Kings of Denim – Chip Tak, Tai Fong and Kong Sun
York Lo: Kings of Denim – Chip Tak, Tai Fong and Kong Sun
Earlier on the website, we have covered many industries which are/were dominated by kinsmen from certain region (e.g. Hakkas from Hingning and the rattan industry, Shanghainese and the enamelware industry and Heshan natives and the printing industry) and the interesting case of four Filipino Chinese families from Chungshan with the last name Ma (see articles on the Three Kings of Biscuits and Ma Ping-san) who had established several leading companies in the biscuit and confectionary business in HK and beyond. As it turns out, three families with the last name Lau from the Shum Kai village (深溪) in the Chaoyang (潮陽) prefecture in Chiuchow (there are allegedly over 10,000 members of the Lau family from that village) also established three leading weaving factories in HK specializing in denim after the War – Chip Tak, Tai Fong and Kong Sun and their family members also started even bigger companies in related and other industries in HK and North America and are/were active in the HK political arena.
Chip Tak Weaving (捷德布廠)
Left: Chip Tak Weaving Factory Building in Kwai Chung which is being re-developed (PS). Right: Chip Tak factory in Shenzhen
Chip Tak was founded in 1946 by Lau Moon-ling (劉夢齡, 1901-1968), who also went by the alias of Lau Shou-chung (劉壽松) and was auditor of the HK Weaving Mills Association in 1958. The firm’s original factory was located at 210-212 Fuk Wa Street in Sham Shui Po (re-developed into Chip Tak Building 捷德樓 in 1976) while a branch factory was established in Lot 413-415 Castle Peak Road in Tsuen Wan. In the early 1960s, the firm began manufacturing denim fabrics and by the 1970s, another factory was built at 105-113 Tai Chuen Ping Street in Kwai Chung and the firm had over 400 looms.
Lau Moon-ling and his wife Hui Shun-kiu (1896-1983) had 5 sons and 1 daughter and after he died in 1968, the two eldest sons led Chip Tak with the eldest son Lau Pak-chuen (劉百川) aka Lau Chor-hee (劉佐禧) serving as chairman and the second son Lau Chor-sing (劉佐城) as vice chairman. Born in 1924, Lau Chor-hee worked for Chip Tak from its inception and helped established the firm as a leader in the denim business in Asia, counting major US brands such as Levi’s, Gap, Eddie Bauer and DKNY as its clients. He was permanent honorary chairman of the HK & Kowloon Chiu Chow Public Association and director of the HK Weaving Mills Association.
Obituary of the Chip Tak Lau family’s matriarch Hui Shun-kiu with her picture in 1983 (WKYP, 1983-3-19)
Beginning in the 1990s, Chip Tak began relocating its production to the mainland. In 1990, Chip Tak established Chip Tak Textile (Shenzhen) Ltd which by 1999 was one of the top 100 industrial enterprises in the Special Economic Zone. The 100,000 sq ft plant which involved total investments of US$50 million and machines imported from Europe and Japan has annual production capacity of over 36 million yards of denim fabrics and over 1700 employees. In 2005, Chip Tak was convinced by the local government of Taishan to invest US$48 million and build a large plant on a 350,000 square meter plot in Taishan. The new plant, which commenced operations in 2009, has annual production capacity of over 60 million yards of denim fabrics. Aside from Shenzhen and Taishan, Lau Chor-hee’s involvement in the mainland also include his native Chiuchow, where he began the development of the Shing Tak Industrial Estate (成德工業村) in Shantou in 1989 and developed Shing Tak Garden residential project in Chaoyang in the 1990s. In Chaoyang, he also contributed to the construction of the Chip Tak bridge in 1988 and donated 16 million to construct the Lau Moon-ling School in 2000.
Back in HK, the firm sold its former factory sites to developers rather than engaging in the development themselves. In 1994, Chip Tak sold its Tsuen Wan plant on Castle Peak Road for HK$170 million to Or Wai-sheun, fellow Chiuchow property developer from Macau later known for buying Kowloon Development from the KMB families. Or originally planned to develop a 55-story residential tower on the site but instead sold it to Lai Sun Development for $600 million which eventually developed the site into The Panorama (蔚景花園). In January 2015, the Lau family sold its 20000 sq ft factory site on Tai Chuen Ping Street in Kwai Chung for HK$450 million to Soundwill Investments which is in the process of re-developing it into a new complex named iCITY.
