Samuel Gee Yen (嚴欣淇) and East Sun Textile(怡生紗廠)
- York Lo: Samuel Gee Yen (嚴欣淇) and East Sun Textile(怡生紗廠)
Left: Bio and picture of Samuel Gee Yen in 1948. Source: 實業界名人錄(1948); Right: picture of Samuel Yen before boarding CAT plane to Taiwan to visit his relatives in 1959 (WKYP, 1959-8-24)
Founded in April 1949 by Samuel Gee Yen (aka Shing-Gee Yen 嚴申耆,1906-1984), East Sun Textile was one of the 13 founding members of the HK Cotton Spinners Association in 1954 before becoming part of the textile conglomerate Winsor Industrial in 1972 and operated until 1981. Like the Yungs of Nanyang Cotton Mill, the Lees of Textile Alliance and the Tangs of South Sea Textile (all of whom they are related to by marriages), the Yens was one of the leading families of industrialists in Republican China.
Samuel Yen was the third of six sons of Yen Yu-tang(嚴裕棠,1880-1958), a Soochow native who founded Oriental Engineering Works (大隆機器廠) in Shanghai in 1902. Started out repairing steamboats and flour mill machinery, Oriental became a leading supplier of textile machinerybenefiting from the textile boom of the early 20th century and expanded into textile manufacturing through the acquisition of Soo Lung Cotton Mill (蘇綸紗廠), the largest textile concern in Soochow (pinyin: Suzhou) in 1925. The family fortune was further augmented by prudent investments in real estate and acquisitions of four other mills and by the early 1930s when he survived two kidnapping attempts, Yen was a prominent industrialist nationwide and the family holding company Kwang Yue Industrial (光裕公司) was a leading conglomerate. When the Communists came to power in the mainland in 1949, members of the Yen family like many of their peers went separate ways across the globe. Yen Yu-tang himself first moved to Brazil but died in Taipei in 1958. The eldest son Ching-Chang Yen (嚴慶祥, 1899-1988) who joined the family business at the age of 17and helped built it into a conglomerate stayed in the mainland along with his fifth and sixth brother and transferred most of his overseas assets back to the mainland.The second son Ching-Zai Yen (嚴慶瑞, 1901-1969) moved to Brazil before settling in the US where he died.The fourth son T. L. Yen (嚴慶齡, 1909-1981), a German-trained engineer and his wife Vivian Wu (吳舜文,1913-2008) co-founded two leading industrial enterprises in Taiwan – Yue Loong Motors (裕隆汽車, later rebranded its English name as Yulon) and Tai Yuen Textile (台元紡織).Samuel himself chose Hong Kong where he built East Sun into one of the leading cotton mills.
Samuel Yen’s famous relatives – his parents Mr. & Mrs. Y.T. Yen (left) and his younger brother T.L. Yen and sister in law Vivien Wu, the founders of the Yulon Group in Taiwan.
Graduated with law degrees from Chinan University and Soochow University and studied business at the University of the Philippines, Samuel was placed in charge of Soo Lung Cotton Weaving & Spinning Co. in Soochow by his father. Founded in 1895 by the famous Ching dynasty official Chang Chi-tung (張之洞), Soo Lung was a loss-making operation when the Yen family teamed up with the Lees and the Wus (who later started Textile Alliance and Wyler Textile in HK respectively) and took it over in 1925 and Samuel helped to turn Soo Lung around. When the Japanese occupied Soochow, Samuel moved to Chungking where he founded several industrial ventures. After the War was over, he returned to Soochow where in addition to managing Soo Lung he was very active in community affairs, serving as president of the Soochow Industrial Federation, chairman of the Soochow University Hospital, president of the local Rotary Club and Anti-Tuberculosis Association and trustee of his alma mater Soochow University. He invested in many businesses ranging from banks to transportation companies to newspaper and even entered the realm of politics and got elected president of the Soochow local assembly in 1946 and member of the first assembly of the Legislative Yuan in 1948.An American ally, Samuel donated the memorial in Soochow dedicated to Robert Short, the first US aviator died fighting the Japanese and even translated Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist Papers into Chinese in 1948. By early 1949 however, it was clear that the KMT regime was in its final days in the mainland and Samuel Yen left Soochow for Hong Kong for good. Soo Lung in Suzhou became a public private enterprise in 1954, nationalized in 1966 and operated until 2004, marking over a century of operations. The area of the site has since been developed into Sulun Plaza with three of the factory’s dormitories preserved but the project struggled and did not become the Xintiandi of Suzhou that it aspired to be. In Hong Kong, Samuel Yen leveraged his experience managing Soo Lung to build East Sun.
East Sun Textile
Shanghainese workers of East Sun Textile in 1953
East Sun Textile commenced operations in Hong Kong in 1949 and as of 1954, it had 12528 spindles, 490 workers and 400,000 lbs of yarn in monthly output, making them the 7th largest cotton spinning mill in Hong Kong out of 13 by spindle count, slightly behind Textile Corporation of HK which was profiled in the article about the Song brothers. In the 1950s, its office was located at 11 Duddell Street in Central while its mill was located at KTIL 73 in Kwun Tong. Its brands of cotton yarn were Panda and Unicorn. In 1955, the organizational structure of East Sun is show below and based on the details described in the bottom, the mill had expanded and was well organized:
In 1958, Samuel Yen managed to hire the prominent banker Hsi-Jui Shen (沈熙瑞, 1905-1996) as the managing director of East Sun Textile. A graduate of Tsing Hua and one of the earliest Chinese graduates of Dartmouth College in the US, Shen was a high ranking central banker in the KMT regime before moving to HK in 1950. During his time with East Sun which was a time of trade protectionism in the West, Shen was an active advocate for the industry locally and abroad – having served as vice chair of the HK Cotton Spinners Association, one of the delegates to negotiate with the US Tariff Commission on HK textile imports into the US in 1962 and was appointed to the Cotton Advisory Board alongside PY Tang, Elmer Tsu, YL Yang, SN Chau, Jerry HT Liu, Lam Kan-sing, Cheung Ying-chan, Wong Toke-sau, CK Chow and Sidney Gordon in 1963.In 1964, Shen joined HSBC as Joint Manager and helped establish direct links between the Bank and the cotton spinners, bypassing the “cotton mill pool” arrangements set up by China Engineers (see article) which charged 2 percent above the Bank’s rate. (Shen stayed with HSBC for the rest of his life and served as director of Shaw Brothers, Hang Lung and Henningsen.)
