Key Players in the Public Cars Business (紅牌車) in the early 1970s – Chuen Lee, Fraternity, PCRC, United and Wing Lee  

Earlier on the website, we profiled the major taxicab companies in HK from the 1920s to the 1960s. The late 1960s saw the dissolution of the large taxicab companies and the emergence of driver-owned taxis driven by regulatory changes and the proliferation of transportation vehicles such as minibuses and unlicensed cabs (also known as “white plate cars”) to meet the excess transportation demand of the growing population and in the early 1970s, a category of hire cars known as “public cars” were popular on the roads of HK with numbers rivaling that of taxis as the pricing (usually fixed and cheaper since its fare was not regulated) and the quality of their drivers, cars (usually air conditioned while not all cabs had that back then) and services (usually available at longer hours) tended to be better than taxis. A distant ancestor of Uber, public cars could only be hired by calling radio centers and were not allowed to ply for passengers on the streets or in taxi stands the same fashion as taxis (public cars which operated illegally as taxis had their licenses revoked or were fined). They also did not have pricing meters and taxi light on the roof but were differentiated by red color license plates with white fonts (which is why they were also known as “red plate cars”) and the large players painted their fleets a certain color with logos on the car doors. The government issued licenses for public cars to restrict its growth but nevertheless the number of registered public cars in HK went from 846 in 1970 to in 1055 in 1972 to 1322 in 1976 and were carrying 47000 passengers daily.   

In 1976, the HK government decided to replace public cars and allowed them to be converted to taxis at a conversion premium of HK$75000 each. In total, 1805 public cars were converted to taxis and some of these public cars operators were converted to radio taxis associations. Below are the profiles of five major operators of public cars during this period in alphabetical order:

Chuen Lee Public Cars Radio Centre (全利電召汽車中心)

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Ad for Chuen Lee in 1976 (HK Scout fundraising program)

Chue Lee Public Cars Radio Centre was incorporated in January 1972 and had a fleet of over 80 public cars. Its chairman was Chow Ka-chuen (周家全) which is presumably whom the firm was named after although little info is available about him. As a firm, Chuen Lee Public Cars was dissolved in 1993 but it was likely succeeded by Chuen Lee Radio Taxi Association (全利電召的士聯會) which was incorporated in 1977 after the legislation permitting conversion of public cars to taxis came into effect.

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Article about Chuen Lee Public Cars raisin $7600 during their 2-day charity fundraiser for the rain disaster relief in June 1972 (WKYP, 1972)

Fraternity Public Car Radio Centre (友聯公共客車電召中心)

Frat (2)

Article and picture of the 1st anniversary reception of Fraternity Public Car Radio Centre in 1973 (WKYP, 1973-3-15)

Founded in 1972, Fraternity Public Car Radio Centre was one of the leading public car operators in the 1970s. According to the article above, by its first anniversary in 1973 the firm had 120 public cars with plans to increase to 200 based on strong demand and wider adoption of the vehicle type by the general public. Walter Sulke of Mercedes distributor Zung Fu (see article) was chairman of Fraternity and because of his political involvement, Fraternity’s 1st anniversary cocktail reception held at Lee Garden Hotel was attended by well-known politicians such as Brook Bernacchi, Elsie Tu and Henry Hu in addition to industry peers such as Augustine Chung and representatives from Zung Fu and Nissan distributor Honest Motors. Not much info is available about the firm after that and as a firm, Fraternity was dissolved in 2019.

Public Car Radio Centre (紅牌車無線電召中心)

Tse Kai Tong (2)

Left: PCRC founder Joseph K. Tse and his wife Diana in the 1970s (WKYP, 1972-7-7); Right: PCRC director Tse Kai-tong in the 1980s (WKYP, 1983-6-5)

Founded in 1970 and had a fleet of over 210 cars, Public Car Radio Centre (hereafter refer to as PCRC) was the one of the first and largest public car operators in HK.

A native of Dongguan in Guangdong province and son of restauranteur Tse Hoi-fai (謝海輝), PCRC founder Joseph Tse Kai-chow (謝繼洲, 1927-2001) had at least two brothers – Kenneth Tse Kai-on (謝繼安) who was a dentist in Los Angeles and Tse Kai-tong (謝繼棠), who served on the board of PCRC and the Pok Oi Hospital and taught economics in HK and Macau after earning his Ph.D. from Japan.