By the early 1990s, the directors of Chip Tak included Lau Chor-hee’s sons – Thomas Lau Lee-hok (劉理學) who received medical degree from the University of Nova Scotia, Lau Lee-tung (劉理通) and Lau Lee-cheung (劉理璋). Chor-hee’s eldest daughter Lau Lee-chun (劉理真) married fellow Chiuchow industrialist K.C. Jok of Lucky Plastic Factory (see article)
Outside of Chip Tak, Lau Chor-sing was chairman of Lido Bay Winter Swimming Club and member of the Rotary Club of Tsuen Wan. His third daughter Lau Lee-yuen (劉理圓), who graduated from University of Waterloo in Canada married Dennis Ng Ping-pong(吳平邦), her colleague at AT&T and son of HK Taoist leader Ng Yiu-tung (吳耀東) in 1988 (WKYP, 1988-1-7)
The remaining three sons and daughter of Lau Moon-ling all received tertiary education in the West and pursued other interests – the third son Lau Chor-kuen (劉佐權) studied medicine in Yokohoma, Japan and Dublin, Ireland and practiced medicine. The fourth son Louis Lau Chor-tuen (劉佐端, 1937-2009) attended Wah Yan College in HK and received his B.S. in chemistry from Kansas State, M.S. from University of Oregon and two doctorates from University of Toronto. Louis worked as a biochemist and a farmer and advised his native Shantou on agriculture. The fifth son Lau Pak-hun (劉百行) received his B.S. in textile from South Carolina State and in 1985, he teamed up with his nephew Lau Lee-ka (劉理嘉, also went by “Lee Lau”), engineering graduate of the University of Toronto and chip engineer and Ho Kwok-yuen (何國源, 1950-), Taiwan educated engineer of Cantonese descent and husband of his niece Betty Lau Lee-ting (劉理婷) to establish Array Technology Inc (ATI) in the suburb of Toronto with C$300,000 in capital to make graphic chips for the burgeoning PC industry. The company experienced explosive growth, achieving US$10 million in sales in 1986, and quadrupled that the next year. With Ho as CEO (until 2004 when he stepped down after accusations of insider trading in 2000 which he was ultimately cleared of), ATI went public in 1993 and grew to over US$2.2 billion in sales and over 3000 employees in 2005 before it was acquired by the American semiconductor giant AMD for US$5.4 billion in 2006. With his profits from ATI, Pak-hun donated to many charitable causes in HK and China while Lee Lau co-founded private asset manager Alignvest and helped built three new buildings in his alma mater U of T and contributed to local charities in Toronto.
Three co-founders of ATI: Lee Lau (left), Lau Pak-hun (middle) and K.Y. Ho (right)
Lau Pak-fong (劉百芳), The only daughter of Chip Tak founder, received her B.S. in biology from New Mexico State.
Tai Fong Dyeing & Weaving Factory (大豐布廠) and Mou Fung Weaving (茂豐布廠)
The Lau family in Sham Kai village in 1950. Seated were family patriarch Lau Wan-shan (right) with his wife (left) and mother (center). Standing behind them were his eldest son Lau Kan-chai (fourth from right), second son Tai Fong founder Lau Him-chai (fifth from left), third son Lau Sau-chai (third from right), fifth son Lau Ming-chai (fourth from left) and eldest daughter (fifth from right)
Tai Fong Dyeing & Weaving Factory was founded in the 1950s by Lau Him-chai (劉謙齋, 1911-2003), the second of five sons of Lau Wan-shan (劉韞山, 1881-1972), who was a prominent businessman in Chaoyang as the proprietor of Lau Lim Kee Dried Fruit (劉廉記涼果, see article on fellow Chiuchow dried fruit manufacturer the Yau family of Yam Hop Hing) and a major landowner. Him-chai joined the family business after three years of primary education, buying and selling dried fruits and textiles in different towns while his older brother tended to business back home. During the War, he relocated to Macau with his third son Han-Qin while the rest of his family stayed in Chiuchow and his third brother Lau Sau-chai (劉修齋1912-2004), a graduate of National Chinan University in Shanghai in 1939, was stranded in Sandakan in Borneo where he was working for the KMT government. After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Him-chai returned to Swatow where he started his first weaving factory – Lim Kee Weaving Factory.
