Camera Men: Shum Ming-hin and Yuen Kang-chuen
York Lo: Camera Men: Shum Ming-hin and Yuen Kang-chuen
The history of photography in Hong Kong would not be complete without the profiles of two prominent figures in the camera business – Shum Ming-hin, whose A. Sek & Co was a leading distributor of photographic equipment in HK from the 1920s to the 1960s and his son in law Yuen Kang-chuen, who popularized Pentax cameras and Casio watches in HK from the 1960s to the 1980s through his Wing Group of companies.
Shum Ming-hin and Yuen Kang-chuen at the 40th anniversary party of A. Sek & Co in 1961. Left to right: Shum Kai-chi, Gilman & Co managing director Braga, Shum Ming-hin, Edward Keller & Co’s S.C. Tung (董守績), Yuen Kang-chuen (WKYP, 1961-9-2)
Shum Ming-hin (岑明軒) and A.Sek & Co (萬方影具)
Left: A.Sek & Co negative wallet, likely from the 1950s listing all the products that it distributed. Right: Shum Ming-hin in the late 1940s
A native of Shunde in Guangdong province, Shum Ming-hin’s father Shum Dau (岑斗) immigrated in the late Ching dynasty to the French controlled Madagascar where he made a fortune operating stores and real estate. As a teenager, Shum turned down his father’s offer to join him in Madagascar and chose to stay behind to focus on the silk business, which was a popular industry in his native Shunde at the time. By the late 1910s, he had established three silk factories in his Shunde – Kui King (鉅經), Cheong On (祥安) and Cheong Lung (祥隆) and a branch in Canton under the name of Cheong Lung. (A Century of Commerce, 1941)
A. Sek ad in 1931 (China Mail, 1931-3-31)
Shum was originally interested in photography as a hobby but over time, he turned his hobby into his main business. In 1921, he opened A. Sek & Co in Hong Kong to import the latest photographic equipment and supplies from Europe and the US. (1921 is based on A.Sek’s celebration of its 40th anniversary in 1961; bios of Shum had listed 1924 or 1925 as the date) By 1941, A. Sek also had a branch in Kowloon and Canton and Shum’s business focus had also shifted from silk to cameras.
Left: Shum Ming-hin (fourth from the left) and Sum Kai-yan (second from left) with executives of Melchers welcoming the president of German manufacturer Max Braun in 1959. Braun was represented by Melchers in HK. (WKYP, 1959-11-11); Right: Ad for Petri Prest camera by A.Sek in 1962 (Chinese Students Weekly, 1962-8-24)
In 1948, A. Sek was back to one location at 26A Des Voeux Road Central (Telephone Directory of HK and Kowloon). In the 1950s, the firm was distributor of mostly American photographic products such as Kodak photographic products, Victor lighting equipment, View-Master 3D products, Da-Lite projection screens, “Rainbow” prism binoculars and Nikor stainless steel developing tanks as shown in the negative wallet above.
In September 1961, A. Sek celebrated its 40th anniversary at a cocktail reception at its new and expanded space on Des Voeux Road. The firm was described as “the oldest and largest firm in the camera business in HK”. (KSEN, 1961-9-1)
Assisted by his sons and sales manager Robert Tsui (徐慶堂, an accomplished photographer who was vice president of the HK Photographic Society), A. Sek began to expand in the mid-1960s and opened its first branch in the new HK Hilton in 1963 followed by a second branch on the ground floor of Union House in Central in 1964. (KSDN, 1964-5-4) As the master distributorship of most American and European photographic products were handled by the manufacturers themselves (e.g. Kodak) or large European trading firms (e.g. Jardines), A.Sek became interested in Japanese products and became the Southeast Asian exclusive distributor of Petri cameras, manufactured by Kurabayashi Camera Industry (founded in 1907, renamed Petri Camera Ltd in 1962). In 1960, Shum received the president and head of sales for Kurabayashi Camera Industry in HK. (KSDN, 1960-3-3) In November 1961, Shum Ming-hin and Robert Tsui flew to Japan for a week-long trip during which they visited Petri and other manufacturers. (WKYP, 1961-11-18) To promote the Petri brand, A.Sek not only did print advertising but sponsored student photography competitions in partnership with Chinese Students Weekly with Petri cameras as top prizes. Unfortunately, Petri was unable to compete in the marketplace and went bankrupt in 1977 although as a brand it continued into the 1980s before fading into history.
