Howah, Blue Heaven and BG: three key players in the post-war HK lighting industry
York Lo: Howah, Blue Heaven and BG: three key players in the post-war HK lighting industry
With the housing and hotel/restaurant boom in the 1960s and 1970s, lighting products such as lamps and chandeliers became a huge business in Hong Kong and like the wallpaper industry covered earlier in another article, majority of the products were imported from the US and Europe. This article covers three key players in the industry in the chronological order of inception:
Howah& Co (巧華洋行)
Left: Ad for Howah Lamps promoting FILPA models in 1963 (WKYP, 1963-3-26); Right: Howah ad in 1969 (HKGCC annual report, 1969)
Incorporated in 1946, Howah& Co was a general importer before shifting its focus to lighting and became the industry leader in the 1960s. The firm was closely associated with the department store giant Wing On & Co and operated out of the 3rd floor of the Wing On Bank Building at 26 Des Voeux Road Central in its first two decades. The general manager of the firm was Hop W. Yung (容洽垣, 1902-1975), who was married to Kwok Lai-kim (郭麗金), daughter of Wing On co-founder Kwok Kwai until her death in 1953. Of the 12 people listed as directors of the firm in the Business Directory of HK, Canton and Macao in 1949 (and the board in 1963 according to Hongkong $ Directory was the exact same group plus Swing Wu伍樹榮, manager of Wing On subsidiary Tonley& Co), 6 of them were related to the Kwok family of Wing On – Yung and his brother in law David Kwok (郭棣活), Philip Gockchin’s sons Lambert Kwok (郭琳弼) andLampo Kwok (郭琳褒) and son in law Chan Shu-kai and Alwin Yui Kwok (郭銳); three were related to three branches of the Li family of Bank of East Asia – Li Chok-lai (李作禮), Li Fook-woo (Li Tse-fong’s son) and Chow Hau-leung (general manager of China Emporium, Li Koon-chun’s son in law) and three others:William Eu Keng-yuet (余經鉞,see article on South China Tea), Lee Sai-wah (see article) and Lau Lim (劉濂,co-founder of Wellcome).
A 1953 ad of Howah showed that the firm was the agent in HK for a wide variety of European and American products ranging from electrical appliances such as fans (FASCO, US), radios (Cossor, UK), clocks (Sessions, US), cookers/ovens (GebrRuhstrat, Germany), cake mixers (Dormeyer, US) and waffle irons (Dominion Electric, US) to chemicals (Whiffen& Sons and Kemball Bishop, UK), baby prams (Richards Son &Allwin, UK), confectionery (Lemm, Holland), thermometers (Kaye, US), medical appliances (RudRiester), table glassware (Dema Glass, UK) and Pyrex glassware (Corning, US). The only lighting products it represented at the time were lighting fixtures from Philament Electric from the UK and ceiling lamps from Gill Glass & Fixtures from the US. In the 1960s, it was also the agent for Revell model airplanes and AMT models from the US.By the early 1960s however, the firm’s focus had shifted to lighting promoting itself as “Howah Lamps” (巧華燈飾), representing Italian brands such as FILPA and Lampadari and added a showroom in Kowloon at 1 Peace Avenue in Homantin.
Article and picture of Italian lighting at Howah& Co in 1963 (WKYP, 1963-3-24)
Hop W. Yung (first from the left) with winners of the Revell model airplane competition sponsored by Howah in 1967 (WKYP, 1967-1-22)
By the late 1960s, Howah had moved its head office and HK showroom from Central to the ground and second floor Sheung On Building at 80-82 Hennessy Road in Wanchai. (Hongkong $ Directory, 1968)The firm claimed to be the largest distributor of lighting fixtures in HK at the time representing over 40 famous manufacturers in Europe, America, Australia, Japan and Taiwan and had added two showrooms in Kowloon: 28-32 Hankow Road and 6 Pine Tree Hill Road in Tsimshatsui, bringing the total number of showrooms to four.