In 1948, he left Swatow with his fourth son for HK where he started Tai Fong Dyeing & Weaving Factory at 2731 Kun Tong Road in Ngau Tau Kok. Eventually his entire family joined him in HK in 1957. He and his brothers also opened the Lau Heung Tea Company in Kowloon City. Encouraged by Cheong Ying-chan of Lee Wah Weaving, Tai Fong entered the denim business in the 1960s and quickly became a leader in the business. However, Tai Fong almost went under in 1967 not only because of the riots that year but also due to the government’s plan to retake the firm’s Ngau Tau Kok site while its Singapore venture was also struggling. Thanks to the support of fellow Chiuchow garment manufacturers such as Cheng Yik-hung of Wing Tai, Tai Fong managed to pull through and relocated to 156 Wai Yip Street in Kwun Tong. In 1975, Tai Fong acquired its own building at 26 Hung To Road in Kwun Tong for HK$10 million with the support of banks. The same year, Fong Shing Cotton Mill (豐盛紗廠) was incorporated, expanding the firm’s scope to cotton spinning.
By the 1970s, the next generation of the Lau family began to start various companies in the textile and garment business with the support of Lau Him-chai. The first was Johnnie Lau Hon-chung (劉漢中), who founded Mou Fung Limited in 1970 to produce denim fabrics with 49 shuttle looms in a 10000 sq ft factory in Kwun Tong with a few staff. Over time, Mou Fung became the largest denim producer in HK with top brand clients such as Gap, Old Navy, American Eagle Outfitters, Armani and Calvin Klein, annual production of over 25 million yards of denim fabrics and a 200 acre vertically integrated plant in Zhuhai in the mainland.
Left: Tony Lau; Right: lobby reception of Mou Fung’s Zhuhai building featuring a wall of denim
Except for his third son Lau Hon-qin (劉漢欽), who received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago and became a professor at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, all of Him-chai’s children started their own businesses in the garment industry. His eldest son Lau Hon-shuen (劉漢宣) assumed the management of Tai Fong and Fong Shing and launched his own plastic flower factory. His second son Lau Hon-chun (劉漢鎮) who went by the name Wah Lau (劉驊) launched Corniche jeans in New York. His only daughter Sophia Lau Yau-fun (劉柔芬, 1945-) married her University of Illinois classmate Brian Leung (梁孔德) after graduation in 1969 and worked in the IT department of Chartered Bank for several years before starting her first apparel venture – Golden Century Jeans Manufactory (金紀製衣廠, renamed Centuria Jeans Manufactory in 1982) in 1976 out of her father’s factory in Kwun Tong with her older brother Hon-shuen holding 56%, her younger brother Tony Lau Hon-chung (劉漢松) holding 33% and her husband holding 10%. Centuria manufactured the Lucky Star brand of jeans for the European market and in 1979, they established Golden Harvest Dyeing & Weaving Factory (金聯染織廠). In 1981, Brian Leung and Tony Lau reached out to Richard Lentz, the Seattle-based apparel executive behind the highly successful Britannia jeans in the 1970s, and together they formed Bay Apparel in Seattle and developed the Union Bay brand of moderately priced jeans with the Lau family handling manufacturing in HK and Lentz handling sales & marketing in the US. The brand caught on with young male consumer in the US and generated US$35 million in sales within 2 years and other brands such as ReUnion and Heet were added. By 1986 when the firm was renamed Seattle Pacific Industries to account for the other brands, the firm achieved revenues of over US$200 million. Lentz left the firm in 1989 and Sergio Valente, another jean brand founded in New York by Leung, Lau and Broadway producer Martin Heinfling was absorbed into Seattle Pacific in 1992. Around this time, Tony became director and majority shareholder of the listed Success Holdings (see article on Alex Kwang and Chu Shek-lun) and in 1994 he was fined for insider trading alongside his girlfriend Chan Dan-nar. In recent years, Sophie and her husband Brian Leung are best known for their community involvement, Sophie having served on the Legislative Council from 1997 to 2012 and Brian as chairman of the HK Football Federation. Since the 1990s, Tony has shifted his focus from garments to real estate. In 1997, he sold the 15-story Hong Kong Pacific Centre (亞太中心) at 28 Hankow Road in Tsim Sha Tsui to the Sino Group for HK$2.28 billion, netting over $1 billion in profits. In 1999, Tony and his sister bought 15 Wang Chiu Road in Kowloon Bay for HK$170 million as the head office for their Unionbay business. In 2012, he acquired a plot in Kowloon Bay for HK$1.82 billion. In March 2017, he paid $213 million for the rights to convert his Paxar Building (栢盛大廈) at 212 Choi Hung Road in Sun Po Kong into a 32-story, 483 room hotel.
