Notable Players in the HK Wig Industry in the 1960s and 70s
York Lo: Notable Players in the HK Wig Industry in the 1960s and 70s
In the 1960s, the US wig market exploded and grew from less than US$10 million a year in 1960 to US$1 bllion within a decade, with over 40% of American women owning more than one wig and importing over 1 million wigs from Asia on a monthly basis at its peak. The insatiable demand for wigs in the West helped to create a huge wig industry in HK which at one point counted over 400 players and employed 5 percent of HK’s workforce, earning HK the title of “wig capital of the world”.
Aside from low labor costs, HK also emerged as a center of wig production thanks to its proximity to two major sources of human hair (which most wigs were made of before the rise of synthetic materials) – Indonesia and China. Given the US embargo of Communist China at the time (the restrictions were not lifted until 1971), at first almost all of the human hair in HK wigs came from Indonesia but as demand outstripped supply, certain players began shipping human hair from China to Indonesia and then re-labeled them as Indonesian hair. According to one US analyst, if all the wigs that were imported into the US from Asia were made of real Indonesian hair, all the women in Indonesia would have been bald, and hair quality and oil content. In 1967, the US government imposed a fine of US$24500 on Sino British Wig, a HK firm ran by a 24 year old Tam Chuen-fook (譚全福), for selling wigs that were made of hair from mainland China.
Human hair wig was a very lucrative business as machine made ones sold for US$60 apiece and hand-tied ones could fetch up to US$150-400 while the production cost was only one sixth of the selling prices. In the early 1970s, synthetic fiber such as Dynel made by the American chemical firm Union Carbide and kanekalon (also known as “KK”) developed by Japanese chemical firm Kaneka Fuji (カネカ富士) significantly reduced the cost of wigs with the machine-made ones selling for $30 and the handtied ones selling for $40-50. The rise of the synthetic wigs offered by firms such as Reid-Meredith which was a pioneer in the space, competition from other Asian countries such as South Korea and decline of the popularity of wigs in the 1970s proved to be devastating to the HK wig industry and the business shrunk significantly with many factory closures and labor unrests.
Below are the profiles of 6 key players in the HK wig industry aside from the industry’s founding father George Lau (Regal and Rogaile), who was profiled earlier in a different article. The first three were started by young American entrepreneurs in their twenties with two of them later being gobbled up by personal care giants Bristol Myers and Gillette at the peak of the boom. The next three firms were founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, two of which are still going strong today after half a century of operations.
Abbott Tresses and Dohago
Left: Wig patent awarded to Dominic Abbott and Godfrey Chen (Source: Google Patents) Middle: Dominic Abbott (Source: 3V Medical Research website); right: a Halston wig made by Abbott Tresses
Abbott Tresses was one of the largest wig companies in America and its product development and manufacturing were done by its HK-based affiliate Dohago Manufacturing. The firm’s founder Dominic Abbott started out as an iron worker in Pittsburgh, the capital of steel in America but found himself more interested in hairdressing, quietly going to beauty school at night to learn the trade. In 1959 he started his own beauty salon and when he found the demand for wigs from his clients exceeded that of hairstyling in the early 1960s, he established Abbott Tresses and started importing wigs from Hong Kong from a HK wig manufacturer by the name of Godfrey Chen. What really propelled Abbott to the big time was when they began making their own synthetic hair wig. Abbott and Chen made a number of designs which they patented – the sales of the first one was lackluster but the second one called Wendi was a huge success. To further enhance their brand, Abbott partnered up with two of the top fashion designers at the time – Adolfo and Halston, both of whom were also known as milliners and Halston’s clients included First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Braniff Airlines as clients. Soon, Halston and Adolfo wigs made by Abbott Tresses were flying off the shelves. By 1969, the sales of Abbott Tresses exceeded US$11.2 million and the company had its own Abbott Building in downtown Pittsburgh.
For manufacturing of the wigs, Abbott, his lawyer friend Harry Goldman and Chen formed Dohago Manufacturing (天和實業, the name of the firm is an acronym of the three founders’ names) in Hong Kong as a major supplier to Abbott Tresses. The operations were so big that the trio built their own Dohago Industrial Building at 19 Hung To Road in Kwun Tong (later sold to Sino Group which re-developed the building into Fullerton Centre). According to Abbott’s bio, his firm had over 5000 employees worldwide at its peak.
