Majestic (美琪) and Union (鑑臣): Makers of Soaps, Perfumes and Essential Oils

York Lo: Majestic (美琪) and Union (鑑臣): Makers of Soaps, Perfumes and Essential Oils

Majestic And Union Image 1 York Lo Left: Ad for Majestic soap in Hong Kong in 1950 (KSDN, 1950-10-3); Right: Headline coverage of the murder of C.D. Lee in 1958. The pictures in the top section from left to right are Liu Han-ming, Joseph Pei and C.D. Lee. The pictures in the bottom are of the three criminals involved in the murder. (KSEN, 1958-11-9)   

For months in late 1958, the triple homicide in Brazil of Shanghainese industrialist Ching-Dea Lee (李潤田, hereafter referred to as “C.D. Lee”), his assistant Joseph Pei (貝祖植) and his bodyguard Liu Han-ming (劉漢明) dominated the headlines in Hong Kong. 

C.D. Lee was a prominent figure in the HK industrial scene as his Majestic Chemical Works (美琪化工, incorporated in 1947, dissolved in 1953) was the only manufacturer of soap in Hong Kong in the late 1940s and early 1950s and Lee himself was also a director of the city’s leading Chinese charitable organization – the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals in 1951. Prior to moving to HK, he was already a major player in the business of perfume, soaps and essential oils in the mainland since the 1920s with plants in Shanghai and Canton under the names of Majestic and Union. 

After the regime change in the mainland in 1949, Majestic’s operations expanded to Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Brazil. While the Lee family no longer has business operations in Hong Kong, C.D. Lee’s name is memorialized in the city by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Lee Ching Dea Memorial College which was donated by his widow Zao-Hwa Lee, an active philanthropist in HK in the 1950s to 1970s.  Lee’s brother in law H.Y. Woo and his descendants built up Majestic’s operations in Taiwan where Majestic remains a major brand of soap today. In the mainland, Lee’s Union Perfumery Industries had become the Sino-Japanese joint venture Shanghai Takasago-Union Fragrances & Flavors Co Ltd, which remains one of the leading producers of fragrances and flavors in the country.    

The Life and Death of Majestic Founder C.D. Lee (1893-1958) 

Majestic And Union Image 2 York Lo

Left: Ching-Dea Lee (Brazilian immigration record, 1956); Right: ad for toothpaste made by Majestic Chemical Works in Shanghai

A native of Shanghai, Lee Ching-Dea studied chemistry at a government-run school to train workers for the arms industry. He then worked as a chemist for a German-owned soap factory (固本皂廠) in Shanghai which was acquired by the Chinese-owned International Dispensary (五洲大藥) in 1921. Sources also cited that he worked for the German trading firm of Siemssen & Co and the Swiss trading firm of E. Huber & Co where he was involved in the import of essential oils for use in manufacturing of perfumes and other cosmetic products. He struck out on his own in the late 1920s and early 1930s when he took over the trading firm of Shanghai Union Trading (鑑臣洋行) and set up Paris Perfumery (巴黎化粧品廠), Majestic Chemical Works and Union Perfumery Industries (鑑臣香精原料) in Shanghai to manufacture essential oils and a wide array of cosmetic products such as soaps, perfumes and toothpaste with the assistance of the Polish expert S. Nagel. Soon his “Eagle” brand of essential oils and “Majestic” brand of soap were highly popular. With his profits from trading and manufacturing of perfumes, soaps and essential oils, Lee opened a leather factory and a beverage factory in Shanghai. After the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1932, Lee opened a branch of Shanghai Union Trading in HK in 1934. During the Japanese occupation, Lee did not move with the KMT regime to Chungking but continued to operate his factories in Shanghai and opened a factory in Canton. (TKP, 1958-10-14)

As explained by C.D. Lee to the press in 1947, the conditions for industries in Shanghai after the War became extremely difficult due to the government’s tight restriction of imports and hyperinflation which resulted in soaring production and labor costs. (WKYP, 1947-11-25) As a result, Lee like many other industrialists from the mainland decided to open a factory in Hong Kong and established Majestic Chemical Works at Un Chau Street in Kowloon in 1947 to manufacture soaps. The daily production of the factory was 300 boxes (each box containing 12 dozen) and the firm had 9 staff members, 20 male workers and 56 female workers at launch with plans to ramp up to 100 workers and increase capacity to 500 boxes per day. Its raw materials in the form of essence were primarily sourced from Union in Shanghai but some of it were also imported. The two brands of soap manufactured by the firm were “Majestic” (美琪香皂) and “Annone” (愛儂香皂). The brands quickly gained popularity in the local market and allegedly the wife of the governor, Lady Grantham was a customer (KSDN, 1947-8-11) 

In April 1948, Majestic launched its “Jade” line of soaps to target the Southeast Asian market, priced at HK$50 per box. The firm also made soaps of milk and sandalwood flavors for use in the summer in addition to palm oil and medicinal soaps. (WKYP, 1948-4-2) 

As the Communists took over most of China, Lee shut down his factory in Canton and shipped its equipment to Taipei where he continued soap production under Majestic Chemical Works Taiwan. As the Korean War progressed in the early 1950s, Lee lost confidence in Hong Kong and decided to shut down the HK plant of Majestic Chemical Works and laid off all its workers in the summer of 1952. Allegedly the tensions were high when that took place and Lee had to call in the police who had to send in trucks to disperse the workers. The site of the plant was sold to C.K. Chang (張軍光) for his Hwa Lee Weaving Factory (華利織造廠) while the equipment was sent to Taiwan.   