In addition to A.Sek, Shum was also director of the German trading firm Carlowitz & Co, which was the agent for German optical giant Zeiss and was run by Johannes Lindner after the War. Outside of business, Shum was director of Tung Wah Hospital in 1949-50 and had served as president of the Shun Tak Fraternal Association and chairman of the Shun Tak Chamber of Commerce.
By the mid-1960s, A. Sek had moved its head office from Des Voeux Road Central to the Fu House at 7C Ice House Street in Central while maintaining its branches at the HK Hilton and the Union House. (Fodor’s Guide to HK).
Ad about A. Sek & Co’s relocation to Fu House in 1966 (WKYP, 1966-12-11)
In 1969, Shum’s wife Ho Suk-ying (何淑英) died at the age of 81. (WKYP, 1969-5-26) In June 1974, Shum Ming-hin himself died at the HK Sanatorium at the age of 84 (possibly three years were added based on Chinese customs as he was listed as 47 years old in his bio in 1941). (WKYP, 1974-6-28) He was survived by his concubine Lun Yim-king, three sons and six daughters. His eldest and second son worked at A. Sek while it is unclear if the third son Shum Kai-yung (岑啟勇) did. The eldest son Sum Kai-yan (岑啟仁) studied in France before the War before returning to HK to join the family business. The second son Shum Kai-chi (岑啟智) went to St. Stephen’s in HK and studied textiles at an industrial institute in Australia before returning to HK to join the family business and married teacher Chow Suk-ling (周淑鈴) in 1961 at a ceremony at the State Restaurant at the Li Po Chun Chambers that was attended by over 1000 guests. (WKYP, 1961-3-31). Shum Min-hin’s daughter Wai-kwan married Yuen Kang-chuen which will be covered in the next section while another daughter Wai-mei married Lun Man-cheong (倫孟翔), the proprietor of Man Cheong Leather Co. (萬昌皮革)
In 1987, A. Sek’s address was listed on the first floor of Chiu Lung Building at 15 Chiu Lung Street with Shum Kai-yan as manager. (Business Directory of Hong Kong) Chiu Lung Street has an interesting connection in the history of photography in HK as it was named after Chiu Lung Tai, the Chinese name of A. Tack & Company, one of the earliest distributors of photographic equipment and supplies in HK founded by Au Tack, best known for being the developer of the Kai Tack housing development in Hong Kong which later became the Kai Tak Airport alongside Sir Kai Ho Kai. (for his bio, see the entry written by the author in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography published by HKU Press)
As a firm, A. Sek & Co was incorporated in 1969 and dissolved in 1996.
Yuen Kang-chuen (袁鏡泉) and Wing Group (永記集團)
Yuen Kang-chuen and his wife Shum Wai-kwan at the Kai Tak airport before their trip to Japan for business and vacation in 1960 (WKYP, 1960-8-15)
The son of educator Yuen Chun-ying (袁俊英, he founded and ran a secondary school in Wanchai before his death in 1985) and brother in law of the recently deceased “king of cultured pearls” Leung Sik-wah (梁適華, 1930-2019, husband of Yuen So-har 袁素霞), Yuen Kang-chuen was born in 1923 and was in his final year at King’s College when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong in 1941. (WKYP, 1986-8-8) During the Japanese occupation, he worked as a hawker, a pedicab driver and a firefighter. After the War, he taught English and physical education at his father’s school and worked as a translator for the police. He married Shum Wai-kwan (岑慧錕), the fifth of six daughters of camera mogul Shum Ming-hin and joined A.Sek & Co in 1947. As he didn’t know anything about cameras, he spent 240 out of his 300 dollars in monthly salary to study under the photographer Peter Lung (龍彼得) and mastered photography within two years. In 1958, he was recruited by the British trading firm Gilman to the head up its camera department.