« Sophie Leung : Queen of Jeans » Next Magazine, 2003-3-6
Kong Sun Weaving (港新布廠)
Left: Lau Sai-yan; Right: Stephen Lau in 1977 (1977-8-1); Right: Lau Sai-yan (second from left) offering gifts to visitors of the 1973-74 HK Products Expo (HK Memory)
Of the three families covered in this article, Lau Sai-yan (劉世仁) of Kong Sun Weaving was the last to establish but was the highest profile. Aside from being a fellow kinsman, Lau Sai-yan actually worked for Chip Tak for 7 years before starting his firm and when Lau Him-chai’s father Lau Wan-shan passed away in 1972, he was listed as “god nephew” in the obituary.
Born in Chaoyang in 1916, Lau Sai-yan was the youngest of four sons. His grandfather passed the imperial college exam and attained the status of xiucai but went into business instead rather than serving the corrupt Ching regime. His father died when he was only three years old, so he was raised by his mother. Sai-yan received his primary and secondary school education in Swatow and when the Swatow government announced suspension of schools during the Japanese attack in 1937, he and other student leaders persuaded the mayor Huang Bingfan to keep the schools open for thousands of students. To support his family, he started a small weaving factory in his hometown at the age of 21. After the change of regime in the mainland in 1949, Sai-yan was initially stuck in Chaoyang but managed to leave for Hong Kong in 1951. In HK, he first worked for a Chiuchow trading firm and later joined his clansmen’s Chip Tak Weaving Factory in 1953. At Chip Tak, he worked in the accounting department and was also involved in sales, building up a good network of bankers.
In 1960, Lau Sai-yan founded Kong Sun Weaving in Kwai Chung with financial support from friends and family. Due to limited funds, the initial operation was small with 100 looms and focused on manufacturing white greige cloth and canvas. In 1963, Kong Sun began manufacturing denim and business took off with the soaring sales of jeans across the globe. By 1968, a branch factory with 104 looms was added in Kwun Tong. In 1970, The Polyfabrics (HK) Ltd. (港新企業) was incorporated and in 1972, the family built the Kong Sun Building and Wah Sun Godown (華新貨倉) at 15 Sze Shan Street in Yau Tong Bay. By 1979, the Konsunlau Holdings (港新(劉氏)集團) had 300,000 square feet of factory space, a weaving operation with over 400 looms, a garment factory, a dyeing mill, a godown, a paper product factory and trading subsidiaries in Australia and New Zealand.
Outside of Kong Sun, Lau Sai-ping served as chairman of the HK Weaving Mills Association, the HK & Kowloon Chiu Chow Public Association and the Kowloon City-based charitable organization Lok Sin Tong during which he built and he built the Lok Sin Tong Lau Sai Yan Primary School in Kwai Chung (now defunct) and Ku Chiu Man Secondary School and expanded the Lok Sin Tong Secondary School. For his community service, he was awarded the MBA and JP in 1979.
Lau Sai-yan married his wife Cheung Chun-yee in 1939 and together they have three sons and two daughters. The eldest son Stephen Lau Man-lung (劉文龍, 1945-) graduated with a MS from the University of Surrey in the UK while the second son Lau Man-wai (劉文煒) graduated from the University of Wales and both joined the family business after graduation. Stephen served on the Urban Council from 1978 until 1999 and various government boards and the Kwun Tong District Council over the years and was awarded OBE and JP (1981) by the colonial government. He was also a director of the Po Leung Kuk and has served on the board of the listed jeweler Chow Sang Sang since 2012.
This article was first posted on 15th July 2019.
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