by BEA to various industrial enterprises (e.g. Vitasoy) but a few of the family members also directly participated in industries – such as Eric Li Fook-chuen who was engineer at Sonca (see article on V.K. Song) before taking over the family business of Kowloon Dairy. Another family member who played a role in HK’s industrial development was Norman Li Fook-cheung (1914-1984), who as founder, supervisor and chief engineer of Elephant Radio (now known as Elephant Holdings) was a leading distributor of audio-visual equipment and a key figure in the development of cinemas in the post-War era. As the founder of Polex Products, he also pioneered the manufacturing of plastic bags in Hong Kong.
Elephant Radio (大象行)
Norman F.C. Li was the eldest son of Li Tse-fong (李子方, 1891-1953), co-founder of Bank of East Asia (東亞銀行) and member of the Legislative Council. His younger brothers include BEA chairman Li Fook-wo (1916-2014), banker Li Fook-tai (1918-1999, son in law of KMT premier and Shanghai mayor O.K. Yui), physician Li Fook-kuen (1920-1993, father of WONCA chairman Dr. Donald Li), former Secretary for Home Affairs Li Fook-kow (1922-2011, father of Chief Justice Andrew Li) and insurance executive Li Fook-pui.
A graduate of MIT in 1938, Norman was listed on the discography of Cantonese opera stars Sit Kok-sin (薛覺先) and Cheung Wai-fong (張蕙芳) in 1940 as sound engineer for their albums for RCA Victor and Clipper. After the War, he opened Elephant Radio in 1946 as a distributor of audio-visual equipment. His wife Muriel Koo (顧以佐,1918-2016), his cousin F.S. Li (father of David and Arthur Li) and brother Li Fook-wo were listed as directors of Elephant in 1963 (HK $ Directory) and 1970 (Xianggang Shi Kuang). Bank of East Asia was listed as banker for the firm and for many years the firm operated out of the Bank of East Asia Building at 10 Des Voeux Road Central. Also involved in Elephant in its few decades was the Chan family with Chan Ying-lik (陳應歷) serving as manager and his brother Chan Ying-hung (陳應鴻), a prominent lawyer (cofounder of the firm of Lau Chan Ko) as director. It is unclear as to why the elephant was picked as the firm’s name but one possibility is the last character of Norman’s Chinese name is “Cheung”, which sounds like the Cantonese pronunciation of the word for elephant.
Left: Norman Li (right) explaining to owner Chiu Lut-sau the ins and outs of RCA projectors at the Kwong Wah Theatre in Yuen Long while Chan Ying-lik (left) looked on in 1950 (WKYP, 1950-2-14); Right: Norman Li (first from right) and colleagues visiting C.R. Skinner, the first US importer of Canon cameras in the 1950s (Elephant Holdings FB page)
To introduce the latest audio-visual technology to HK, Norman traveled extensively across the globe and he soon identified cinema as a major market as the population boom in HK resulted in a boom in cinema construction in the 1950s and 1960s before HK entered the television age in the 1970s. Elephant became the Far East distributor of theatre and sound equipment such as 35mm film projectors manufactured by firms such as RCA, the National Theater Supply Co and Cinemeccanica. The firm also introduced the Cinemascope technology to HK in 1954.
Elephant Radio’s ad in 1960 listing all the products it was exclusive agent for (WKYP, 1960-8-21)
From the 1950s to the 1970s during the golden age of movie theater construction in HK, Elephant was responsible for installing projectors and/or sound systems for many cinemas all over HK (in chronological order): Roxy Theatre (built in 1949 and demolished in 1974, owned by Seaker Chan and built by Cheung Chan-hon’s Cheong Lee Construction, see article), Kwong Wah Theatre (光華戲院, built in 1950 and demolished in 1991) and Yuen Long Cinema (元朗戲院) in Yuen Long, Silver Theatre (銀都戲院, developed in 1963 by the Chung brothers and demolished in 2009, see article on Wah Yuen) in Kwun Tong, King’s Theatre (娛樂戲院, Elephant was responsible for installing new sound and projection system after its renovation in 1964; theatre demolished in 1990) in Central and Lux Theatre (寶石戲院, built in 1971 and still standing) in Hunghom. In 1957, Y.L. Chan and Norman Li were also involved in leasing the Astor Theatre (普慶戲院, re-developed in 1987 into the Eaton Hotel) and Chan was elected to the board of the HK Theatre Association.
Since 1946, Elephant has distributed and installed many hi-fi products, audio-visual and sound systems, movie projectors, CCTV equipment and electronic church organs over the decades for a wide range of clients ranging from the HK government, cinemas to churches.
Norman Li and HK theater executives (many of whom were his clients) welcome the Far East manager of MGM at the Kai Tak Airport. Left to right: Hung Chap-man, T.J. Holt, MGM HK manager K.Y. Pan, MGM Far East manager Mayer, Mrs. Pan, Hung Chun-wah, Wang Fook-hing, Wong Kin-yum, Norman Li (WKYP, 1955-9-14)
Elephant manager Chan Ying-lik and fellow HK theater executives welcoming executives of 20th Century Fox in 1958. Left to right: Tsoi Chak-lam, T.J. Holt, Chan Ying-lik, Fox executive, Fox international chief Murray Silverstone, Liang Ki-hao (粱基浩), Seaker Chan (陳樹渠), Lung Fung-sang (龍鳳生), J.S. Lee (利榮森) (WKYP, 1958-7-4)
Polex Products (保力膠製品廠)
Aside from Elephant, Norman Li was also chairman of Polex Products (保力膠製品廠), a plastic bag manufacturer he formed in February 1956 with $500,000 in capital with himself serving as chairman and Fung Chi-ting (馮芝庭) as manager to manufacture polyethylene tubings, bags and slit-open sheetings. In 1959, Polex had 3400 sq ft of factory space at 203 King’s Road and monthly production of 40000-50000 pounds of plastic bags (although full capacity is 90000 pounds). 90% of its outputs were sold locally while the rest were exported to Southeast Asia, India and Middle East. The sole agent for Polex was Kiu Shun Trading Co, which operated out of Hing Wai Building, a Li family property in Central.
Foreign guests visiting Polex Products in 1959 (WKYP, 1959-1-29)
Outside of work, Norman Li was the supervisor for the Sheng Kung Hui St Michael’s Primary School. In December 1984, Norman Li died in Vancouver at the age of 70 and was survived by his wife, one son Albert (李國光) and three daughters.
After his death, Pokfulam Development acquired a majority stake in Elephant Radio. In 1997, Elephant Radio was renamed Elephant Holdings to reflect its broader scope of business and today remains a leader in audio visual and sound engineering in HK. As for Polex, the firm was later absorbed by Nan Sing Plastics (founded in 1957 and subsidiary of the listed South East Asia Properties controlled by the family of Filipino Chinese tycoon Chua Siao-hua) and was dissolved in 2016.
Sources (other than what’s cited above):
This article was first posted on 7th October 2019.
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