After the closure of Majestic’s plant in HK, Lee kept the offices of Shanghai Union Trading in HK but left for Japan in 1952 and later established an office in San Francisco. In 1955, his wife joined him in the US and in 1956, their son James Shao-ping Lee (李紹斌) returned from the US to HK to take over Shanghai Union’s operations there. The same year, Mr. & Mrs. C.D. Lee went to Brazil and returned to HK in July 1957 for short visits during which they stayed at Champagne Court and Ocean View Court in Tsim Sha Tsui and kept a low profile. He went back to Brazil by himself in March 1958 where he had plans to build an essential oil factory making oils extracted from locally grown plants. In Brazil, Lee bought the former mansion of the former Vice President of Brazil in Sao Paolo for US$100,000 which attracted a lot of attention. 

In the second week of October 1958, shockwaves were sent across the globe when the bodies of Lee, his assistant Joseph Pei (accountant, graduate of Soochow University, uncle of the famous architect I.M. Pei ; his widow Jeanette Loh-Hui Coe 許樂慧 was the sister in law of the singer Barbara Fei, niece of August Moon Hotel owner Barbara Fok, see article) and bodyguard were found in Rio Tiete in Sao Paolo. On October 15, 1958, 300 of Lee’s friends and family held a funeral for him at the International Funeral Home in HK followed by a memorial service two days later organized by the Kiangsu Chekiang Residents Association which he was a director of at its school which was attended by over 1000 people including leaders of the broader Chinese community and wreaths were received from Taiwan from dignitaries such as Vice President Chen Cheng, Yu You-ren and C.K. Yen. (WKYP, 1958-10-18, 1958-10-16) After ten months of investigations involving detectives from 50 countries, it was concluded that the murders were a result of a kidnapping plot gone wrong that was orchestrated by Lee’s chauffeur with two criminals from Japan and the bodyguard Liu was also involved but was killed after he had a fallout with his co-conspirators.  

Majestic after the death of C.D. Lee 

C.D. Lee was survived by his wife Zao-Hwa Woo Lee (李吳若華), his son James and his daughter Nancy Shao-lan Lee, who married Rueywen Liu(劉瑞文, 1930-2018), a professor of electrical engineering who taught at the University of Notre Dame in the US for 41 years. A devout Buddhist, Zao-Hwa became an active philanthropist in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Brazil and donated generously to various causes. In August 1959, she donated HK$30000 to the Kiangsu Chekiang School to build the “C.D. Lee Chemistry Laboratory” and HK$20000 to the Kwong Wah Hospital in memory of her late husband (WKYP, 1959-8-4, 1959-8-6) In 1971, she followed up with a gift of HK$500,000 to the Tung Wah Group of Hospital and as a result, the group’s second high school which opened in 1974 was named after her husband. (the planning of the school began in 1963 but was delayed for one reason and another)

James continued to run Shanghai Union Trading Ltd in HK which was not incorporated until 1961. He expanded the firm’s footprint to Southeast Asia, opened Majestic Chemical Works in Bangkok and started Union Perfumery Industries in Singapore in 1968 to manufacture essential oils with crude essences imported from France and the Netherlands. (Straits Times, Sep 4, 1968) Unfortunately, both the Thai and Singaporean operations had faded into history and Shanghai Union Trading also dissolved in HK in 1981.

Majestic And Union Image 3 York Lo Left: Zao-Hwa Lee presenting a HK$20,000 check to Tung Wah Hospital chairman Ernest C. Wong, (see article on Danemann Watch Case Factory) in 1959 for Kwong Wah Hospital. (WKYP, 1959-8-6) Right: Joseph Lee Shao-ping (The Straits Times, 4 September 1968, Page 14)

Majestic’s operations in Taiwan prospered under the leadership of C.D. Lee’s brother in law H.Y. Woo (吳浩源). Born in 1916, the Fukien native Wu joined the chemical lab of Union in Shanghai after high school and learned the techniques of making soaps and perfumes under the firm’s Polish expert S. Nagel. At first the firm’s Taiwan plant was located at Songshan (松山) but was relocated to Sun Chong (新莊) in 1953. In 1958, Majestic Taiwan acquired South China Chemical (南華化工廠), the manufacturer of the “Mary” brand of medicated soap (瑪莉香藥皂) and became the largest local manufacturer of soaps in Taiwan. The firm was formally renamed Mary & Majestic (瑪利美琪化工) in 1977.

H.Y. was succeeded by his son S.L. Woo (吳紹麟) and grandson Alfred Woo (吳英偉) at Majestic. Alfred’s older brother David Woo (吳至偉) is the head of global interest rate and currencies research at BofA Merrill Lynch and was recognized as one of 12 smartest people on Wall Street in 2013 by Business Insider.  

As of 2014, Mary & Majestic had 3-5% of the soap market in Taiwan and was the largest manufacturer of medicated soap. In 2016, it relocated its plant to a new factory in Taoyuan.  For whatever reason, C.D. Lee had been removed from the corporate history of Majestic in Taiwan which now traced its origins to being founded by H.Y. Woo in Canton in 1943.


This article was first posted on 3rd January 2020.

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