Lee On and Ying Kee – manufacturers of safes and steel furniture

York Lo: Lee On and Ying Kee – manufacturers of safes and steel furniture

Local manufacturing of safes has existed since the early 1900s and within this specialized industry, Lee On and Ying Kee were two of the oldest and largest players (which also manufacture steel furniture in addition to safes) and both happen to be founded by Cantonese industrialists with the last name of Leung. The business of the two firms were particularly strong in the 1950s and 1960s with the combination of high economic growth and high rate of fire and crime (burglaries and riots) while most businesses were still transacted in cash (e.g. payroll), prompting businesses ranging from banks and jewelry stores to factories and retailers to purchase safes to safeguard their assets.    

Lee On Safe & Steel Furniture Mfg (利安夾萬鋼具廠)

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Lee On artifacts from three eras (Lee On website). Left: Lee On safe made in 1935; middle: Lee On product catalog from the 1960s; Right: “Idealist” special safe made by Lee On in the 1970s

Founded in 1905, Lee On Safe has been a manufacturer of safes and steel furnitures for over a century. Not much info is available about Lee On’s actitivities before the War but business took off after the War in the 1950s and 1960s under the management of managing director Leung Ching-po (梁澄波), who was supported by his younger brothers Leung Ching-sang (梁澄) and Leung Ching-cham (梁澄湛) who were managers of the firm. In the 1950s, Lee On had two factories – the main one was located at 47-51 Pak Tai Street in To Kwa Wan while the branch one was located at 12 Pak Kung Street in Hunghom. By the 1960s, its factory had relocated to 70 Hung To Road in Kwun Tong.

The success of Lee On was built upon its mastery of the 4Ps of marketing. In terms of products, it manufactured a large variety to specifications and emphasized on quality. In terms of prices, its products were priced competitively against foreign brands (in 1961 for example, the Far Eastern Economic Review cited a four drawer Ronco filing cabinet imported by Dodwell which was priced at HK$389 compared to a similar cabinet made by Lee On at HK$195). In terms of place, it established a network of retail outlets – starting with its main store at 313 Queen’s Road Central and adding a branch at 466 Nathan Road in Yau Ma Tei in 1955, a Wanchai branch at 392 Hennessy Road in 1959 and a Sham Shui Po branch at 11 Cheung Sha Wan Road in 1964. In addition to selling its safes locally, Lee On also exported to Southeast Asia, the UK and the US.

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The new Nathan Road branch of Lee On in 1955 (WKYP, 1955-7-6); Right: article about the safe which survived the Sheung Wan market fire in 1962 (WKYP, 1962-6-25)

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Opening of the HK East branch of Lee On in 1959 with Leung Ching-po and guests at the opening reception in the picture on the right (WKYP, 1959-6-27)

In terms of promotions – Lee On was big on customer testimonials which were strong proofs of the strengths of its fire and burglar resisting safes. During the “Double Ten” riots in Kowloon in 1956, rioters ransacked the Yee Wo Tai Weaving Factory at Tung Tau Village Road and took over HK$100,000 worth of textiles. They also tried to pry open the factory’s safe which was manufactured by Lee On but failed to do so after many hours. In desperation, the rioters tried to break the safe open by dropping it from the roof of the factory to no avail. Lee On proudly displayed the safe at the HK Products Expo that year to highlight the strength of its safe. (KSEN, 1956-12-13). The next year (1957), Lee On published an ad featuring a letter from Lam Min-shui (林綿瑞), the manager of Kung Yick & Co (公益號) at the Shek Wo Hui market in Sheung Shui whose Lee On safe had survived two recent fires. In 1962, Lee On safe survived a fire at the Sheung Wan Market, allegedly the 14th time a Lee On safe was recovered from a fire without any damage. In 1964, burglars were unable to break into a Lee On safe at the Odeon Theatre in North Point.

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Two advertorials of Lee On – left: Shek Wo Hui fire in 1957 (WKYP, 1957-1-15); right: burglary at the Odeon Theatre in North Point (KSDN, 1963-9-5)

When Lee On’s Sham Shui Po branch opened, the list of guests and flowers at the opening ceremony included representatives from all the major Chinese banks at the time – Hang Seng Bank, HK Chinese Bank, Overseas Trust Bank, Wing On Bank, Kwong On Bank, Wing Hang Bank, Liu Chong Hing Bank, Dao Heng Bank, China United Bank etc, who were likely clients of Lee On. (WKYP, 1964-9-25). As a firm, Lee On Safe & Steel Furniture Manufacturing Co Ltd was incorporated in 1971 and dissolved in 1990. The successor firm Lee On Safe Co Ltd was incorporated in 2012 and continues to operate to this day.  