Joseph was the HK lightweight boxing champion in 1948 and won the HK-Canton-Shanghai lightweight boxing title in his youth. He went to Wah Luen College in HK and studied economics in Los Angeles and worked as a legal clerk before began his involvement in the transportation business in the early 1950s and over time became the proprietor of Asia Taxicab Co (亞洲的士公司), Asia Minibus Co (亞洲小型巴士公司), Asia Public Car Co (亞洲紅牌車公司) and New Island Public Car Co (新洲紅牌車公司).

As taxis were regulated by the Police department until the late 1960s, Tse was friendly with many police sergeants, as evidenced by the fact that a group of former police sergeants threw a banquet in his honor in HK when he returned from the US for a visit in 1989. (WKYP, 1989-6-30) When the government attempted to revoke the licenses of all public cars in 1969, Tse led the formation of the Public Car Association and convinced the government of Sir David Trench to keep the system. With the advent of radio technology, he launched PCRC the next year as the first public car radio centre serving the urban districts of Hong Kong. After three months of rigorous tests, PCRC secured long term contract to provide public car services to the 23 barracks of the British Army in HK.

In June 1972, PCRC participated in the industry wide fundraising drive to benefit victims of the severe rainstorm that month and raised HK$19000. Tse’s wife Diana Tse (李黛男) also organized over 100 minibuses on routes from Jordan Road to Kwun Tong to support the drive and raised an additional $15000. (WKYP, 1972-7-7)

By 1973, there were 15 public car companies in HK, up from 2 three years before and Tse urged the government to build more bridges and parking spaces (at that time only 30000 parking spaces in HK for 200,000 cars) to ease the traffic and parking situation. (WKYP, 1973-9-26)

Outside of the public car business, Tse was very active in community affairs, having served as president of Lion Rock Lion Club (which his brother Kai-tong also did), honorary chairman of the Tsim Sha Tsui Kaifong Association, director and later overseas affairs committee member of the Kowloon Chamber of Commerce and supervisor of the Chew Lun Clansmen Association (fraternal organization for families with last name Tan, Tam, Tse and Hui).

By the 1980s, Joseph K. Tse had exited the transportation business in HK and immigrated to Los Angeles where he was involved in real estate and banking but returned frequently to HK for visits. After he passed away in 2001, his eldest son dentist Dr. Mario Tailee Tse (謝泰利) established the Joseph K. Tse Scholarship in Health Law at Loyola (where Mario received his D.D.S. in 1981) in his memory.

As a firm, PCRC was dissolved in 2000.

United Radio Car Service Centre (聯合公共客車無線電召服務中心)

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A United Centre public car (left) with close up on its logo (right)

Founded in May 1971, United Radio Car Service Centre (hereafter refer to as “United Centre”) claim to be the first public cars company in Hong Kong. Its managing director Ho Ying-kan (何英勤) had over two decades of private hire car experience prior to founding United and visited foreign markets such as Japan to learn about the latest trends in transportation. He was particularly keen on community service – having conducted three charity ride fundraisers in 1971-72 – first one a 3 days campaign in May 1971 for Community Chest, second one in February 1972 also for Community Chest which raised $12000 and third one in June 1972 which raised $11170 for the rain disaster relief organized by TVB.  

In 1972, the firm had 150 public cars (with plans to add another 50 within the year) and boasted about its extended hours from 7am to 2am and 6 telephone operators (one of its numbers was 64111). As a firm, United Centre was incorporated in February 1972 and dissolved in 2001.

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Article about United Centre’s charitable activities with picture of Ho Ying-kan in 1972 (WKYP, 1972-6-28)

Wing Lee Public Cars (榮利公共汽車公司)  

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Article and picture about the launch ceremony of Wing Lee Public Cars in February 1972. Left to right: district officer of Kowloon City, Cheung Kung-wing, likely Augustine Chung (WKYP, 1972-2-9)

Wing Lee was the largest of the three public car operators covered in this article with over 200 cars at launch and its founder Cheung Kung-wing (張恭榮, 1926-2005) was also a pioneer in paging service in HK and taxi and minibus service in New Territories.

