Lai Yung Shang (雷允上) – the Centuries Old Maker of Lu Sheng Pills (六神丸)

York Lo: Lai Yung Shang (雷允上) – the Centuries Old Maker of Lu Sheng Pills (六神丸)

Earlier on the website we have covered several Western pharmaceutical manufacturers from Shanghai such as Sine and New Asiatic whose proprietors continued their businesses in HK after the Communists came to power in 1949 while their operations in the mainland became state-owned enterprises that thrive to this day. Lai Yung Shang, one of the “Big Four” Chinese medicine firms in old Shanghai known for its “Lu Sheng Pills” (aka Six Miracle Pills), is another example which had similar history but traced its roots several centuries back to Suzhou in the early Ching dynasty.

Lai Yung Shang in Suzhou and Shanghai from 1600s to 1949

Lai Yung Shang Image 1 York Lo

Left: the original Lai Yung-shang; Center: Lai Yung Shang store in old Shanghai; Right: Lai Hsien-chi (實業界名人, 1948)

Many sources stated that Lai Yung Shang was founded in the first year of the reign of the Ching Emperor Kang Hsi (1662) but its eponymous founder Lai Yung-shang who also went by the name of Lai Tai-sheng (雷大升, 1696-1779) was born 34 years after that so the more accurate date was 1734 when he opened his Chinese medicine business in Suzhou under the name of Lai Yung Shang Sung Fen Tang (雷允上誦芬堂藥舖) although Sung Fen Tang might have been started in 1662. The Lai family was originally from Nanchang in Jiangxi province and settled in Suzhou during the Ming dynasty. Many generations of the family pursued the traditional route of exams and government officials but Lai Yung-shanggave that up in 1715 to study under Wang Chin-san and became a famous Chinese doctor with many medical publications.

Lai Yung-shang was succeeded at Sung Fen Tang by his son Lai Kwei (雷桂, 1737-1811), whose four sons formed the four branches of the Lai family. The business was passed down to Lai Chi-chun (雷子純, 1827-1869), a great great grandson of Lai Yung-shang from the third branch. When the business in Suzhou was destroyed by the Taiping rebels in 1860, Chi-chun opened a Shanghai branch of Lai Yung Shang in 1863.  In 1864, he invented the Lu Sheng pills, the Chinese medicine equivalent of penicillin based on six different ingredients and it became an instant hit. Sadly, Chi-chun died five years later and was succeeded by his son Lai Chi-fan (雷滋蕃). Also known as Lai Wen-hsien (雷文衍), Chi-fan built up the business of Lai Yung Shang and donated a school in Suzhou in his father’s memory in 1919 (another source stated 1921).

During the Republican era, Lai Yung Shang received at least five awards from the Chinese government in 1915, 1916, 1929 (during its participation in the first West Lake Expo in Hangzhou), 1930 and 1931. By the 1920s, the Suzhou branch was managed by Lai Cheng-ming (雷徵明)also known as Lai Hsueh-chia (雷學嘉) while the Shanghai branch was managed by his younger brother Lai Hsien-chi (雷顯之). Born in 1897, Lai Hsien-chi was an English graduate of Ta Tung University in Shanghai and served as director of the Soochow Residents Association in Shanghai and Chemical Bank of China (中國藥業銀行, the Bao brothers of Sine was also involved with this bank) and chairman of Fu Min Enterprise (福民企業) and Hwa Feng Bank (華豐錢莊) in Shanghai and a cemetery in Soochow. In 1934, Hsien-chi opened a branch in Chapei in Shanghai that became known as the “North branch” while the original store in Shanghai became known as the “South branch”. Over time, the Shanghai branch became more prosperous than the Suzhou branch.

After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, Lai Yung Shang moved its north branch in Shanghai to the International Concession near Nanking Road. During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese attempted to extract the secret formula to develop the Lu Sheng pills by throwing Lai family members and staff in jail but ultimately failed.

Lai Yung Shang in Hong Kong and China after 1949

Lai Yung Shang Image 2 York Lo

Left: Lai Yung Shang’s premises in the mainland when it was a public private enterprise in the late 1950s; Right: Article about Charles Lai visiting Japan for a conference with his picture in 1970 (WKYP, 1970-7-22)

By the late 1940s, Lai Yung Shang was managed by the eight-generation descendants of Lai Yung-shang – Charles Lai (雷善覺) who was a stockbroker in Shanghai and Lai Chuan-cham (雷傳湛) who was a law graduate of the University of Soochow. The two on behalf of three branches of the family sue Lai Hsien-chi over the control of funds in 1947 and won. When the Communists came to power in the mainland in 1949, Charles Lai left for Hong Kong while Lai Chuan-cham and Charles’ wife Hsu Chao-chu (許兆穀) and her five children remained in the mainland.Lai Yung Shang in Shanghai and Suzhou were re-organized under a company in 1954 which became a public private enterprise in 1956. Hsu gave the formula of Lu Sheng pills to the state and met with leaders such as Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai and Liu Shao-chi in 1957.