In 1957, Asahi Optical of Japan introduced Pentax, a 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera. The low cost yet technically innovative camera became an international bestseller that defined the category. Yuen secured the HK distributorship of Pentax for Gilman and through dedication and savvy marketing, turned Pentax into one of the top brands of cameras in HK in the 1960s and the monthly sales of Gilman’s camera business also went from $10000 to $1 million, a hundredfold increase under his leadership. The marketing initiatives over the years included print ads, photography competitions, lucky draws, photography clubs and even outdoor advertising in the form of a Pentax yacht and a racehorse with a Chinese name sounding similar to Pentax (奔得). In fact, Yuen was so identified with the brand that he was better known as “Pentax Yuen” (賓得袁) and even adopted “YUENBUNTAK” (Pentax Yuen in Chinese) for his cable address. Yuen was involved with many industry groups and was president of the HK Photographic Merchants Association and the Photographic Society of Hong Kong and honorary life president of the HK Optometric Association which he helped to acquire its venue in 1975.
Chinese ad for Pentax SV cameras in 1963 by Gilman when Yuen was in charge of its camera department (WKYP, 1963-8-27)
In March 1969, Yuen opened Asahi Photographic Supplies (賓得攝影器材公司, although as a firm it was not incorporated until 1978), which assumed the Pentax agency in HK from Gilman, and Pentax Camera Club (賓得攝影學會) at 712-715 Star House in Tsim Sha Tsui. The opening ceremony was attended by representative of the president of Asahi Optical and the who’s who in the camera business including Yuen’s brother in law Shum Kai-chi, S.P. Ko from Asia Photo Supply and famous photographers such as Kan Hing-fook (簡慶福), Ko Lau-tong (高柳堂,brother of CGCC chairman Ko Cheuk-hung), Francis C.K. Wu (吴章建) and Chan Fook-lai (陳復禮) and featured fashion models. (KSDN, 1969-3-2)
In 1973, Asahi decided to set up an assembly plant in HK to assemble Asahi cameras and accessories for the Southeast Asian market and Asahi Optical (International) Ltd was incorporated with Yuen as advisor. (Far Eastern Economic Review)
Left: Yuen Kang-chuen with pageant queen Lee Kwan-yee (李坤儀) in 1969 (KSEN, 1969-5-9); Right: Yuen Kang-chuen launching the Pentax yacht in Ap Lei Chau in 1972
By the early 1970s, profits from Pentax and the support of his eldest son Nelson Yuen Wing-hung (袁永雄) enabled Yuen to diversify into other businesses and the Wing Group Co Ltd was incorporated in 1974. A graduate of Baylor University in Texas and Springfield College in Massachusetts with degrees in psychology, Yuen Wing-hung was director of various companies within the Wing Group and director of Po Leung Kuk by the time he married his schoolmate Luk Po-wah (陸寶華) who was Far East trade representative of the state of Illinois in 1979. (KSEN, 1979-6-16)
Yuen Kang-chuen (center) with starlets at the opening ceremony of Win Tax Commodities’ new head office in Wanchai in 1977 (KSEN, 1977-6-25)
Two of the first businesses the Yuens entered into outside of cameras were commodities trading and computers through Win Tax Commodities (永得商品期貨) and Wing Group Computer (永記電腦), both of which were incorporated in 1972. That same year, Asahi Photographic Supplies also became the distributor of HK Antenna, the manufacturer of antennas profiled earlier in the article about S.C. Loh.
In 1973, the Yuens established Warren Printing (華聯印刷), which operated out of Cheung Hing Industrial Building on Smithfield Road and printed many books over the years.
In 1975, the Yuens incorporated Winner Optics (永勝眼鏡) to distribute glasses. In 1977, Winner was appointed the exclusive distributor of German optical brand 3C in Southeast Asia and at the signing ceremony with 3C president Waedlich at the Ocean Palace restaurant & nightclub at Ocean Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, the 3C collection of high-end glasses was showcased including a pair of glasses made of 18K gold with diamonds which cost over HK$90000. (KSDN, 1977-5-1)
Yuen Kang-chuen (left) with Casio president and cofounder Kazuo Kashio at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Casio Expo in HK in 1979 (KSEN, 1979-9-14); Right: Yuen Kang-chuen with actress Meg Lam Kin-ming at the lucky draw for Casio calculators in 1977.