The runaway success of Abbott Tresses caught the attention of Bristol Myers, the personal care/pharma giant and owner of the Clairol line of hair products which had been interested in the wig business as early as 1968 and had identified Abbott as one of seven potential acquisition targets. In March 1970, Bristol Myers acquired Abbott Tresses in an all-stock transaction which valued the company at US$15 million with Abbott continue running the wig business as a vice president of Bristol Myers. For the year 1970, the firm’s sales rose another 40% to US$14.8 million and as a result, Dominic received another US$3 million worth of Bristol stock. By early 1972 however, sales of new Abbott designs were disappointing and coupled with the rapid downturn of the industry, Abbott was removed from his office in April. A subsequent court battle dragged on for a number of years where Bristol accused Abbott and Chen of benefiting themselves through Abbott Tresses’ arrangement with Dohago and revelations of use of private detectives on both sides. In 1978, Bristol Myers shut down all of its wig business. After wigs, Dominic Abbott invested in various businesses in his native Pittsburgh including real estate, restaurants and healthcare products.
“Wig-Making Turn Former Iron Worker into Millionaire” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Oct 31, 1978
North American Hair Goods
Series of print ads featuring Armando Ghedini proclaiming himself as “the greatest wigmaker in history”.
North American Hair Goods was one of the top 5 wig companies in America (the other four being Tovar Tresses, Abbott, Carousel Fashions and Reid-Meredith) and the firm started out as a problem for its founder Armando Ghedini. Son of Arrigo Ghedini, a famous Italian portraitist who had painted the portraits of Winston Churchill and presidents of Latin American countries, Armando studied architecture in Mexico at the recommendation of family friend actor Tyrone Power and after 8 years of study, the 23 years old Ghedini started his own architectural practice in New York in 1963 and one of his projects was a residential home in New Jersey. When the client was unable to settle his design bill of US$12000 in cash, he was given 400 human hair wigs imported from HK instead. Ghedini brought the wigs to a female friend who worked in a beauty salon and her friend’s boss swiftly bought the wigs for US$40 apiece, netting him $16000. When he later learned that he could have sold those wigs for hundreds of dollars each, Ghedini formed North American Hair Goods with an Indian friend Lal C. Sani and a former trial lawyer Stephen Green to capitalize on the opportunity. The firm sold its wigs in department stores and beauty salons across the country under the “Studio Collection by Ghedini” brand and marketed itself aggressively through catchy ad campaigns.
For manufacturing, North American Hair Goods had a factory with 1000 workers in Hong Kong capable of producing 1.5-2 million wigs per year and over 3000 points of distribution in the US. By 1969, sales exceeded US$4.8 million. In 1970, the famous razor manufacturer Gillette acquired North American Hair Products for 65000 shares and plus up to 71000 additional shares based on profits. Ghedini, Sani and Green remained in charge of the wig division which was renamed North American Fashion in 1971 but like Abbott Tresses, the firm became a victim of the wig industry bust in the 1970s and was shut down in 1978.
- MacCormack, Patricia, “Architect Finds Gold Mine in Synthetic Wigs” UPI, Feb 2, 1971
- “Gillette Co Buys Wig Maker” WSJ, July 31, 1970
- “Gillette Wig Unit Changes Name” Boston Globe, Jan 16., 1971
Gilda Fashions (基達髮品廠)
Andy Vajna (left) and his partner in the movie business Mario Kassar in the 1970s.
Founded by Andrew George (“Andy”) Vajna, a young Hungarian American hairdresser from Hollywood, Gilda Fashions was a leading supplier of wigs to major brands such as Revlon, Pierre Cardin and Eva Gabor. Its factory was allegedly the largest wig factory in the world with over 3000 workers at its peak.
