Min Ngai (棉藝): Leading Maker of Cotton Singlets and Vests from the 1920s to the 1960s
York Lo: Min Ngai: Leading Maker of Singlets and Vests from the 1920s to the 1960s
Left: Ad for Min Ngai in 1941 (A Century of Commerce, 1941); Center: Min Ngai’s booth at the 15th HK Product Expo in 1958 on the right, on the left was Amoy Canning’s booth; Right: Ad for Min Ngai Huat Kee in 1958 (WKYP, 1958-11-8)
Founded in Canton in 1919 and moved to Hong Kong, Min Ngai was a leading manufacturer of cotton singlets and vests from the 1920s to the 1960s which prospered under three different owners – its founder Wong Siu-hing, its Shanghainese competitor Kingford and the Filipino Chinese businessman Chua Lian-huat who extended its footprint throughout Southeast Asia with branch factories in Hong Kong, Penang, Singapore, Bangkok and Manila at its peak but unlike its better known competitors such as Lee Kung Man and Chun Au had faded into history.
Min Ngai Knitting Factory (棉藝織造廠)
Min Ngai’s founder Wong Siu-hing (黃少卿) was born in the 1880s in his native Dongguan where he received his education from private tutors. At the age of 17, he went to Canton to enter the weaving industry to learn about the business and founded his factory – Yuet Hing Knitting Factory (悅興織造廠), one of the earliest weaving and knitting mills in Guangdong after he completed his training. He later founded Shiu Hing Knitting Factory (紹興織造廠) in Hong Kong in 1911, which operated out of 1A Pitt Street in Yau Ma Tei and was later managed by his eldest son Wong Kom-tong (黄甘棠).
Wong founded Min Ngai to make singlets and vests in Canton in 1919, but the firm moved to Hong Kong in 1922 where it established its first factory on Pine Street in Mongkok in the space of two rented storefronts with initial capital of HK$31300. At the time, most singlets were hand-made but Min Ngai was an early adopter of machines to enhance production capacity and quality. This strategy paid off and business took off. By 1934, the firm was doing sales of over HK$1 million a year and its “Peonyflower” brand of singlets was already popular with Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. Thanks to the growth, Min Ngai had built a larger factory at 32 Fuk Tsun Street in Tai Kok Tsui (worth HK$200,000 at the time) occupying 14 storefronts and had over 870 workers (150 male and 720 female) with daily production of over 300 dozen singlets (using 20 machines) and 1000 dozen socks. Wong was responsible for dealing with external affairs while Ng Keng-yu (伍鏡如) managed the day to day operations of the factory. (KSDN, 1934-7-31; HK Chinese Factories Survey, 1934)
Upper left:Min Ngai founder Wong Siu-hing; Upper right: ad for Min Ngai in 1934 featuring a poem about Min Ngai singlets (HK Chinese Factories Survey); Lower left: sample of socks made by Min Ngai before the War (HK Memory)
Outside of business, Wong Siu-hing was active in community affairs, having served as chairman of Tung Wah and Kwong Wah hospitals and during the Japanese occupation (1941-45), he stayed in HK and as director of Po Leung Kuk in 1944, risked his life in providing relief effort during heavy bombing by Allied bombers.
Min Ngai under Kingford
After the War, Min Ngai continued its production on Fuk Tsun Street but for whatever reason, Wong Siu-hing decided to sell Min Ngai while keeping his other businesses such as Shiu Hing Knitting and the Tai Wah Chinese restaurant. In March 1948, Min Ngai was acquired by the fast growing Kingford Knitting & Weaving Mills Ltd. (景福衫襪織造廠) from Shanghai, best known for its “Flying Horse” brand of singlets and underwear (飛馬針織内衣).
Kingford was founded a decade before in 1937 by V.C. Hsu (徐文照) and his friend Y.C. Hsu (徐雲慶). Before starting Kingford, V.C. Hsu and his father were involved for many years in Ching Lun Knitting (景綸衫襪紡織廠), one of the oldest knitting factories in China founded in 1896 by the unrelated family of the famous comprador Hsu Run (V.C.’s family is from Yuyao 餘姚 in Zhejiang province while Hsu Run 徐潤 was from Zhongshan in Guangdong). Following a similar trajectory of fellow Shanghainese shirt manufacturer Smart Shirt (see article), Kingford emerged in the late 1930s through high quality products and clever marketing and by 1944, the firm was a vertically integrated textile enterprise with over 500 workers in Shanghai and its products was distributed nationwide through branches in Tientsin and Hankow and throughout Southeast Asia through its HK branch. In addition to acquiring Min Ngai, Kingford also incorporated Kingford Knitting & Weaving Mills Ltd in HK in June 1948 and the word “Kingford subsidiary” was added to the Chinese name of Min Ngai and Y.C. Chen was installed as manager. Min Ngai Knitting Factory Ltd was incorporated in March 1950.
Unfortunately, the businesses of both Kingford and Min Ngai did not fare well in 1949-51 with the regime change and the outbreak of the Korean War and as a firm, Kingford K&W Mills in HK was dissolved in December 1951 while Min Ngai was dissolved in May 1952. Kingford in the mainland became a public private enterprise in 1954.
Min Ngai (Huat Kee) Knitting Factory (棉藝發記織造廠)
Left: Chua Lian-huat (Straits Times); Right: Kwok Chan speaking at the 40th anniversary celebration of Min Ngai in Hong Kong. Left to right: Chong Sing-chong (see article on Oriental Soy Sauce), Chua, Chua Lian-huat, Sir Tsun-Nin Chau (WKYP, 1959-8-26)
In the early 1950s, Min Ngai was acquired by the Filipino Chinese businessman Chua Lian-huat (蔡聯發) and as a result the business was renamed Min Ngai (Huat Kee) Knitting Factory (Huat Kee as in his name Lian-huat) and as an entity was incorporated in May 1952.