In Hong Kong, Charles Lai remarried and incorporated Lai Yung Shang Sung Feng Tang Ltd in 1952to manufacture Lu Sheng pills based on the secret formula that was passed down to him through eight generations. He quickly found success marketing his pills in the HK and overseas Chinese markets around the world.

Outside of his business, Charles had served as chairman of the HK Chinese Patent Medicine Manufacturers Association (中華製藥總商會) and HK Medicine Dealer Guild and director of the pro-Taipei Kowloon Chamber of Commerce and Federation of HK Industries in Hong Kong. In December 1966, he led a delegation of Chinese medicine manufacturers including Wai Kee-shun of Yee Tin Tong and Lee Kui-nang of Po Chai Pills to Thailand during which they met with their counterparts. As Lai was a friend of the Thai Speaker of the House, he managed to secure an audience with the Thai Prime Minister and General Peng Meng-chi, Taipei’s Ambassador to Thailand. At the time, Thailand was an important market for Lai Yung Shang since the 3 million Thai Chinese preferred Chinese medicine but there were not many trained herbalists available in the country. (WKYP, 1966-12-19)

In late 1969, Lai Yung Shang acquired new machinery from Japan which were installed in its factory at 15 Shouson Hill Road in Aberdeen. (KSDN, 1969-11-3) During the World Chinese Business Conference he attended earlier, he received many orders from Chinese merchants from across the globe. In December, Lai Yung Shang hosted Chinese delegates from Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Southeast Asia who were attending the HK Products Expo at their factory. (KSDN, 1969-12-28)

Lai Yung Shang Image 3 York Lo

Charles Lai (upper left corner) and fellow directors of the HK Medicine Dealers Guild in 1980 (WKYP, 1980-10-2) 

In May 1971, Charles Lai attended the eighth World Chinese Business Conference in Los Angeles with his wife Eileen Pang. The event was attended by over 430 Chinese merchants from over 50 countries. (KSDN, 1971-5-16)

In December 1973, Lai Yung Shang participated in the HK Products Expo and was one of the 20 exhibitors in the “Medicine City” section. For every purchase of 100 pills, customers received 10 pills plus one raffle ticket with the top prize being a car and second prize a television set. (WKYP, 1973-12-13)

As there were many counterfeit versions of Lai Yung Shang, the firm issued guidelines to help consumers authenticate – this include a portrait of Charles Lai in its packaging with a dark green watermark and also if the real pills were soaked in water for five minutes, it would double in size and the color of the pill both inside and out would be gold while the fake ones usually turned red or yellow. (WKYP, 1975-7-10)

In August 1975, Charles Lai was invited by the Queen to attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace in London. (WKYP, 1975-8-12)

Lai Yung Shang Image 4 York Lo

Left: Lui Pik-fun (left) receiving the senior advisor certificate from Yang Hong, chairman of Shanghai Lei Yun Shang Pharmaceutical Co in 2010. Right: “Lu Sheng Pills” (Lushenwan) produced by Shanghai Lei Yun Shang Pharmaceutical

In 1995, Charles Lai died and was succeeded by his eldest daughter Lui Pik-fun (雷璧芬), who attended the McTyeire Girls’ School in Shanghai and graduated from Tsinghua University in Beijing with a mechanical engineering degree in 1955. After China re-opened in 1978, Lui came to HK where she established Freeson International (法信國際) in 1984 to distribute machinery made by US and European manufacturers in mainland China.

In 2002, the Lai family teamed up with Wuyi Group (武夷集團), the window company in HK for the Fujian government to develop the 27 story, 54-unit King Yu Court (景愉居) at 43-45 Tin Hau Temple Road with the Lai family keeping 20 units.

As a firm, Lai Yung Shang Sung Feng Tang Ltd in HK was dissolved in 2011.Lui Pik-fun was appointed senior advisor in 2010 of Shanghai Lei Yun Shang Pharmaceutical, which continues to manufacture Lu Sheng Pills and many other products and have subsidiaries throughout China.

Sources (other than those cited above):

This article was first posted on 19th July 2021.

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