Born in German occupied Budapest in 1944, Vajna fled Communist rule in Hungary with his family at the age of 12 and eventually settled in Beverly Hills where he became a hairdresser working for celebrity hairstylist Gene Shacove (whose clients included Warren Beatty and was the inspiration for the main character in Beatty’s movie Shampoo). While working as a hairstylist on the set of the daytime soap opera General Hospital, Vajna realized the huge potential of wigs. He and two Shacove colleagues (Gabor Koltai and Oliver) went over to HK and brought back 3000 wigs which were quickly sold out and as did another order which was double the size. The trio formed AGO (acronym of their first names) to import wigs into the US from HK and within 18 months, they made over US$3.5 million, which was an astronomical sum at the time. To meet the soaring demand in the US, Vajna went to HK where he set up Gilda (Incorporated in 1969 and dissolved in 1985) and Overseas Export Co Ltd (incorporated in 1967 and dissolved in 1972) with corporate offices at Star House in TST. Business was brisk for several years with workforce increased from 250 workers at 50 Hung To Road in Kwun Tong in 1969 to over 2000 workers at Chai Wan Kok Road in Tsuen Wan in the early 1970s. until the downturn in the early 1970s. In June 1973, Gilda was closed and its remaining 1200 workers were laid off. After a month-long dispute, the workers received HK$390,000 as severance pay. William Wong, one of Gilda’s managers remained in the industry, first joining Gilda’s client Eva Gabor (who came from Hungary like Vajna) to oversee their Korean operations before moving to California to start his own wig factory.
With his profits from wigs, Vajna diversified into other businesses. He was involved in the jeans business through investments in Faded Glory (founded by fellow wig manufacturer Jimmy Yip, see below profile of Ming Tat and later article on Bang Bang) and Jeans East (boutique in Wanchai, in partnership with Moni Narain who also owned Om Shoppe at 1 Duddell Street). Then he entered the movie business by acquiring two cinemas in Hong Kong – Capitol (京華戲院, opened in 1952, closed in 1977) in Causeway Bay and Liberty (快樂戲院, opened in 1949, closed in 1997) in Yaumatei. From movie theaters he moved into film distribution and founded Panasia (泛亞影業) in 1972 to distribute American films in Asia which is still a major foreign film distributor today. At Panasia, he produced his first movie in 1973 – a kung-fu thriller Deadly China Doll starring Taiwanese martial art actress Angela Mao (茅瑛). His was also involved in a Bruce Lee film project called Green Bamboo Soldier which did not come to fruition due to the actor’s premature death in 1973. After selling Panasia to Golden Harvest in 1976, Vajna started Carolco back in Hollywood with Mario Kassar which became a movie production powerhouse behind the highly successful Rambo, Die Hard and Terminator action movie franchises in the 1980s. He sold his interest in Carolco in 1989 to form Cinergi Productions which had hits such as Die Hard with a Vengeance and Evita in the 1990s but was ultimately shut down in 1998 after a string of bombs. In recent years, he has been very involved with the development of the film industry in his native Hungary.
Vajna is not the only Hollywood figure with ties to the HK wig industry. Jon Peters, the movie producer (the first Batman movie franchise, Caddyshack, Wild Wild West) who started out in the hair salon business in Hollywood, also owned a wig factory in Hong Kong (although the name of the firm was not known) around the same time as Vajna. He began a relationship with Barbra Streisand after making a wig for her in the 1974 comedy For Pete’s Sake, eventually earning production credits on Streisand’s A Star is Born which launched his producer career. When the African American model Naomi Sims founded her own wig company in 1973, her wigs were also imported from Hong Kong. Famous Hollywood makeup artist Jerome Alexander also sourced wigs from Hong Kong
- Moneywood: Hollywood in Its Last Age of Excess, Macmillan, 2013
- 華僑日報, 1973-07-05; 大公報, 1969-11-09
From Flourish Hair & Wig Products (鼎盛髮品公司) to Evergreen Products Group (訓修實業)
Left: 6th anniversary dinner of Flourish Hair & Wig. Yin Chin-been was second from the left in the middle row while the factory manager Yang Chang-you and manager Chang Chih-lung were second and third from the right in the middle row. (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1971-2-7) Right: Chang Chih-lung
Chang Chih-lung (張之龍, 1925-) is a low key but legendary figure in the HK wig industry whose involvement in the industry spanned half a century and he founded two major firms – Flourish Hair & Wig, which was a leading wig manufacturer in HK with affiliates across Asia and Evergreen Products Group, which is currently the fifth largest synthetic hair wig manufacturer in the world and became the first publicly-listed wig company in HK in 2017.