The most significant new business the Yuens entered into the 1970s however was the distribution of watches and calculators made by Casio Computer Co Ltd. (金石電腦), who appointed Yuen as their distributor in 1976. Founded in 1946 by the Kashio brothers, Casio (which is the Anglicization of the surname Kashio) introduced the world’s first entirely electric compact calculator in 1957 and by the 1970s, its digital watches and electric calculators had become very popular globally. At first Casio was distributed in HK by the Casio department of Asahi Photographic Supplies, but in January 1977, the business was significant enough to be spun off as a separate company known as Casio Trading Co (金石貿易), although it was never incorporated. (KSEN, 1976-12-29) In 1979, Casio Trading organized a large-scale Casio Expo in HK which was attended by Casio president Kazuo Kashio (慳尾和雄). Yuen also created one of the largest advertising signs in HK for Casio to promote the brand. Thanks to the success of Casio watches, K.C. Yuen was elected chairman of the Federation of HK Watch Trades and Industries in 1980-81.
When China began market reforms in late 1970s, K.C. Yuen was one of the first HK businessmen to head north for opportunities. In January 1980, Wing Group established its China trade department and Casio Trading opened the first repair and service center for Casio calculators in China in Guangzhou with the support of the local state-owned trading and service firms. (WKYP, 1980-1-4) He was also appointed by the Canton Industrial Commercial Agricultural (CICA) Major Products Fair as their representative to conduct seminars in US cities such as Chicago to recruit American companies to enter the Chinese market. (Business America)
In 1980, Yuen as chairman of the HK Photographic Merchants Association talked about the changing dynamics of the HK camera market, which had gone from 90% driven by visiting tourists and only 10% local sales to 60% tourists and 40% locals with the local market continued to rise as increasingly affluent Hong Kong residents began to go on overseas tours which drove the purchase of cameras. (HK Economic Yearbook)
Left: K.C. Yuen cutting the ribbon for the Casio repair center in Guangzhou in 1980; Right: wedding picture of Yuen Wing-hung in 1979 (WKYP, 1979-6-17)
In February 1981, Wing Group moved to its new head office at the Eldex Industrial Building on Ma Tau Wai Road and at the opening ceremony, Yuen Kang-chuen announced that Wing Group had been appointed HK and Macau distributor for Unisef audio visual equipment and Sord computers (founded in 1970, acquired by Toshiba in 1985) from Japan. (TKP, 1981-2-28) In May of the same year, Wing Group installed 20 Sord computers at its office and began offering computer classes to business professionals and anyone with Form 3 education and above. (KSEN, 1981-5-27)
In March 1983, Wing Group held a special exhibition of all the products it represented at the City Hall in Central, including the first 35mm single lens camera made by Pentax in 1953 and other vintage cameras, Unisef hifis, Sord computers, Casio watches and others. (TKP, 1983-3-4)
In 1984, Wing Group won the contract from Far Eastern Economic Review to build a regional computer network which comprised of a Sord M342 mainframe at the HK regional head office and over 30 M23P terminals at regional offices with UCSD-P programming language to enable quick transmission of financial data and business news across the region. (WKYP, 1984-1-25)
For whatever reason, Pentax and Casio’s relationship with Wing Group did not last. In 1986, Pentax appointed Jebsen & Co as the sole distributor of its photographic products in HK and Macau and in 1995, Jebsen also became the distributor of Casio in HK and introduced the first Casio digital cameras to the HK market the same year.
With the loss of the two major agencies, the various Wing Group companies were dissolved one by one in the 1990s: Wing Group Computers and Winner Optics in 1991, Asahi Photographic Supplies, Win Tax Commodities and Warren Printing in 1996 and finally Wing Group Ltd. in 2001.
Sources (other than those cited above):
This article was first posted in 13th March 2020.
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Great informative article. I want to thank you for it.