Kowloon Flour Mills (九龍麵粉廠)

York Lo: Kowloon Flour Mills (九龍麵粉廠)

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Aerial view of Kowloon Flour Mills.

Kowloon Flour Mills (hereafter refer to as “KFM”) at 161 Hoi Bun Road in Kwun Tong is the only surviving flour mill in Hong Kong and received a lot of attention in 2011 when the then Secretary for Development Carrie Lam cited the mill as an example of building that should be preserved in Kowloon East not knowing that the business was still in operations. Opened in 1966 (and pretty much looked the same), KFM was started four years before in 1962 by a group of Chiuchow merchants led by Thai Chinese businessman Lin Kuo-chiang (林國長, 1895-1977, hereafter refer to as K.C. Lin), who had also founded many companies in Taiwan including the Chiao Thai Hsing Flour Mills (僑泰興麵粉) in 1952. Both KFM and CTH remains under the management of Lin’s descendants, who are also known in Taiwan for multi-generational family feuds which lasted for over three decades.

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Left: Kowloon Flour Mills founder K.C. Lin; Right: Seng Heng Lee Goldsmith in Bangkok

K.C. Lin, also known as Lin Mo-hung (林謨雄), was a native of Chinghai (澄海) in the Chiuchow region and went to Thailand at the age of 16 with only 9 dollars in his pocket. In his first two decades in Thailand, he worked with relatives in several rice and gold businesses but all of them ended in disputes. In 1942, he established Seng Heng Lee Goldsmith (成興利四大金行) in Bangkok which within 5 years became a leading business in Thailand dealing in gold and jewelry, foreign exchange, pawnshop and remittance with 7 branches.

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Left: K.C. Lin (left) with Thanom Kittikachorn, military dictator of Thailand from 1963-73 in Taiwan in the 1960s; Right: Chiao Thai Hsing Flour mill in Taiwan

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KC Lin (front row centre) and other overseas Chinese investors in Taipei with Chiang Ching-kuo (front row third from the right) and overseas Chinese affairs chief Cheng Yen-fen (鄭彥棻left of Lin) in 1954 at the 68th birthday celebration of Chiang’s father Chiang Kai-shek (whose bust they were standing in front of).

In the early 1950s, the KMT regime which just relocated to Taiwan was desperate for capital to develop the island’s industries and economy. One important source of capital which the regime was actively courting was overseas Chinese and the pro-KMT Lin answered the call by investing heavily in Taiwan. One important catalyst for Lin to shift his focus from Thailand to Taiwan during this time was the Thai military dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) who had imposed anti-Chinese policies during his rule from 1948 to 1957. According to the recollection of a KMT official Kwan Te-mou (關德懋), a Thai police chief arrested Lin and asked for a huge ransom which the frugal Lin refused to pay. It was through the intervention of the KMT intelligence chief Cheng Chieh-min (鄭介民) that Lin was released and airlifted to Taipei. In Taiwan, the Minister of Economic Affairs C.Y. Yin offered Lin the choice of two important concessions – cement or flour and Lin chose the latter. In 1952, he incorporated Chiao Thai Hsing Enterprise Co Ltd and began building the Chiao Thai Hsing Flour Mills in the Nangang district in Taipei in 1953. In 1954, the mill began production with Allis Chalmers equipment and American wheat subsidized by the USAID program. Over the next decades, CTH remained one of the largest flour mills in Taiwan known for its Chrysanthemum and Gladiolus brands of flour and KC Lin also established a string of business enterprises in Taiwan including China Board & Containers Ltd (中國紙廠) in 1958, Pao Ho Fisheries (寶和漁業) in 1959, Chung Hsing Theatre (中興大戲院) in 1962 and China Sports & Cultural Center (中華體育館) in 1963 and the Mandarin Hotel (中泰賓館, featuring the first Thai restaurant in Taipei and the popular KISS disco in the 1980s; converted to Mandarin Oriental Taipei in 2014) in 1964.

Given HK’s longstanding trade ties to Thailand and its large Chiuchow population, K.C. Lin had longstanding business contacts with the colony.  In 1957, he was the deputy head of a Taiwanese delegation to the 15th HK Products Expo. CTH had also been exporting its flour to HK through Swee Yong Hong (瑞榮豐, incorporated in 1955, dissolved in 2004), a trading firm located at 75 Bonham Strand West founded by Chiuchow merchant F.S. Ko (高鳳生). With already proven demand and milling experience, Lin established Kowloon Flour Mills in 1962 in HK with the intention of building a mill that would compete with the monopoly at the time – David Sung’s HK Flour Mills.

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Left: 1964 article about Swee Yong Hong’s sale of CTH Flour in HK (WKYP, 1964-2-6); Right: KFM’s Gladiolus Purple brand of Canadian wheat flour.

