Lee Hung-tong (李漢忠): Thai Chinese Trader, HK Industrialist and Singer

York Lo: Lee Hung-tong (李漢忠): Thai Chinese Trader, HK Industrialist and Singer

Trade between HK and Thailand had existed since the beginning of the colony and in fact the first trading firm in Nam Pak Hong was Yuen Fat Hong which was engaged in the Siam trade and firms that specialized in trading with Thailand are known as “Siam guilds” (暹羅莊) which were primarily led by Chiuchow natives, the dominant group of Chinese merchants in Thailand. The two decades after World War II (1946-1966) was the golden era for “Siam guilds” and their trade organization – theHK-Thailand Importers and Exporters Association(香港泰國進出口商會, hereafter referred to as “HKTIEA”) which was formed in 1946 (and incorporated in 1974) had over 80 member firms at its peak.

One of the leading Siam guilds was Hip Hing Hong Ltd which was established by Thai Chinese trader and former HKTIEA chairman Lee Hung-tong in 1946 (although as a firm it was not incorporated until 1953 with HK$1 million in capital). His six decades career in HK included introducing leading Japanese toothpaste and detergent brand Lion(獅王) to the market and running Hoover Manufacturing, a pioneeringmanufacturer of cigarette lighters and toys before starting a singing career after retirement and becoming the oldest person to headline a concert in HK history.

Hip Hing Hong(協興行有限公司)

Lee Hung Tong Image 1 York Lo

Lee Hung-tong (third from the right) with his older brother Lee Hung-kam (李漢錦,first from left) and executives from Lion Soap Co at the Kai Tak Airport in 1962 ahead of the launch of Lipon detergents in the HK market. (WKYP, 1962-10-5)

Lee Hung-tong ranked six among his siblings and wassent to Hong Kong in 1946 by his family, which originally hailed from the Po Ling district in Chiuchow and controlled the trading firm of Saha Pahanapibul Co.,Ltd (協成昌, also known as Sahapat) in Bangkok which was founded by Thiam Chokwatana (李興添, 1916-1991, also known as Lee Heng-thiam; presumably Lee’s eldest half-brother) in 1942 as an importer of sundries such as shirts from China.

In Hong Kong, Lee Hung-tong set up Hip Hing Hong at 34 Ko Shing Street in the Nam Pak Hong district as a sourcing office for Chinese goods for the Thai business. (Telephone Directory for HK & Kowloon, 1948; FEER, 1953; HK $ Directory, 1063) He made his home at 75 Wongneichong Road andHip Hing Hong joined the HKTIEA. Over time, he was electedvice chairman of HKTIEA in 1970 under Hui Chun-ming (許振明, d. 1982) of the Chinese medicine firm Wing Tak Hing (永德興行) as chairman (TKP, 1970-6-25) before becoming the chairman of the organization himself in 1984. (TKP, 1984-7-13)

In 1952, Lee Heng-thiam sent his brother in law Damri Darakananda (陳如竹,brother of his wife who later started the Saha Union Group which makes YKK zippers, textiles and rubber) to set up a subsidiary by the name of Hip Kwong in Tokyo to find Japanese products to represent in the Southeast Asian markets and hired a retired Japanese executive who could speak Thai as itspresident.One of the products which they found was a Japanese diabetes drug developed jointly by a Tokyo University medical professor and Herman Staudinger, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner in 1953 as shown below.

Lee Hung Tong Image 2 York Lo

Lee Hung-tong (left) with the family’s Tokyo office representative presenting the Japanese diabetes drug represented by Hip Hing Hong to the HK press in 1955 (WKYP, 1955-3-22)

Over time, the Lee family established great ties to the Japanese trading giants Mitsui and Mitsubishi and was introduced to the Japanese personal care product giant Lion Soap Co, which traced its roots to T. Kobayashi Co founded in 1891. In the early 1960s, Sahapat entered into a joint venture with Lion to manufacture soaps, toothpaste and detergents in Thailand and captured significant market share and Hip Hing Hong also became the sole agent of Lion’s products in HK because of the strategic partnership. In 1962, Hip Hing Hong introduced Lion’sLipon detergents (衣之寶洗衣粉, first launched in Japan in 1938) to the HK market followed by Tobacco Lion(他巴哥潔牙素), a tooth powder designed to remove smoking stains and Walt Disney branded toothpaste for kids in 1963. The launch campaigns for the latter included radio and print ads plus promotional vehicles which handed out samples to pedestrians. (WKYP, 1963-4-19) Through the help of Hip Hing Hong, Lion established itself in the HK market, significant enough that they set up Lion Dentifrice International in 1974 (renamed Lion Home Products in 1982 and Lion Corporation HK in 2009) to handle distribution of its products in Hong Kong. In Thailand, Sahapat became a leading business group known as the king of consumer goods while Hip Hing Hong in HK was dissolved in 1990.