Ad for Howah in 1961 which claimed to be the largest distributor of lighting in HK(WKYP, 1961-4-15); Ad for Howah Lamps about its relocation from Gloucester Road to Hennessy Road in 1981 (KSDN, 1981-7-12)
In January 1975, Hop W. Yung passed away at the HK Sanatorium at the age of 73 and was survived by his second wife Lee Ching-han, 2 sons and 1 daughter. His pallbearers included his wife’s cousin Lambert Kwok, Wah KiuYat Po publisher Shum Choy-sang, Dr. Ma Chiu-kei and Overseas Trust Bank chairman Huang Tiong-chan. (WKYP, 1975-1-25)
In 1981, Howah relocated its office and showroom from Gloucester Road to 480-482 Hennessy Road as shown in above ad. The Kowloon showrooms were no longer listed at that point. In the late 1980s, Howah’s address was still on Hennessy Road (Business Directory of HK, 1987; Hongkong $ Directory, 1988) The firm is still a live company but no longer appears to be active in the lighting business.
Blue Heaven Lamps (藍天燈飾)
Founded in 1969, Blue Heaven Lamps was one of the first importers of European crystal lighting into Hong Kong and focused from the beginning on the high end and commercial segment of the market. Its founder Chan Wing (陳榮) has been involved in the lighting business since the 1950s and within a few year of its launch, the firm had secured the business for many major hotels and restaurants in HK and Macau including the Hotel Dragon Island (see article on Ching Chun-kau), Chuen Cheung Kui (see article on rattan players), Chui King Lau and Lisboa restaurant in Macau. The firm also sponsored the Hong Kong Festival organized by the government to boost morale after the 1967 riots and participated in a lighting competition in 1971 winning two of its top prizes. (WKYP, 1971-12-9) Its showroom was located at the ground floor of 26 Percival Street in Causeway Bay in the 1970s and 1980s. (XianggangShikuang, 1970; XianggangNianjian, 1988)
Left: Blue Heaven Lamps founder Chan Wing (right) and one of its chandeliers (left) in 1971 (WKYP, 1971-12-9); Right: Blue Heaven logo from a Chinese New Year commercial in HK. (YouTube)
Over time, the family of Chui Seng-yew (徐成堯) acquired the firm and the firm changed its English name to Blue Heaven Crystal Lighting in 1990 but kept the same Chinese name. Chui Seng-yew has served on the HK SAR Electrical Safety Advisory Committee from 2000 to 2002 and the HK SAR Electricity Appeal Board Panel from 2000 to 2003 and is a life president of the HK Electrical Contractors Association.
Blue Heaven began receiving orders from the mainland in 1994 and in 2000,Raymond Chui (徐耀邦) led the firm’s push into the mainland by opening its Shanghai office under the name of “Crystallize Me” (寶熙萊Bao Xi Lai in Chinese) as Blue Heaven was already registered by another company. Within 4 years, the firm opened 6 stores in the Shanghai area and in 2006, the firm expanded into crystal gifts and jewelry through the “jk-Blue” brand. In the 2010s, the firm secured many major crystal lighting and decoration contracts in Shanghai including Shangri-La, Ritz Carlton and Disneyland and launched the “Bao Gallery” and “Ray Living” chain of crystal shops.
BG Lighting (大志燈飾)
Founded in 1976, B G Lighting was one of the largest players in the lighting business in HK in the 1980s and 1990s before its collapse during the Asian financial crisis. Thanks to aggressive TV advertising and media sponsorships, the brand is etched in the memory of many HK consumers.
B G was founded by Samson P.S. Wong (黃伯森), who was formerly a stockbroker but decided to switch his career to lighting during the stock market slump of the mid-1970s. He was managing director of the firm while his wife Leung Yuet-ngor (梁月娥) served as chairperson. Based on the Chinese name of the firm, B G might stand for “Big Goals” and as explained by Wong to the press, he picked the two Chinese characters because when broken up the characters could also mean “one person + one heart” as he believed that an individual could achieve great things when he/she poured his/her heart into it.
