The Inventions and Ventures of HK Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh (樂秀章)

York Lo: The Inventions and Ventures of HK Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh (樂秀章)

Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh Image 1 York Lo

Left: S.C. Loh with a communication device in 1979 (Source: Printing Today); Right: S.C. Loh in the 1960s (CUHK Bulletin, 1967)  

Professor Shiu-Chang Loh (hereafter referred to as “S.C. Loh”) was an interesting figure in the history of Hong Kong’s information technology sector as he was involved in the establishment of the first computer science department and the first electronics department at a local university in Hong Kong and did pioneering work in Chinese computing, machine translation and antenna technology during his long tenure at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He also introduced many technology products to the HK market in partnership with foreign and local firms and also through his own firms. In the early 1970s, he left a mark in the HK stock market as his Hong Kong Antenna, a developer of television antennas with no revenue skyrocketed thirtyfold and epitomized the stock bubble at the time while his Computer Data, a computer service bureau and computer distributor was probably one of the first IT stocks in the HK market.

Pioneer in Technology Education and Research   

Born in Shanghai in 1932, S.C. Loh studied at Leeds University in the UK where he earned his B.S. in electrical engineering in 1957 and Ph.D. in 1959 with electromagnetic theory, microwave antenna and toroidal functions as his main research interests. During his time at Leeds, he won many scholarships and prizes and conducted microwave research at the National Research Council in Canada. Allegedly he was forbidden to look at the school computers while he was a student in England as he was a foreigner and computers were considered top secrets at the time which only made him more intrigued by the subject.  In 1959, he was hired by the University of Hong Kong as a lecturer in electrical engineering and was involved in building its electronics and telecommunications laboratory. In 1965, he spent a year in Denmark as a guest lecturer at the Laboratory of Electromagnetic Theory at the Technical University of Denmark where he was concurrently the head of antenna research, which laid the foundation for his products at HK Antenna. In 1966, he returned to Hong Kong and joined United College of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) as Reader in Electronics, which was introduced as a minor program at the school in 1967/1968. (WKYP, 1966-8-1; CUHK Bulletin, 1967

In 1967, S.C. Loh and Patrick S.K. Fang (方心謹, uncle of former Chief Secretary Anson Chan), vice president of United College, established the first computer science department in HK at CUHK – the Computing Centre – with Fang as its first director. The Centre acquired an IBM 1130 to perform herbal medicine research. In June 1968, Patrick Fang decided to leave HK and Loh succeeded him as Director of the Computing Centre although he did not formally assume the position until December since he was on sabbatical in Europe visiting universities in Germany and Denmark and taking computer courses in the UK. In 1970, CUHK joined with HKU to form the Joint University Computer Center (JUCC) and installed a ICL 1904A at Tung Ying Building which was linked to minicomputers at the two universities. The same year, the Electronics Department at United College was established as a separate field of study with Dr. Charles K. Kao (later head of the school and Nobel Prize winner) succeeding Loh as Reader in Electronics and Head of the Department responsible for the establishment and implementation of a four-year undergraduate program in Electronics while Loh focused his energy on computing as professor of computer science.

Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh Image 2 York Lo

S.C. Loh presenting his work on computer translation from Chinese to English at CUHK in 1972. To his right were CUHK chancellor Dr. Cho-min Li and W.C. Chan from CUHK’s computer research center (KSEN, 1972-10-15) 

In 1969, Loh and a team of researchers began work on a machine translation system known as the Chinese University Language Translator (CULT) using an IBM 1130 system. In 1971, The Asia Foundation donated HK$54,000 to CUHK to help Loh carry on his research on machine translation.  In 1972, Loh and his team developed a program written in the Fortran language on a ICL 1904A system which successfully completed instantaneous translation of ten short pieces of mathematical texts from Chinese to English. The system was unveiled at a high-profile press conference at CUHK on 14th October that year.  (Chan, Sin-wai, Dictionary of Translation Technology) 

HK Antenna (香港天線) and Computer Data (香港電腦)

Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh Image 3 York Lo

Left: 1973 ad for HK Antenna with the headline “why install it so high?”; Right: one of HK Antenna’s special loop antennas (Eastweek)  