As the effort required HK$10 million of capital, Lin recruited leading Chiuchow merchants with ties to Thailand to participate in the venture. The directors of KFM at launch included his distributor F.S. Ko (who also served as managing director of the firm), Lin Mo-yun (林謨芸) of Seng Heng Lee Goldsmith (likely a brother or cousin), shipping tycoon Andrew Lam (林錦堃) of Jebshun Shipping; Robin Chan (陳有慶, Rabin Sophonpanich), the eldest son of Chin Sophonpanich (陳弼臣) of Bangkok Bank and HK & Swatow Commercial Bank (later Asia Commercial Bank which was acquired by Public Bank); Yeung Siu-wah (楊韶華), the HK comprador of Bangkok Bank; Cheung Lan-fu (張蘭夫 1904-1985), the proprietor of Kia Nguyen Hong Rice Merchants (嘉元行), director of Kwong Sun Hong Godown (廣新行貨倉) and vice chairman of the Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce.

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KFM director Cheung Lan-fu (third from the right) and fellow Chiuchow merchants celebrating Professor Yao Tsung-I (who recently passed away) receiving an award in Sinology in France. Left to right except for Cheung: Choi Cheung-kok of Ting Tai Wahchong, Ma Kam-ming of Tai Sang Bank, Chan Wai-shun of rice trading firm Kui Fat Yuen, Professor Yao, Cheng Kwong of Far East Cotton Industries, Ngan Shing-kwan of China Motor Bus, Ma Kam-chan (Kam-ming’s older brother), Wong Chi-keung (WKYP 1963-1-6) 

The effort to build the mill ended up taking four years where half of the $10 million were spent on construction with Chau Iu-nin being employed as the architect and the other half on machinery – majority imported from MAIG of West Germany and minority from Buhler of Switzerland. (CTH did not use MAIG until 1970 and Buhler until 1987) (WKYP, 1965-8-19) The site was over 60000 sq ft and 9 storey tall with half of it being the mill and the other half being storage.  The mill was initially capable of daily production of 5000 bags (Monthly production of 150,000 bags, equivalent to HK Flour Mills’ initial production capacity in 1954) with the ability to double capacity if necessary. Test production commenced in September 1965 and in December 1965, KFM received its first export order of 1800 tons of flour from the Cambodian government, beating out Japanese flour (TKP, 1965-12-25). In January 1966, KFM participated in the HK Products Expo for the first time and reporters were invited to get a preview of the mill accompanied by Miss HK Products Expo (WKYP, 1966-1-11). On February 1, 1966, the Kowloon Flour Mills was formally opened by the legislator and property tycoon R.C. Lee with over 1000 guests attending the opening ceremony including the Who’s Who in HK industries such as H.C. Ting of Kader, C.C. Yin of Dah Chung, S.Y. Chung of Sonca and Ho Chi-wong of Chun Hing and bankers such as Q.W. Lee of Hang Seng and the Liu brothers of Liu Chong Hing Bank.

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Article about the opening of KFM in 1966. Cutting the ribbon was legislator R.C. Lee while K.C. Lin (second from right) and Robin Chan (first from right) looked on. (WKYP, 1966-2-2)

The initial launch included seven types of flour (all named after flowers of different colors) ranging in size (50 pounds to 100 pounds), prices ($12.40 to $21.50 a bag) and wheat origin (US, Canada and Australia). (WKYP, 1966-1-26). By mid-year, orders from South Vietnam for 5000 tons and another order for 3600 tons from Cambodia resulted in the mill being in full capacity. The huge demand prompted two more competitors – HK Foods Product Manufacturing nearby in Kwun Tong and Far East Flour Mills in Tsuen Wan – to finally enter the market and the former monopoly had by then turned into a four-way competition. For the full year (1966), KFM produced over 1 million bags of flour.

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KFM plant in 1966 which looked pretty much the same as today (WKYP, 1966-11-8)

In 1967, KFM received an order for over 10000 tons of flour from Ceylon. (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1967-1-20)

Despite being a billionaire, the frugal K.C. Lin did not drink or smoke and ate simple meals of congee with fermented tofu and only added an egg every day and a chicken every week in doctor’s order when he was 58. In 1977, K.C. Lin died in Taipei at the age of 81 but was not buried for 2 years due to family dispute. He had 7 concubines but only one son Lin Shao-ming (林紹明), 1 daughter and 2 grandsons. Currently there are over 40 KFM shareholders with the largest being KC Lin’s second eldest grandson Lin Min-chia (林命嘉) who manages both KFM and CTH while his older brother is in charge of the Mandarin in Taipei. As of 2011, KFM was still manufacturing 1000 bags of flour per day (each bag weigh 50 pounds) and employed over 20 workers, many of whom had worked for the mill for 3-4 decades with the youngest in his 40s.

Sources:

  1. https://archive.is/20130107174518/http://news.sina.com.hk/news/2/1/1/2464274/1.html
  2. http://www.cthmills.com/p2_company.php
  3. https://kwuntong.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/history/
  4. https://issuu.com/gfmt/docs/mag1605_w1/62
  5. https://tw.appledaily.com/headline/daily/20070224/23274356
  6. http://www.hgzz.net/zhuanti/69062.html
  7. 關德懋先生訪問紀錄
  8. 華僑日報, 1966-04-02南越向港洽購麵粉五千噸由九龍麵粉廠全部承做四至六月付運
  9. 華僑日報, 1966-08-13柬標購麵粉三千六百噸九龍麵粉廠暫無餘額可供應

This article was first posted on 2nd July 2018.

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