Left: screenshot from BG Lighting’s TV commercial in 1990 promoting its 14th anniversary sale (Youtube); Right: BG Lighting founder Samson Wong showing reporters one of his chandeliers(Oriental Daily)
The first stores for B G were located on Hennessy Road in Wanchai and Houston Centreat 63 Mody Road in Tsim Sha Tsui East which was developed by E.Wah (see article) in 1981. B G specialized in modern European lighting fixtures and starting in 1980 held an annual European lighting expo at its store(s). In August 1984, B G held its fourth European lighting expo which was attended by the Austrian consulate-general, the Italian and French trade commissioners and Miss Hong Kong of that year – Joyce Godenzi (高麗虹). That year, the firm began exploring the mainland Chinese market and sent its staff to Shanghai. (TKP, 1984-8-3) The mid-1980s was challenging times for the HK lighting business in general as the real estate slump triggered by the handover confidence crisis resulted in 20% drop in business year over year in 1983 and 1984 and 20-30% of lighting shops went out of business. The business stabilized in 1985 with 5-10% increase and B G held its fifth European lighting expo at its TST store in July showcasing thousands of European lighting fixtures which were getting cheaper because of depreciating European currencies. (TKP, 1985-7-19)
In March 1986, B G held its sixth European lighting expo. As European currencies and USD appreciated, the firm raised its price on imported lamps by 15% in April. Wong projected to the press that the 30000-40000 new residential units being added that year should lift B G’s sales by 20% that year. The same year, B G began production of lighting fixtures starting with modern style lamps made from parts imported from Europe for sale in the local market. (TKP, 1986-3-4)
In March 1987, B G opened its third store and second branch on HK island in Taikoo Shing. (WKYP, 1987-3-30) In August 1987, B G organized its seventh European lighting expo which was attended by diplomats from the five European countries where B G primarily imported from – Italy (which represented 30% of the market), Austria, France, Germany and Spain. At the event, Samson Wong announced to the press that the firm did over HK$50 million in sales in the 1986/87 fiscal year which was a 20% increase from the prior year (5% faster than the industry growth) and announced that he planned to list the firm on the local exchange in 1-2 years to helpexpand its manufacturingbusiness and its retail network from 3 to 6 stores. According to Wong, European lighting products were 30-40% more expensive than its Japanese and Taiwanese counterparts but also superior in terms of design and quality although in terms of market share in HK, the two regional groups split the market as the demand for the latter was strong from the lower and middle market. (TKP, 1987-8-9)
In 1987, the lighting industry in HK grew by 15% partly thanks to the 36,000 new residential units that were added that yearbut profit margin for importers like B G was squeezed as cost of imports increased by 30% thanks to appreciation of European currencies against HK dollar. In January 1988, B G opened its fourth branch in a 2000 sq ft space on the ground floor of 524 Nathan Road. (WKYP and TKP, 1988-1-8)
By the early 1990s, B G Lighting was operating out of Unison Industrial Centre in Fotan with outlet on the ground floor of Block B2 and factory on the 14th floor of Block D in addition to its network of stores. (Member Directory, FHKI, 1993). It was the largest player in the industry with over HK$100 million in sales thanks to its aggressive discount (e.g. 28 days sale), constant TV ads and sponsorships of TV game shows and beauty pageants such as Miss Chinese International. In 1990, BG organized the first lighting design competition in Hong Kong with a panel of judges including thefamous graphic designer Kan Tai-keung (靳埭強), HKU architectural lecturer David Lung Ping-yee (龍炳頤), HK Polytechnic design lecturer Yanta Lam Hin-tong (林衍棠) and Liu Kwok-bond (廖國邦), manager of the FHKI’s Design & Packaging Centre. The top prize is $50000, second prize $20000 and third prize $10000 and all contestants need to use three materials – crystal, marble and glass. (WKYP, 1990-3-15)
Unfortunately, B G invested most of its profits into real estate in the boom years leading up to the 1997 handover and when the bubble burst during the Asian financial crisis, the firm went under and Wong declared personal bankruptcy in 2000.Wong stayed in the industry acting as a consultant for another lighting company for several years before launching the 4-story, 100,000 sq ft Wah Ha Furniture City (華廈家具城), the largest furniture store in Kwun Tong Harbor Plaza in 2003. Unfortunately, the ambitious venture failed within a year.
This article was first posted on 21st September 2020.
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