Joe Law (羅祖耀, 1922-2015) – HK Plastic and Toy Industry Pioneer
York Lo: Joe Law (1922-2015) – HK Plastic and Toy Industry Pioneer
Ignatius Joseph Law Cho-Yiu (羅祖耀, 1922-2015), aka Joe Law, was one of the founding fathers of the plastic and toy industry in Hong Kong. His involvement in plastic spanned six decades in products ranging from plastic flowers and toys to Christmas novelties and L.E.D. lighting. Along the way, Law lost a fortune and rebuilt one, helped to put the HK plastic and toy industry on the global map through partnerships with leading American toy companies such as Cragstan and Kenner and by representing HK in trade fairs around the world dating back to the 1950s. He was also a pioneer in moving production up north in the early 1980s and setting the standard for improving conditions for factory workers.
The Wacky Days of Vanda and Cragstan
Son of the prominent preacher Law Yin Bun (羅彥彬, 1893-1965), who had worked for the Chinese Rhenish Church in Hong Kong for over half a century, Joe Law started out in trading. His name was first attached to K.C. Tsang & Co, an import export agent founded by Tsang Kam-chuen discussed briefly in this group earlier. Soon he struck out on his own and founded the trading firm of Joseph & Co, which quickly made in the name of the nascent field of plastics, dealing in toys and artificial flowers. By the late 1950s, Joe Law was active in the international trade show circuit representing HK’s plastics and toy industry and was a key member of trade delegations to the US and Australia led by Dhun Ruttonjee, the leading Indian businessman and legislator.
The young Joe Law (fourth from the right) as part of HK delegation to Australia trade fair in 1959. Other delegates include the textile tycoon Cha Chi-ming (first from left), J.S. Lee of the Lee Hysan family (third from right) and Mr & Mrs Dhun Ruttonjee (first and second from right) Source: 華僑日報, 1959-02-22
In 1963, Law established Vanda Industrial Development Corporation (敏達實業) to go into toy manufacturing. The key strategic client of Vanda was Cragstan, a leading American toy importer at the time was founded by Frank Stanton (1921-1999), a NYU graduate and WWII veteran who made his first fortune exporting sugar from Morocco and importing German cars such as Volkswagen and Audi into America. After selling a batch of cheap Japanese toys in the US for a huge profit, Stanton went into the toy business by establishing Cragstan and started sourcing toys from Japan and HK in the early 1950s. Vanda manufactured the ”Wacky” series of mechanical toys for Cragstan, which was very popular in the 1960s. The successful partnership with Cragstan and credit from banks enabled Vanda to construct its own 11 story Vanda Industrial Building at 25 Cheong Yip Street in Kwun Tong with production space of 220,000 square feet and over 1000 workers. In October 1965, a fire damaged the 9th floor of the factory but fortunately no one was injured.
Cragstan founder Frank Stanton (left) inspecting the HK assembly line of his Playtape venture with Irv Stimler of MGM Records in 1967. (Source: Billboard)
According to Steve Geller, who ran Cragstan’s Asia business, Vanda was the most modernized manufacturer in the Far East with its own engineering design and quality management departments. In 1966, Cragstan and Joe Law deepened their partnership by forming N.G.S. (Hong Kong) Limited (renamed Playfun in 1968). In 1968, Cragstan/Vanda was one of six toy manufacturers that were part of Hong Kong’s first delegation at the Nuremberg Toy Fair.
Left and center: Wacky Mice & Cheese made by Vanda for Cragstan (Source: Etsy) Right: Key for a Cragstan’s Wacky wind-up toy with Vanda’s name on it.
Unfortunately, the two institutions which fueled Vanda’s success in the early-mid 1960s – the banks and Cragstan, turned against it in 1968. In 1966, Cragstan’s boss Frank Stanton became obsessed with a new 2 track portable record player called Playtape (which he had manufactured in Hong Kong) and over time became less interested in toys. (Side note: The Playtape venture closed in 1976 and Stanton then tried videotape players with Cartrivision which also failed but found success as a real estate developer in Manhattan later in life) When the slowdown in the Cragstan business negatively impacted Vanda’s cashflow, the impatient bankers took over Vanda in December 1968, causing over 1000 workers to lose their jobs and the Vanda building was auctioned off at a low price to fellow toy manufacturer Perfekta.
Empire Strikes Back with Smile Industries
In the aftermath of Vanda’s collapse, the almost 50 year old Joe Law remained resilient and founded Smile Industries (堅達實業) in 1971. He had difficulty raising money from the banks at first but with his solid reputation within the global toy industry, he managed to secure letters of credit and orders from leading American toy companies such as Kenner (a division of General Mills). It was Kenner who helped put Joe Law back on the map, with the Star Wars action figure franchise. In 1977, Kenner’s CEO Bernie Loomis (1923-2006), the toy marketer credited with inventing the Saturday morning cartoon phenomenon in America, realized the potential of the new movie that was Star Wars and secured the rights to manufacture related toys without much competition. Since Smile did a good job with Kenner’s toys related to the TV show Six Million Dollar Man, Kenner hired Smile to handle the manufacturing of all the Star Wars action figures, which were flying off the shelves globally with the phenomenal success of the movie.
Star Wars director George Lucas (left) and producer Gary Kurtz (right) with Kenner’s president Bernie Loomis (center) in 1977. (Source: kennercollector.com)
When the sequel to Star Wars – Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, Joe Law experienced capacity issues trying to make 500,000 capes for the Yoda figure in HK. This prompted him to establish his first factory in Dongguan where there were no shortage of labor and thanks to his emphasis on quality (e.g. his plant had its own fire engine and the food of its canteen was allegedly better quality than that of hotels in the area), his factory became the model operation for foreign buyers and government dignitaries such as Deng Xiaoping’s son to visit. Over the next decades, Smile manufactured millions of action figures for the Star Wars franchise and Joe Law actually regretted that he didn’t keep some of the early figures as they are now highly valuable in the collector’s market. In 1990, Smile Industries built Smile Centre on 10-12 On Chuen Street in Fanling.
Law had served as chairman of HK & Kowloon Plastic Products Merchants United Association and remained active in the industry in his later years. He died in HK on July 3, 2015 at the age of 93 and was survived by Loretta Sau-Ying Yeung (楊秀英), his wife of 69 years and a director of Smile Industries, 4 sons (Dennis, Ronald, Christopher and Jeremy – all doctors), 7 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. He was buried in Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. Outside of medicine, his 4 sons are passionate about show business, having produced the US$35 million martial arts fantasy film Warriors of Virtue that was distributed by MGM in 1997 (and wHICH Smile made 1 million toys for) and through Four Brothers Entertainment which acquired the Centre for Performing Arts in Vancouver in 2001.
- Sarah Monks, Toy Town
- Kung Sheung Daily News, 1965-10-22
- Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1968-12-4
- “The Men behind the Machine” Billboard Sep 23, 1967
This article was first posted on 11th September 2017.
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