While he was building up CUHK’s computer department and working on machine translation, S.C. Loh also maintained his interest in antenna technology. In 1966, Loh founded Hong Kong Antenna & Engineering Co Ltd in order to commercialize his research in antenna. As discussed earlier in the article about Promotors, the first local manufacturer of television sets, the launch of wireless television broadcasting in Hong Kong with the launch of TVB in 1967 had generated a lot of demand and excitement for television technology in the city. One of the biggest challenges at the time was TV antenna reception was poor for viewers in tall apartment buildings who had to install their antennas on the top floor as illustrated in the ad above in order to get reception. Loh had developed a special loop antenna with two reflectors (one smaller than the other) which allegedly had ten times better reception than most of the products in the market and cost HK$10 to make to address this issue and in May 1968 applied for patent protection and was subsequently granted patent number 12619991 by the HK government. (Nanyang Siang Pao, 1968-3-27) 

By 1972, a stock market bubble had emerged in HK thanks to the launch of three additional stock exchanges which made stock investing far more accessible to the general public than ever before – Far East (founded by Ronald Li and others such as B.K. Murjani, see article), Kam Ngan (founded by members of the Chinese Gold & Silver Exchange) and Kowloon.  The Kowloon Stock Exchange, the smallest of the four exchanges at the time, was founded in January 1972 by accountant and Urban Councilor Peter Chan Po-fun (陳普芬, 1922-2014). As larger companies preferred the larger exchanges as their primary listing venues, Chan went after smaller issuers such as Rose Knitting (see article) and personally invested in and served on the board of companies listed on his exchange, many of which had little or no assets or revenues. 

Chan saw HK Antenna as the perfect concept stock and although the firm did not expect to have its prototype until early 1973 or commence production until mid 1973, he got involved with the firm to prepare it for public listing on his exchange and touted the firm as the first stock in Hong Kong backed solely by its intellectual property. To enhance the credibility of the firm, he assembled a dream board with himself as chairman and board members including Loh, two prominent physicians and politicians – vice chairman Dr. Harry S.Y. Fang (方心讓,1923-2009, brother of Loh’s ex-colleague Patrick Fang) and Sir Albert Rodrigues (羅理, 1911-2006), journalist L.Z. Yuan (倫仁, rep of The Asia Foundation which sponsored Loh’s machine translation project, father in law of movie producer Raymond Chow), CUHK math professor Dr. S.T. Tsou (紹棠,1918-1993), Shanghainese businessmen C.K. Hsu (involved in the radio business) and C.H. Kuo (錦虹associated with Unilever in Shanghai), stockbroker William Shih (施用章, member of the HK Stock Exchange) and two others.

Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh Image 4 York LoLeft: IPO notice for Computer Data in February 1972; Right: HK Antenna press conference in February 1973 announcing the appointment of Asahi Photographic Supplies as distributor. Left to right: Dr. Harry Fang, K.C. Yuen, Peter Chan, Sir Albert Rodrigues (KSEN, 1973-3-10)

To attract the interest of the investing public, the company issued a prospectus in Chinese (which was uncommon at the time) at the recommendation of Sir Rodrigues.  The prospectus specifically stated that the firm did not intend to distribute any dividends in 2 years and given the high risk nature of the business, the stock is not recommended to small investors but also called itself “a honest and transparent professional business organization” and “investing in the firm is an investment in the development of industries and technology in Hong Kong”.  (WKYP, 1972-11-27)

On December 5, HK Antenna went public on the Kowloon Stock Exchange, selling 900,000 shares at HK$1 a share (50% to general public, 50% to Kowloon Exchange members, total shares outstanding of 2.5 million) and hit the peak of $3.20 on the first day before closing at $2.522. Within six weeks, the stock was bid up to HK$30 per share, valuing the company at over HK$70 million, although the firm had zero revenue at the time.  In March 1973, HK Antenna announced the appointment of Asahi Product Supplies, the well-known distributor of Pentax cameras in Hong Kong founded by Yuen Kang-chuen (also known as “Pentax Yuen”), as the distributor of its products. The product was released in June 1973.