A native of Fujian province, Chua operated Hua Tong Trading Co (華東公司) in Binondo in Manila with branches established in HK and Shanghai by the late 1940s. Outside of business, he was involved with the Manila Chinese Chamber of Commerce and was generally regarded as a leader of the Chinese community in the Philippines but in the 1950s and the 1960s, he was perhaps better known across Asia for his involvement in basketball, particularly as the leader of two basketball teams from the Philippines – the “Black and White” Chinese basketball team (黑白籃球隊), which was formed in 1934 and the “Min Ngai” basketball team, which was named after his knitting factories. Both teams had competed and won many regional games in the 1950s and 1960s and visited Taiwan and HK often. In 1954, he led his “Min Ngai” team (12 players, 3 of whom were Filipino) on a two months tour in Southeast Asia which included 10 games in Singapore, 3 games in Bangkok, 3 games in HK and 5 games in Jakarta. (Singapore Free Press, 1954-10-5)
Chua brought new life to Min Ngai and assisted by deputy managing director Lee Chung-chiu (李仲潮), the HK operations. Aside from “Peonyflower”, Min Ngai also manufactured “Independence” and “Pagoda” brand of singlets and other products under the brands of “Schooner”, “Radio”, “Violin” and “Football”, all of which were sold locally and also exported to various markets in Southeast Asia and beyond.
In 1954, Min Ngai opened its first retail outlet at 153 Queen’s Road Central and by then, its factory had relocated from Tai Kok Tsui to 588-592 Castle Peak Road. Every year, the Central outlet held anniversary sale events and the firm also participated in the popular year end HK Products Expo.
In August 1959, Min Ngai hosted a large banquet at the China Restaurant to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the firm and 5th anniversary of its retail outlet which was attended by over 600 prominent guests including Chinese leaders such as legislator/banker Kwok Chan, CMA chairman Chu Shek-lun and Sir Tsun-Nin Chau who spoke at the event and other VIPs such as China Motor Bus boss Ngan Shing-kwan, Sir Shiu-kin Tang, C.Y. Kwan, Sik-nin Chau, Hui Oi-chow etc. At the time, Min Ngai’s Hong Kong operations had an annual output of over 4 million pieces of garments. (WKYP, 1959-8-26)
Left: Min Ngai’s Singapore plant at its opening in 1965 (Straits Times, 1965-2-20); Right: Phak-tong Cu
Assisted by his lieutenant Phak-tong Cu (邱北忠) who was secretary of the “Black and White” basketball team and leveraging the expertise of the Min Ngai factory in HK, Chua set up Min Ngai factories across Southeast Asia in the 1960s, such as the Min Ngai Knitting Factory in Manila and Thai Knitting Factory in Bangkok. Some of these were launched with local partners such as the Thai Chinese businessman U Chu-liang (余子亮 1900-1974) and the Malaysian Chinese industrialist and politician Chan Swee-ho (曾瑞豪, also involved in electric fan maker Din Wai’s factory in Malaya, see article on SMC, DEMC and TAT). U was partner of Min Ngai’s plants in both Bangkok and Malaysia and he was involved with the Bangkok Metropolitan Bank and Hong Kong Metropolitan Bank, the latter of which Chua was also a director of in the 1960s.
In 1961, Chua formed Min Ngai Knitting (Malaya) Sdn. Bhd. and in 1962, the firm opened a 100,000 sq ft plant in Butterworth, Penang with 300 workers turning out 400 dozen cotton singlets per day. (Straits Times, 1962-11-30)
By the mid-1960s, Min Ngai HK was shipping over 5000 dozen singlets and vests to the Singapore market per month, which motivated the firm to open a branch factory and formed Min Ngai Knitting Factory (Singapore) Pte Ltd with Tan Kee-pak as chairman, Chua as vice chairman and Cu as manager. In February 1965, Min Ngai’s 45,000 sq ft Singapore plant was opened in Jurong by Finance Minister Goh Keng-Swee with $2 million in capital, 186 workers (300 at full production capacity), 80 sewing machines and 60 other machines and daily production of 1000 dozen singlets (or 4 million pieces of garment per year, 2000 dozen per day at full capacity). Raw materials were sourced from England and HK and the outputs were sold locally and exported to Europe, US, Middle East and Fiji.
In May 1969, Min Ngai Malaya went public on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange and on August 1969, the firm celebrated its golden anniversary in Hong Kong. (TKP, 1969-8-19)
In March 1971, the Penang plant added a spinning mill which was opened by Prime Minister Abdul Razak. By then however, Min Ngai Malaya was experiencing financial difficulties and was taken over by Teh Hong-piow (鄭鴻標) of Public Bank, which renamed the firm Public Textile Bhd (大眾紡織) in 1973 (eventually evolved into Asia Pacific Land). (Straits Times, 1971-5-19)
Not much info is available about Chua Lian-huat after the 1970s. According to his grandson Willie Choi, Chua sold his stake in Min Ngai in the early 1970s and retired to the Philippines where he died in 1985. His third daughter married Harry Hsiao-jen Loh (陸孝仁) in HK in 1961. Loh is the uncle of former Legco councilor and Civic Exchange founder Christine Loh and is a graduate of St. John’s University in Shanghai and a former Texaco executive. (WKYP, 1961-10-25)
As for Min Ngai Huat Kee in Hong Kong, as a firm it was dissolved in 2000.
This article was first posted on 14th February 2020.
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