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Design of the new metal desk from Lee On which was on display in its new Sham Shui Po branch in 1964 (KSDN, 1964-9-23)

Ying Kee Safe & Furniture Manufacturing (英記夾萬傢俬)

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Left: Fire at the Ying Kee Safe Factory in 1958 (KSEN, 1958-11-15); Right: HK Watch Association president Tse Chu-cheung testing out Ying Kee safe which was used to store hundreds of thousands dollars’ worth of luxury watches at the 2nd HK Watch Fair in 1961 (WKYP, 1961-3-21)  

Ying Kee was founded in 1933 (although it was not incorporated until 1962) by Leung Ying-kit (梁英杰, 1904-?) and Leung Ping-shu (梁秉樞, 1911-1991, aka B.K. Leung), two natives of Sun Wui in Guangdong province. Ping-shu was a graduate of the Ping Shan School in Sun Wui and came to HK at the age of 19. The original Ying Kee factory was located on Cameron Street on Tai Kok Tsui. In 1955, Ying Kee participated in the HK Products Expo where it showcased one of its safes which survived a fire with documents inside intact and sold jewelry boxes at HK$9.80 each (KSEN, 1955-12-29). Aside from safes and jewelry, the firm also made metal furniture such as desks, chairs, filing cabinets, folding chairs. Its safes were also exported overseas to markets such as Singapore where some of its white label clients painted them and marketed them under their own brands.  Originally a wood worker, Leung Ping-shu was fascinated with metallurgy as he entered the safe business and designed several machines used during the metallic production process. By the mid-1950s, most of Ying Kee’s production process were machine based. The firm invested HK$100,000 in a 9.5 tons metal bending machine which could exert pressure of upwards of 180 tons, often only used in shipbuilding. (TKP, 1955-12-4)

In 1956, Ying Kee opened its factory in a 6-story building at 1145-1149 Canton Road. Aside from the ground floor of 1145 Canton Road which served as the firm’s distribution outlet, the rest of the building were workshops. In 1963, a fire started at the painting department on the second floor of 1149 Canton Road, resulting in over HK$10000 in damages and a worker suffered burns. (KSDN, 1963-11-27)

Outside of Ying Kee, both Leung Ying-kit and Leung Ping-shu were active community leaders. Leung Ying-kit was chairman of the Leung Clansmen Association (梁氏宗親會) and vice chairman of the San Wui Commercial Society (新會商會). He also opened the Mayflower Restaurant (五月花酒家) in 1959 with the nightclub tycoon Wong Kau (黃球) with himself as chairman and Wong as managing director. Under the management of Wong, Mayflower grew to a chain of 7 restaurants (6 in HK and 1 in Singapore) by the late 1960s.

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Leung Ying-kit with staff and guests at the opening of the Mayflower restaurant at 735 Nathan Road in 1959. Right to left: director and managing director Wong Kau, Esther Wong Lee, R.C. Lee, Mok Hing-shung, Leung Ying-kit, manager Lui Yee-king (WKYP, 1959-12-8)

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Directors of the HK Furniture Merchants Association with Leung Ying-kit delivering a speech (inset) in 1954 (WKYP, 1954-7-12)

Both Ying-kit and Ping-shu were involved with the various furniture industry groups such as the Federation of HK Furniture Manufacturers and the pro-Taipei Kowloon Chamber of Commerce but Ping-shu was more involved with the latter for which he had served as vice chairman for two decades from 1965 to 1985 and chairman from May 1985 until his death in 1991. He was appointed member of the Control Yuan by the KMT regime in Taipei and served as chairman of the Kong Toi Trading Co. (WKYP, 1991-10-3). He was survived by his wife, 3 sons and 2 daughters (predeceased by his youngest daughter). His second son Charles Leung Mang-yick (梁萬億) graduated from Cornell with a mechanical engineering degree and worked with the family business before starting his own furniture business C&E Furniture Industries (適意傢俱工業) and Coe Limited.

In 1986, Ying Kee opened a 2000 sq ft showroom at Wai Hong Building at 55 Connaught Road Central. (TKP, 1986-4-23). By then, the main office of Ying Kee was located at 147 Sai Yee Street in Mongkok with factory located at the Tai Po Industrial Estate. Ying Kee Safe & Furniture Mfg Ltd was acquired by the listed publishing house Culturecom in 1993 and was renamed Culturecom Printing House Ltd while Ying Kee Safes & Furniture Ltd was incorporated in the same year as the successor firm and built a large plant in Dongguan. In 1998, Culturecom sold Ying Kee and its Dongguan-based subsidiary and today the focus  of the firm has shifted from safes to furniture with a chain of stores under the brand “Eagle House Furniture” (or 记华 Ying Kee Elegant Homes in Chinese highlighting its Ying Kee heritage).

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Left: Ying Kee owner Leung Ping-shu; Right: Leung Ying-kit and other pro-KMT leaders in HK at the memorial service of KMT politician Liang Han-chu (梁寒操) in 1975. Left to right: C.L. Hsu of Diaward Steel Works, Wang Shu-tao, historian Lo Hsiang-lin, General Chang Fa-kui, General Robert S.L. Ho, Wong Long-ching (former bodyguard of Sun Yat-sen), Leung Ying-kit (KSEN, 1975-5-26)

This article was first posted on 31st May 2019.

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