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SC Loh and Yuen Kang-chuen presenting prizes of black and white Philips television sets to winners of the HK Antenna quiz show contest in 1973 (KSEN, 1973-4-4)

Riding on the stock market success of HK Antenna, Loh with HK Antenna directors Chan, Fang, Tsou and Rodrigues incorporated Computer Data (HK) Ltd. in January 1973 as another technology concept stock. The same month, Dr. Harry Fang as chairman of Computer Data announced in a press conference at the Hilton that the firm had signed an agreement to purchase a Control Data Cyber 70 supercomputer from the American mainframe and supercomputer firm Control Data Corporation (which at the time had a computer parts factory in Kwun Tong and computer training institute in the city as well) to provide data processing services to large and small companies in HK and Macau who wanted to outsource. (WKYP, 1973-1-30) The firm was by no means the first to provide such service in HK as firms such as Chartered Online and AsiaData preceded it by a few years, but it was the first to go public. In February, Computer Data went public on the Kowloon Stock Exchange through the issuance of 3 million shares at HK$1 apiece. A 1974 US State Department report stated that Computer Data had 70 staff including 8 salespeople and the firm was HK distributor of computers made by Control Data and Philips in addition to acting as a computer service bureau. It had $25 million in authorized capital, of which $12 million was subscribed and had a printing press subsidiary in Chai Wan by the name of HK Business Forms Ltd. 

HK Antenna turned out to be more hype than substance and as its products never gained traction and the stock market bubble burst later in 1973, the stock became worthless. According to company registry records, HK Antenna became Joyee Pacific in 1978 and trading was suspended in July 1979. In 1982, the firm was renamed Mega Pacific and was finally delisted in 1989 and dissolved in 2004. 

As for Computer Data, in January 1979, Centaur Finance Ltd (a company controlled by Computer Data director Lee Man-bun) offered $0.28 per share to acquire Computer Data in cash. (TKP, 1979-1-23)  The firm remained a listed company and was renamed Sunstate Finance in 1981 before it was delisted in 1990 and dissolved in 1995. 

Loh After HK Antenna – Chinese Typesetters, Terminals and Keyboards

Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh Image 5 York Lo

Left: S.C. Loh with his Chinese keyboard in 1981 (New Scientist, Nov 1981); Right: article about Monotype’s new Chinese computer typesetter designed by S.C. Loh in 1978 (TKP, 1978-12-9) 

In the 1970s and the 1980s, Loh continued his research into Chinese computing. In early 1975, the CULT began regular cover to cover machine translation of the Chinese mathematical journal Acta Mathematica Sinica published by the Academy of Sciences in Beijing into English and later that year, the physics journal Acta Phisica Sinica was also added to the list of CULT publications.  Loh also conducted research on machine translation from English to Chinese and in April 1978, the Hung On-To Research Centre for Machine Translation (sponsored by the family of real estate pioneer Hung On-to, see article) was established under the Institute of Science and Technology at CUHK with Loh as Director and Dr. Hing-sum Hung as Associate Director. The same year, the British typesetting equipment manufacturer Monotype International unveiled its first Chinese phototypesetter Lasercomp with keyboard designed by Loh and his team after five years of research. The keyboard, which contained 256 keys, could process 2000 words per minute with font size ranging from the typical newsprint size of 6 to 3.8 inches and the new system was marketed to Chinese newspapers across the region who were slow to adopt computer technology.  (TKP, 1978-12-9, Straits Times, 1979-1-14) 

Loh sold his patent on Chinese keyboard to the local listed electronics giant Elec & Eltek (依利安達) and in 1986, Loh and Elec & Eltek introduced “CIT-238” – which stands for Chinese Information Terminal and 238 for the number of keys which were arranged in five zones in its keyboard which was much larger than the typical English keyboard. The software was programmed by Dr. Thomas Leung of Elec & Eltek and could handle both traditional and simplified Chinese, English, Russian, French, Arabic and Spanish.  Unfortunately, the system, which Loh and Elec & Eltek thought was easier to use than competing products, had too many keys and never found its market. 

As of the early 1990s, Loh was still involved with the computer science department at CUHK but has since passed away. 

Tech Pioneer Prof. S.C. Loh Image 6 York LoLeft: S.C. Loh (left) with CUHK chancellor Ma Lin (center) and representative from Intel (right) which donated computer equipment to the school in 1984 (WKYP, 1984-10-30); Right: S.C. Loh (front row, third from the left) and Professor TC Chen (陳天機, front row center) and colleagues of CUHK Department of Computer Science in 1991

Sources: 

http://pages.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/~gaines/reports/COMP/MonChina79/MonChina79.pdf

http://realforum.zkiz.com/thread.php?tid=52493

http://eastweek.my-magazine.me/main/25432

https://www.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/1974HONGK03542_b.html

http://mt-archive.info/Loh-1978.pdf

https://archive.org/stream/DTIC_ADA357234/DTIC_ADA357234_djvu.txt

https://patents.google.com/?inventor=Shiu-Chang+Loh

This article was first posted on 20th December 2019.

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