H.J. Shen (first from right) with other HK delegates heading to the US to negotiate with the US Tariff Commission – Ng Yu-kwong of Ng Yee Hing, deputy director of the Commerce and Industry department Dermont Barty, Jerry HT Liu of South Textiles in 1962. (WKYP, 1962-2-9)
Like its peers, East Sun faced many headwinds in the trade and the labor fronts over the years. In 1952, 90 workers were laid off within 5 days. In 1962, the mill had to cut one third of its production due to US restrictions on imports. During the 1967 riots, many East Sun workers joined the strike and one of the labor leaders, Leung Kai-wing (梁啟榮) was arrested by the HK government. After the riots, business resumed. By the 1960s, the firm’s office had moved to Chartered Bank Building in Central and Samuel’s eldest son John Yen (嚴洪泰) had joined the business. Other directors of the firm in the 1960s include Joseph Liu Chien-hua (劉建華), C.Z. Zee and Zau-Nyien Lee. Joseph Liu was born in Foochow in 1904 and went to Tsing Hua before earning his B.A. from Oberlin and M.A. from Columbia. In addition to bring a director of East Sun, Liu was manager of Overseas Assurance Corporation and director of Crowntex (HK) Ltd and Maysun Trading. (HK Album, 1967) John Yen was director of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals in 1968/69 and in 1969, he hosted two Labor Party members of the UK parliament at East Sun Textile as seen in below picture:
Two Labor Party MPs (first and second from the left) visiting East Sun in HK accompanied by Labor Department officials and chatting with John Yen who was director and factory manager in 1969 (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1969-4-13)
In 1972, the Yen family decided to sell East Sun Textile to Winsor Industrial, the listed textile conglomerate and Samuel Yen joined the board of Winsor. Founded in 1969 by T.K. Ann, W.H. Chow (see Doll Noodle article) and his brother C.K. Chow and H.C. Tang (father of former Chief Secretary Henry Tang) through amalgamation of their mills, Winsor was growing aggressively through acquisitions and by 1974 was the largest textile concern in HK and Southeast Asia with over 20 subsidiaries, 50000 employees, $900 mil in sales, $61 mil in profits and controlled 10 percent of all spindles in HK.
In 1974, East Sun as a Winsor subsidiary decided to close its spinning operations and to move its machinery to Indonesia. Some of the employees were transferred to other Winsor mills but by September, the remaining 400 workers were laid off.
East Sun kept its weaving division but by the early 1980s, it was no longer competitive to operate in HK. In June 1981, Winsor Industrial decided to shut down East Sun for good although as a firm it was not dissolved until 2016. The East Sun mill in Kwun Tong was re-developed into East Sun Industrial Centre and New East Sun Industrial Building.
Outside of work, Samuel Yen was active in community affairs in HK, having served as director of Tung Wah in 1959-60, Po Leung Kuk and Pok Oi Hospital in 1961, commissioner of the Kiangsu Chekiang Residents Association, president of the Peninsula Lions Club (which was founded by John Tung of I-Feng and C.K. Chang of Hwa Lee Weaving) in 1968-69 and chairman of the Chuang and Yen Clansmen Association. He died in December 1985 at the age of 83 at the HK Sanatorium and was buried in Taiwan. He was survived by his two wives, 6 sons and 2 daughters. His concubine Hsu Chong-hui (許頌輝) was a prominent Beijing opera actress in HK and a student of the famous Meng Hsiao-tung (孟小冬). After East Sun, his eldest son John remained in business, setting up garment factory in Hangzhou and formed Taishan Ceramics (泰山陶瓷) in partnership with Interkiln Corporation of America and state-owned interests such as Bank of China in Shanghai in 1986 before his death in 2009. Samuel’s fourth son Hong-tai(嚴康泰) and sixth son Hsiang-tai (嚴香泰) were also in business in HK while Samuel’sother sons lived abroad – Hao-tai (嚴豪泰)in the US, Hang-tai (嚴亢泰) worked for BBC in the UK and another son in Canada.
East Sun Industrial Centre and New East Sun Industrial Building in Kwun Tong at the former site of the East Sun Textile Mill.
華僑日報, 1963-07-27, 1984-12-26, 1984-12-31
大公報, 1967-07-01,1962-03-16,1952-12-20, 1974-09-21
Kung Sheung Daily News, 1974-9-21; Kung Sheung Evening News, 1982-3-13
Hong Kong Album, 1967 – profile of Samuel Gee Yen
唐翔千傳, 三聯書店(香港)有限公司, 2014
Nishida, J.M. “Japanese influence on the Shanghainese textile industry and implications for Hong Kong”. HKU Thesis 1990.
This article was first posted on 3rd September 2018.
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