A native of Yunnan province, Chang graduated first in his class in 1948 and started his career working for Mao Heng (茂恆商號), the largest and oldest trading firm in Yunnan for 16 years, first in Yunnan and then in HK. The Wang family which owned Mao Heng was also in the wig business with Hearty Wig Manufacturers Ltd (一心髮品廠, incorporated in 1964, dissolved in 1971). In 1964, Chang helped a Cantonese wig manufacturer procured human hair from Indonesia with the assistance of Yin Chin-been (尹欽本), his classmate from Yunnan who had become a successful businessman in Indonesia after stints in Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand (where he was chairman of the Yunnan Natives Association). When Yin and Chang realized how profitable the business was, they established Flourish Hair & Wig in HK in 1965 with Yin as chairman and Chang as managing director, offices at the Hang Seng Bank Building in Central and a 500 worker factory in North Point. Despite setbacks during the 1967 riots, Flourish flourished, especially after Chang’s 4 month round the world business trip in 1968 during which he sold down the firm’s HK$3 million inventory, picked up HK$3 million in new orders and also met with another classmate from Yunnan – David Wue (伍達觀, son of CC Wu, the late developer of CC Wu Building in Wanchai), who was a professor at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and suggested he looked into making wigs with synthetic fiber. Plants were added in Thailand and Taiwan (under the Chinese name of 富爾麗髮品 in Kaohsiung) and in Singapore, Flourish products were distributed by Yin’s Khee Heng Hang Trading Co (祺興行, which also sold watches, pens and radios) with a built-in hair salon. In 1973, strong competition from Korea and the downturn in the wig market forced Flourish to shut its plants in HK and Taiwan and Chang to switch to trading (Flourish as a firm was ultimately dissolved in 2003).
When the wig industry began to rebound in 1976, Chang and his Burmese Chinese wife Shan Yi-sin established Evergreen Products Factory as a small wig factory in HK. When China opened up in the 1980s, Evergreen set up manufacturing operations in the mainland to take advantage of the low labor costs, opening the first plant in Guangzhou in 1984 and the second plant in Shenzhen in 1987. In 1992, their son Felix Chang Yoe-chong (張有滄) joined the business and in 1995, Chang set up his third mainland plant in Kunming, the capital of his native Yunnan province. As production costs rose, Evergreen set up manufacturing in more remote locations – in 2003, another plant was built in Henan and in 2010, the Bangladesh plant began production which by 2016 represent 82% of the group’s HK$596 million in revenues. The business is currently managed by Felix Chang while Chang Chih-lung serves as honorary chairman and devotes most of his energy in philanthropic activities in his native Yunnan province.
Ming Tat (銘達實業)
Article about Ming Tat with a picture of its booth in the HK section of a trade fair in West Germany in 1971 (Source: WKYP, 1971-3-25)
Ming Tat (HK) Industrial Co Ltd was a leading wig manufacturer in HK that was the first of a series of successful businesses started by the famous serial entrepreneur Jimmy Yip Chi-ming (the Ming in the firm’s name was after his name). In 1971, Ming Tat spent over HK$100,000 (not a small amount at the time) to participate in a major trade show in West Germany. The article about this said Ming Tat had over 1000 workers in HK and its capital was over $2 billion (likely an error) with subsidiaries all over the globe. By mid 1970s, Jimmy Yip had phased out of wigs and achieved even bigger success with his Bang Bang and Faded Glory jeans. (to be profiled in another article)
Artistic Hair Products (精工髮品廠, now CK Hair)
Left: 1976 HK Hairstyle Open Competition organized by Artistic Hair Products; Right: CK Chao (center) at the press conference for the HK & Asia Hair competition organized by his firm in 1978 (工商晚報, 1978-06-13)
Founded in 1964 as Artistic Hair Products, CK Hair (which kept the same Chinese name) remains a leading player in the HK wig industry after half a century of operations. The firm started out as a small factory with 100 workers in a 3000 sq ft space at 653 King’s Road in North Point, exporting wigs to the US. Born in Shandong province in 1913, Artistic founder K.L. Chao (趙貢琳) was involved in the trading business in Shanghai before coming to HK in 1950. An early supporter of the Communist regime, Chao and a number of Shandong natives in HK donated much needed resources to their native Shandong province in 1961. Thanks to his connections in mainland China, Chao’s Van Yee Hair Traders (萬誼行, incorporated in 1967, dissolved in 1995) was one of the exclusive agents of human hair from mainland China and Artistic moved to a 10000 sq ft space in 206-208 Tsat Tsz Mui Road in North Point in 1970 as it expanded to European and Japanese markets.