A native of Tat-Ho in Swatow, Cheung Kung-wing was born and grew up in HK. His father was a Nam Pak Hong merchant while his older brother Cheung Kung-leung (張恭良, 1902-1995) was a medical graduate from HKU (MBBS, 1933) and a prominent Western doctor and venereal disease expert in Swatow and Hong Kong (registered to practice in 1932). When he was 15, his father passed away and his older brother sent him to Shanghai to further his studies. Unfortunately, his education was interrupted by the Japanese occupation and he moved inland where he worked as a waiter for the US air force in Kweilin and a KMT soldier in Hunan and was trained as a paratrooper in Kunming. After the War, he worked as a sailor for 2 years during which he was first exposed to radio communication. After he returned to HK, he was placed in charge of Leung Fong Medicine Company (良豐藥房), a pharmacy started by his older brother at 10 On Lan Street in Central while at night he studied telecommunications at a vocational school, graduating in 1948. Leung Fong made a lot of money shipping medical supplies to the mainland during the Korean War embargo in the early 1950s but incurred significant losses when one of its shipments was confiscated (as a firm it was incorporated in 1952 and dissolved in 1954). After the failure of the pharmacy business, he became a sailor again in 1955 working for an American firm during which he improved his English and telecommunications skills.   

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Left: A Lee On N.T. Taxi 9-seater minibus with black and white checkered stripes; right: Cheung Kung-wing in 1972 (WKYP, 1972-6-28)  

In 1959, Cheung Kung-wing returned to HK and joined the GM and Oldsmobile distributor Triangle Motors (acquired by Dah Chong Hong in 1962, to be covered). Started out as a security guard for its auto parts warehouse, he rose to become deputy sales manager by 1965 through hard work and being street smart. Having a front row seat to the exploding growth of transportation demand in HK, Cheung became a partner of Lee On N.T. Taxi Co (利安的士), which was formed in 1961 by Lee On (who somehow was endorsed by Earl Mountbatten of Burma in his application to the Police Commissioner, who had the authority to grant taxi licenses at the time) to provide taxicab service in the New Territories. By the mid-1960s, Lee On with Cheung as managing director had 36 nine-seater taxis (precursor of the 14-seat minibus today) and 12 four-seater taxis and Cheung served as chairman of the New Territories Taxi Association (新界的士商會) and the HK, Kowloon & N.T. Public Light Bus Association.  

With his background in telecommunications, Cheung was drawn to the concept of radio public cars and incorporated Wing Lee Public Cars in March 1971 and launched its service in February 1972 . He was supported at Wing Lee by director Augustine Chung Sai-kit (a high-profile lawyer in the transportation field and son in law of Buddhist leader and real estate developer Wong Wan-tin) and manager Fong Bing-sum. The firm had somewhere between 150 and 200 cars and their phone numbers were 317755, 307703 and 318855. Like its peers United and Chuen Lee, it participated in the charity ride fundraiser in June 1972 and raised over HK$16,000. There was also an effort to establish a trade organization for public cars operators in HK with Cheung taking the lead.

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Article about Cheung Kung-wing visiting Europe as chairman of Wing Lee Public Cars in 1973 (WKYP, 1973-9-30)

In 1974, Wing Lee Public Cars invested several millions HK dollars to establish Telecom Services Ltd (電訊服務有限公司), one of the first paging operators in Hong Kong and Macau. Allegedly Cheung Kung-wing developed his own pagers with the help of a Japanese friend and installed paging signal stations on the roof of 70 buildings across HK to build his initial network. With the assistance of his wife Pin Tsip-yan (卞接恩, former nurse) and their four sons – Alex Cheung King-shek (張敬石, MBA from University of Melbourne), Cheung King-shan (張敬山, studied in Canada), Bobby Cheung King-chuen (張敬川, studied in the UK) and Sunny Cheung King-fung (張敬峰, studied in the UK), Telecom Services became the fifth largest paging operator in HK by the early 1990s (behind Hutchison, ABC, Star and HKT) and evolved into the listed Telecom Digital Holdings (電訊數碼控股) which is currently one of the largest cellphone distributors in HK with over 70 outlets and over HK$1 billion in revenues. Wing Lee Public Cars is still a live company and business extended to bus services between HK and Shenzhen in the 1980s although transportation has become a smaller part of the family business relative to telecom and securities. Cheung Kung-wing and his older brother were big benefactors in their native Swatow while his four sons are also known for owning at least 6 racehorses with “Telecom” in its names.   

Sources:

Hall, Christopher. The Uncertain Hand: Hong Kong Taxis and Tenders, Chinese University Press, 1996

http://www.chaocn.com/new/ShowArticle.asp?ArticleID=701

華僑日報, 1968-05-30, 1975-2-6, 1970-7-29  

https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%9B%BB%E8%A8%8A%E6%95%B8%E7%A2%BC

http://www.chaoren.com/news/chaoqi/dao/2013-10-30/50328.html

This article was first posted on 15th April 2019.

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