Kwong Luen Tai Garment (廣聯泰)
- York Lo: Kwong Luen Tai Garment (廣聯泰)
Left: Kwong Luen Tai Garment founder Lee Cheung; right: contract signing ceremony between the Enping local government and Kwong Luen Tai for the establishment of the JV between the two in the early 1980s
Kwong Luen Tai Garment Factory was one of the largest garment manufacturers in Hong Kong and was briefly mentioned before in two articles as it acquired Union V-Tex’s factory building after its collapse in the 1970s and was also a key supplier to the UK retail giant Tesco alongside Lo’s Mee Kwong. Relative to Union and LMK, Kwong Luen Tai was relatively low profile as it did not have its own fashion labels and its emergence is truly a rags to riches story. Like LMK, it was also one of the first HK garment manufacturers to move its production up north and helped turn the founder’s native Enping into a major garment manufacturing hub in the 1980s.
Kwong Luen Tai founder Lee Cheung (李長), whose original name was Ng Chung-cheung (伍松長) was born in 1926 in his native Enping in Guangdong province, the third of six children in a peasant family. At the age of 8, he lost his father and after four years of primary education, he started working to support his family. His first venture as a tailor and selling piece goods back home was a failure after which he moved to HK. According to Lee, he adopted his name Lee Cheung as he came to HK with two fellow villagers by the last name of Lee and the three of them were sharing an identity card (which cost money) so they decided to combine their names. In 1949, he started selling dolls made of dough on the streets which barely made enough money. As the HK garment and textile industry began to take off in the 1950s, Lee Cheung started his own workshop with one sewing machine. In 1972, Kwong Luen Tai Garment Factory Ltd (廣聯泰製衣廠) and Kwong Luen Tai Enterprises Ltd (廣聯泰企業, renamed Nuit Song Wear Holdings Ltd in 2002 and dissolved in 2010) were incorporated.
By the late 1970s, Kwong Luen Tai had become one of the top ten garment manufacturers in Hong Kong, producing a wide range of garment items ranging from jeans, T-shirts, dress shirts, children’s clothings and sportswear for foreign brands sold in major department stores in the West and became vertically integrated with the establishment of Kwong Nam Textile Ltd (廣南紡織業) in 1978 which engaged in spinning, dyeing and knitting. To keep up with competition and market demand, it had acquired the most advanced textile machinery from the UK, US, Germany and Switzerland. It had also acquired the factory site of Union V-Tex at 54-56 Tsun Yip Street in Kwun Tong and engaged the contractor Wide Project (See Shanghainese Builder Part Seven) to construct a new building at the site, with Lee himself inspecting the construction site daily. In late 1979, the 12 story Kwong Luen Tai Industrial Building was completed. The building had over 200,000 sq ft of space with the first 11 floors being factory space and the top floor as office.
Left: picture of Kwong Luen Tai Industrial Building when it was completed in 1979 (KSEN, 1979-12-4); Right: Lee Cheung being interviewed in 1981 (WKYP, 1981-8-27)
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, production costs had soared in HK and garment manufacturers were eager to find cheaper locations. Lee had been interested in building a factory in his native Enping since the 1960s but due to the Cultural Revolution the plans were postponed until China re-opened in 1978. In September 1979, he established Enping Kwong Luen Tai Garment Factory, which was the first foreign-owned enterprise in Enping since 1949 with HK$1.5 million in investments and 300 sewing machines and few dozen technicians from HK at a 30000 sq ft space. This was followed by the formation of Enping Kwong Luen Tai Textile Enterprises Ltd (恩平廣聯泰紡織企業), a 20 years joint venture between the state-owned Enping County Light Industry & Textile Co (60%) and Kwong Luen Tai (40%) to manufacture cotton yarn with US$10 million in investments in 1983. Enping Kwong Luen Tai Textile was profitable within three years and by 1986 was producing US$46 million worth of garments and textile products at 26% profit margin according to local government report. The factory had over 60000 spindles and imported state of the art equipment from Europe (e.g. spindles from Zinser) and the US. Over time, KLT created over 4000 jobs in Enping and at one point represented 50% of the county’s industrial output and was synonymous with the county’s garment industry. In addition to the factory, Lee Cheung also contributed significantly over the years to building schools, roads, bridges and hospitals in Enping and was named honorary citizen of Jiangmen as a result.
Lee’s son Eddie Lee Ping-kwong (李平光) worked for the family business but was better known as a race car driver and owner of camera shops. Eddie’s son Marchy Lee (李英健) is a famous race car driver who is known as the Schumacher of Hong Kong being the first Chinese F3 driver in 1998 and having won many championships including the Audi R8 LMS cup in 2012. In 1989, Lee Cheung stepped aside due to health issues and his daughter Lee Lin-heung (李蓮香) took over the management of the firm. After a financial crisis hit Enping in 1996, the firm’s Enping venture never recovered and eventually shut down in 2003 when the 20 years JV agreement expired. Fellow HK garment manufacturers Leahander (利興強) and Fountain Set (福田實業) stepped in and revived the factory as Enping Lee Hing Keung Textile Ltd.
Back in HK, the Lee family sold the Kwong Luen Tai building in Kwun Tong to Shui On Construction for $155 million in cash in July 1997 but the deal was later postponed due to the Asian financial crisis and ultimately it was re-developed into COS Centre (中海日升中心) by Billion Development (億京發展). Today, Kwong Luen Tai Garment Factory Ltd is still an active company with operations in Macau and manufacturing base in Zhongshan.
Sources (other than what’s cited above)
This article was first posted on 2nd September 2019.
Related Indhhk articles:
- Union (V-Tex) Shirts (伊人恤) – the Rise and Fall of an Iconic Hong Kong Brand
- Lo’s Mee Kwong and Join-In Shirt
- Shanghainese Builders in HK (Part Seven) – John Lok, Yao Kee, Paul Lee, TK Shen, Wide Project and Wai Kee
- From American tourist to HK garment industry pioneer – the story of June Carroll and Carroll Manufacturing
- “The Prince of Garments”: Wong Mee of Sweetmart and Carlo
- Yankee Needle: American Merchants and the development of the Swatow lace industry in China and the garment industry in HK
- The Kings of Industries – the family behind Wearbest Garment in HK and Wha Mei Tobacco in old Shanghai
- Kelly Brothers Manufacturing Factory, Pre-War Garment Pioneer