Canton Brothers Rubber Co (廣東兄弟樹膠) – China’s and HK’s First Manufacturer of Rubber Shoes

York Lo: Canton Brothers Rubber Co (廣東兄弟樹膠) – China’s and HK’s First Manufacturer of Rubber Shoes

Canton Brothers Rubber Company Image 1 York Lo

Left: Canton Bros poster, likely from the 1930s; Right: Canton Brothers Rubber ad in HK in 1941 (A Century of Commerce)

Founded in Canton in 1919, Canton Brothers Rubber Co was the first rubber shoe manufacturer in China and opened its factory in Hong Kong in 1923, making it also the first rubber shoe manufacturer in Hong Kong, earlier than many of the pioneers covered in the group such as Fung Keong. The firm collapsed in 1935 but re-emerged and operated after the War until the 1980s with the support of the British trading firm Davie Boag.

Founding of a Firm and an Industry: 1919-1935

Canton Brothers was founded by Tang Fung-chi (鄧鳳墀) and his sons in Canton and hence its name. A native of Nanji in Canton, Fung-chi was a lumber merchant who ran the lumber firm of Hang Cheung Shing (恒昌盛木材店) in Canton. He had a dozen children, four of whom ventured abroad to Annam, Canada and Singapore including his ninth son Tang Siu-pang (鄧兆鵬), who went to Singapore with his godfather Chan Yuk-po (陳玉波). Chan was a dentist who had dealt with rubber denturesand he and Siu-pang learned how to make rubber products by experimentingwith rubber materials obtained from a rubber tire repair shop ran by a Frenchman across the street from their dental clinic in Singapore. At the time, shoes in China were either made from leather which was too expensive and cloth which did not work well in wet weather. Chan and Siu-pang convinced Fung-chi to start a factory in Canton to manufacture rubber sole shoes which was a more affordable alternative to leather and more durable alternative to cloth. Sensing a business opportunity and inspired by the wave of industrial patriotism at the time, Fung-chi provided the necessary capital and also asked his sons to return to help Siu-pang and Chan who were in charge of R&D to set up Canton Bros in the Honam district of Canton with steam machinery.

Shortly after the factory opened, an explosion took place which injured some workers and the factory had to relocate. Nevertheless, the firm’s shoes which were marketed under the “Double Flying Swords” brand with the marketing tagline of “China’s First” were flying off the shelves of the Chinese department stores in Canton such as True Light, Sincere and The Sun and distributors had to line up every day outside of the factory to wait for a bamboo plaque which specified how many pairs of shoes they could buy. The factory soon grew from 20-30 workers to over 150 workers and it sourced its rubber from Kinghai in Hainan island.

In 1922, Chan decided to set up his own factory and the Tang family bought out his shares in Canton Bros and brought in a family friend Leung Choi-nam (梁采南) as an investor. (Chan’s factory which called itself “China’s Largest” eventually failed a decade later in 1933) The success of Canton Bros also attracted unwanted attentions and Tang Fung-chi was detained by a labor union leader in Canton and only released after paying a huge ransom. After that episode, he sold the Canton plant to shoe store owner Mok Yin-hing (莫彥卿), who renamed it Cooperation Rubber Factory (合作膠廠) and decided to move with his family to HK in 1923 where he established a branch factory at 117 Nan Chang Street in Sham Shui Po with his fifth son Tang Siu-shu (鄧兆樞, also styled as “T.S. Su”, “Tang S. Sue” or “Tang S. Shur”), who had worked at the Dunlop rubber factory in Toronto, Canada for several years as manager supported by his second son Tang Siu-cheung (鄧兆璋) as assistant manager.The next year, Tang Fung-chi and Siu-pang and Siu-shu went to Japan and upon their return started production of rubber sole canvas shoes.

In 1927, Tang Fung-chi sent his third son Tang Siu-chun (鄧兆珍) to Shanghai with 40-50 skilled workers to start a new plant at a 400 square meter site in Yangshupu with initial production of 300-400 dozen pairs. Their products sold well and within two years, they moved to a three-story building owned by an American trading firm and expanded its workforce to 500-600 people with daily production of 2000-3000 dozen. Part of the firm’s success was attributable to the low prices of its rubber shoes, which was half that of imported shoes from Singapore and the West(e.g. in 1935, a pair of Canton Bros shoes wer priced from 40 cents to $1.20 a pair compare to over $2 for American ones according to China Journal) and was popular with students. Product innovation was another key factor for success and Siu-chun allegedly came up with the first female rubber shoes in the Chinese market which sold very well.At its peak, the Shanghai plant with Siu-chun as manager, Siu-pang as chief engineer and Leung Choi-nam’s son Oi-chun as factory manager employed over 1000 workers, second only to Great China Rubber Factory and its outputs were sold throughout China.