In 1971, Chao’s son Chen-Kuo Chao (趙振國) joined the family business after completing his studies at the Tokyo University of Technology, just as the wig industry experienced a severe downturn. To survive, Artistic became the first HK wig manufacturer to set up factory in Shenzhen in 1972 and Foshan in 1974. It also shifted its production to making hair for dolls. To raise the profile of the firm, CK Chao started the Asia Hairstyling competition in 1976, which have been running annually for the past four decades. In 1981, the Artistic Hair factory in North Point was destroyed by a deadly fire which claimed the lives of 11 workers and injured 19 workers. The firm recovered from the disaster, launching a line of high end synthetic men’s wigs under the brand of The Concept by CK Chao in 1982. In 1989 at its 25th anniversary, the firm was renamed CK Hair International Ltd and had 4000 employees working in 250,000 sq ft of aggregate factory spaces in Kwai Chung and various cities in the mainland. In 1990, CK Hair Centers were launched in Causeway Bay and TST to target the local market. In 1995, another factory was added in Jinan in Shandong. In 2005, CK Chao founded the HK Hair and Beauty Merchants Association and since 2014, CK Hair had opened retail outlets in various major cities in China.
華僑日報, 1989-09-28, 1981-01-23, 1989-09-28
Other Wig Factories (not enough info for profiles; in alphabetical order)
Damy Hair Products (特美髮品) – chairman and managing director of the firm was Lam Ka-nung (林家農). Factory at 910 Cheung Sha Wan Road and had subsidiaries in New York and Puerto Rico. Incorporated in 1967 and dissolved in 1992.
Dennis Wig Manufacturers & Exporters (蝶麗公司) – office located at Commercial House in Central. The principal’s name is S.D. Tsao.
Dora Wigs (多麗髮品廠) – chairman Ching Wing-ming (程永銘) and managing director William Lym (林伍卿). Formed in 1966 and dissolved in 1995. Factory was located at How Ming Street in Kwun Tong.
Paris Fashion Wig Manufacturing (HK) Ltd (巴黎髮品製造) – Paris was an affiliate of Dammy Hair Products and was a business started in 1967 by the sons of Hang Seng Bank co-founder B.Y. Lam with Rogerio S.F. Lam as managing director (best known in the late 1970s for the failed Commercial Television and in the early 1980s for the failed Bylamson Group). In 1967, Paul Tsui, the Acting Secretary of Chinese Affairs visited the plant accompanied by Jimmy McGregor and Lee Chak-pui. At the time the firm occupied 4 floors (30,000 sq ft) in an industrial building in Wong Chuk Hang with over 400 workers, some of whom had free housing and all of whom received full medical coverage and job training. (Source: WKYP, 1967-6-22). The firm was renamed Paris Commerce & Industries Co Ltd (巴黎工商有限公司) in 1973 and dissolved in 2000.
Wiggie Wigs (鼎豐髮品廠) – incorporated in 1970 and dissolved in 1972, Wiggie Wigs was an affiliate of Ting Fung Iron Works (which shared the same Chinese name as Wiggie), one of the leading enamelware manufacturers in HK founded by Shanghainese industrialist Fu Chuen-sang (傅泉生).
Y.Z. Wig Factory (永美髮品)- incorporated in 1969 and dissolved in 1974.
Corona Wig Factory (寶冠髮品廠) – incorporated in 1966 and dissolved 2003, original factory located at 33 Sheung Heung Road in To Kwa Wan. Then moved to 50 Hung To Road in Kwun Tong in 1969. In June 1970 the factory laid off 100 female workers which ended with protest at the Department of Labor.
1969, Universal Chinese Overseas Directory; Company Registry
This article was first posted on 13th November 2017.
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