Hoover Manufacturing (豪華製造廠)

Lee Hung Tong Image 3 York Lo

Left: Article about Hoover Manufacturing with pictures of its lighters in 1956 (TKP, 1956-12-5); Right: Hoover’s booth at the HK Products Expo in 1957 (KSDN, 1957-12-12)

In 1956, Lee Hung-tong established Hoover Metal Ware Manufactory (although as a firm it was not incorporated until 1962 as Hoover Manufacturing) in HK to manufacture cigarette lighters for export after receiving enquiries from the Southeast Asia, Europe and South America about the product which had been dominated by the Japanese in the Far East. Initial monthly production capacity was 3000 dozen, but quickly ramped up to daily production of 200-400 dozen. (FEER, 1956) According to the press interview shown in above article during its participation at the HK Products Expo in 1956, the cigarette lighters which sold for $1.50 each at the time might look small and simple, but its production process involved over 200 steps. In its first year, its products were already shipped to markets as far as France, Cyprus, South Africa and West Indies.

From cigarette lighters, Hoover expanded into making containers, ash tray, water sprayer, spring pocket combs and pocket torches, which were showcased in its booth in the 1957 HK Products Expo which was visited by the Governor. The firm also showcased its cigarette lighters including one which looked like a gun and by then, daily production of lighters at the firm had increased to 500-600 dozen and allegedly the firm was producing 90% of its components themselves with objective to go up to 100% soon. (KSDN, 1957-12-12 and 1957-12-23) The firm’s factory at 14 Sai Wan Ho Street in Shaukiwan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Handbook for HK Industry, 1958; CMA Directory, 1965)

As the plastic industry took off, Hoover also entered the space and in the 1961-62 HK Products Expo, the firm showcased its dual color plastic flower vase. (WKYP, 1961-12-7) By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hoover had shifted its focus to toy manufacturing, making a variety of plastic toys and Lee participated in international toy fairs in the US and West Germany. In an interview with the press in 1971, Lee described that the plastic industry in HK represented 10% of the colony’s total exports of $12 billion, and within plastics, toy was the biggest category representing over $800 million with North America being the biggest market followed by Europe. (WKYP, 1971-5-24) By then, its factory had relocated to How Ming Street in Kwun Tong. (AA Far East Businessman Directory, 1969; Xianggang Shiguang, 1970)

In 1975, the pressure sprayer manufactured by Hoover was among the 7 entries being considered for the HK New Products Award although it lost out to a TV game developed by Radofin Electronics. (HK Productivity News, 1975) As a firm, Hoover Manufacturing was dissolved in 2019.

Lee Hung Tong Image 4 York Lo

Lee Hung-tong speaking at the Rotary Club of HK Northwest in 1979. To his left was Toshiba distributor Wong Chung-man and to his right was the club president Henry S.H. Fung, trader and proprietor of Blue Heaven Restaurant & Nightclub. (WKYP, 1979-6-22)

Aside from HKTIEA, Lee was involved with the Chinese Manufacturers Association since the 1950s and is listed as one of its honorary presidents. Outside of business, Lee was a founding member of Rotary Club of HK West in 1954 and one of two surviving founding members at its 60th anniversary in 2014, the other being Daniel Koo of Shui Hing (see Promotors article). He served as president of the club in 1978-79 and maintained over 90% attendance record in the six decades. He was known as a singer who led birthday songs during the club meetings and after he retired in the early 2000s, he devoted more time to singing and held concerts in 2004 and 2009.  In April 2012, the 89-year-old Lee held a 2-hour singing performance at HK City Hall, breaking the age record for concert headliners in HK. At the event, he gave HK$100,000 to the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease which Kao’s wife Gwen Kao accepted on behalf of the Foundation as chair and another HK$100,000 was raised from the audience.

Sources (other than those cited above):

https://rotary3450.org/rotary-club-of-hk-island-west-the-joy-of-reminiscing-the-past-glory-of-60-years/

香港潮州商會九十年發展史

http://news.gd.sina.com.cn/news/20120408/1272516.html

https://horizon.documentation.ird.fr/exl-doc/pleins_textes/divers09-03/41563.pdf

https://www.lion.co.jp/en/company/history/

This article was first posted on 4th January 2020.

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