In 1931, Canton Bros registered its “TTT” (likely a reference to the Tang brothers who ran the firm) and “Double Flying Swords” trademarks in the Straits Settlement and Federated Malay States as it continued its expansion into the Singapore and Malay markets as shown in the legal notice below.

In 1932, Canton Bros took over a new concrete building at 216 Hai Tan Street at the corner of Hai Tan and Keelung Street in Sham Shui Po in HK as its new plant. At the time, the HK plant employed about 400 workers and shipped its products to South Africa, the Americas, Europe, the Straits Settlement, Siam, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines and steps were being taken to extend to Australia and New Zealand. The factory primarily produced rubber soled and heeled shoes for every kind of sports but also made other classes of rubber goods at a smaller scale. Tang expressed to the press the interest to expand into the production of rubber tires which would likely start at the Shanghai plant. (Singapore Free Press, 1932-9-7)

In 1933, Canton Bros promoted the Brothers shoes heavily at the National Games in Nanking with a promotional pamphlet designed by the famous film director Cai Chusheng (蔡楚生) and featuring the popular actress Wang Renmei (王人美) andbought up all the billboards in the stadium to display its name prominently.

Collapse and Rebirth: 1935-1984

Canton Brothers Rubber Company Image 2 York Lo

Left: Legal notice of the registration of the TTT trademark by Canton Bros in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States in 1931 (Straits Times, 1931-11-25); Right: Canton Bros ad which touted itself being the first rubber shoe factory in China  

Despite of its marketing success, Canton Bros was dependent on foreign firms for its raw materials and troubles began in 1935 when a Japanese supplier sued to get paid which triggered an avalanche of problems starting with its warehouses being seized which prohibited the firm to sell its inventory to generate cashflow to pay its staff and banks.In March 1935, Asiatic Petroleum filed a lawsuit against Canton Bros in HK to recoup the HK$7554 it was owed. At the time, Canton Bros HK’s liabilities exceeded HK$600,000 while its assets were only $60000. As a result, the Court declared Canton Bros HK bankrupt despite the objections of its 11 shareholders.  (KSDN, 1935-3-5)

In April 1935, the creditors met to discuss what to do with Canton Bros and reached the consensus that they were better off with the formation of a new company to assume the operations of Canton Bros in HK than to liquidate as the latter option would result in them receiving less than 15 cents on the dollar. The proposal was for cash creditors before 1933 to receive 25% of what they were owed in the form of the new firm’s shares while cash creditors after 1933 will receive 75% while creditors who had provided the firm goods and materials will receive 75% in the new company and 25% in cash. (KSDN, 1935-6-11) As a result, Canton Brothers Rubber (1935) Ltd was formed in June 1935 with Tang Siu-shu in charge.

In November 1935, several hundred workers surrounded the law office of Johnson Stokes & Master on Ice House Street in Central over owed salaries by Canton Bros and police were called in to maintain order. (Tin Kwong Po, 1935-11-1) Nevertheless, Canton Bros survived the war and continued to manufacture rubber boots, canvas shoes and uppers in the 1950s out of its factory in Hai Tan Street in Sham Shui Po.  (CMA Directory, A Handbook of HK Industry, 1958) It was regarded as one of the top five firms in the industry in the early 1950s alongside Fung Keong, Continental, Hong Kong and Wah Keung (first two covered earlier, last two perhaps to be covered later). (An Economic Survey of the Colonial Economies, 1951)

The British trading firm Davie Boag bought a minority stake in the firm and as a result, its chief John Mackenzie (covered earlier in the article about Harbour Engineering) served on its board in the 1960s. Canton Brothers dropped rubber and 1935 from its name in 1965 and was dissolved in 1984.

Sources:

邓仲仁:《中国第一家胶厂——广东兄弟树胶公司》,《广州工商经济史料》

Essay written by Tang Chung-yan, who was the son of Tang Siu-cheung.

http://www.gzzxws.gov.cn/gxsl/bngy/gy/201707/t20170725_40988.htm

http://59.41.8.205/gzws/gzws/fl/gs/200809/t20080916_8011.htm

http://www.shtong.gov.cn/Newsite/node2/node82538/node84436/node84441/node84443/node84445/userobject1ai86747.html

This article was first posted on 11th June 2021.

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  3. Hong Kong Rubber Manufactory Ltd, newspaper article 1936
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