The Chan Families of Sing Chow, Ling Nam, United and Ching Yick – Pioneers of the HK Torchlight Industry

Earlier in the group, we have covered several major torchlight manufacturers such as Sonca (formerly V.K. Song & Co), Sunbeam, Nam Jam, Tang Fun Kee and Everlight. But the first torchlight manufacturer in HK was Sing Chow Electric Factory, which was founded in 1920 by Nanhai natives Chan Ting-yu (陳定宇), his older brother Chan Shek-hou (陳碩候) who returned from Peru and their clansman Chan Lee-sheung. Chan Ting-yu was referred by a 1936 document about Chinese industries in HK as the “father of the torch industry in South China” as he and his associates also founded Ling Nam Hardware (嶺南金屬製品廠, see article) in 1929 and Chung Nam Flashlight, two other large torch manufacturers in HK at the time, Berlin Hardware Electric Factory (柏林五金電器廠) in Canton in 1920, the second torchlight factory in the city and Sam Yick Electric Manufactory (三益電器製造廠) in Shanghai which made the Sam Yick brand of torchlight. The next generation of the Chan family founded other electric manufacturers after the War such as Ching Yick Factory, United Electric Manufacturing Factory and Surface Mount Technology and remains active in the electronics industries in HK and southern China starting a century ago.

Chan Lee-Sheung and Sing Chow Electric Factory (星洲電器製造廠)

Sing Chow Electric Factory Image 1 York Lo

Left: ad for Sing Chow Electric in 1934 (HK Chinese Factories Survey, 1934); Right: Sing Chow founder Chan Lee-sheung (A Century of Commerce, 1941)  

Founded in 1920, Sing Chow Electric Factory was one of the earliest and largest manufacturers of flashlights in Hong Kong and known for its “Dog’s Head” (狗頭) brand of flashlights. While Chan Ting-yu was involved in the founding of Sing Chow, it was primarily ran by his co-founder Chan Lee-sheung (, 1889-1949), who was one of the nine organizing committee members of the Chinese Manufacturers Association in 1933 and later elected vice chairman of the Association. 

A native of Namhoi in Guangdong province, Chan Lee-sheung graduated from the Nam Mu Middle School (南武中學) in Canton and served on the staff of the school for 17 years. He came to Hong Kong in 1920 and founded Sing Chow which by 1934 had grown to an enterprise with registered capital of HK$100,000 with its HK factory on Watson Road in Causeway Bay and branch factories in Canton (on Tai Tung Road) and Shanghai (on Szechuan Road).  

According to the HK Chinese Factories Survey in 1934, Singchow’s HK factory had three major sections – assembly of flashlight, lightbulbs and pressing of copper sheets (with a 154 horsepower machine). The firm had 260 workers, 190 of whom were female. Many of the female workers were under the age of 20 as strong eyesight is required to make the small lightbulbs in the torchlights. When speaking to the reporter, Chan lamented that due to intense competition both domestically and from Japanese competitors, prices had dropped by more 60%. As a result, the once highly profitable business was barely breaking even. Despite this, Chan refused to cut prices (in fact Sing Chow’s prices was allegedly the highest in the industry among local manufacturers) or cut corner in terms of quality of materials and rather compete on product quality than price. The firm was doing monthly sales of about HK$30,000 and making about 1200 flashlights and 5000 bulbs per day. Its products were exported to markets such as Thailand, the Philippines, US, UK, India and Peru but limited sales to Dutch Java due to import duties. 

Outside of Sing Chow, Chan Lee-sheung served as chairman of the HK Electrical Association, vice chairman of the CMA, director of education of the Confucian Association and vice chairman of the South China Athletic Association. In 1936, the HK Electrical Association organized a fundraising committee to raise funds for the purchase of warplanes for the Nationalist in celebration of Chiang Kai-shek’s 50th birthday and Chan was one of the 9 fundraising committee members alongside Chan Ching-to of Wah Mei Electric, Chiu Hip-ting of Chung Yuen Electrical (see articles) and Lo Chek-po (羅澤溥), later founder of battery maker Gold Peak Industries (KSDN, 1936-9-17). The next year, the Sun Yat-sen University war relief group came to HK and Chan personally helped the group visit various torchlight factories and raised 800 torchlights and batteries which were sent to the front. After the Japanese occupied Canton in 1938, Chan and his fellow schoolmates re-established the Nam Mu Middle School in Hong Kong with himself elected as its chairman. 

After the War, Chan Lee-sheung spent most of his time in Canton and on May 31, 1949, he died at the Red Cross Hospital in Canton. (WKYP, 1949-6-11) Chan was the father of four sons – Chan Sun-tse (), Chan Yam-tse (), Chan Hop-tse (陳俠) and Chan Kin-tse (陳健) – and two daughters. His eldest son graduated from Shunkan University while his second son graduated from Sun Yat-sen University and both worked as engineers for the War department of the Nationalist government in Chungking during the War. His eldest son was a metallurgy expert and was on the executive committee of the Guangdong People’s Congress before his death in 1986.   

Sing Chow Electric Factory Image 2 York Lo

A Sing Chow flashlight. (Canadian Museum of History) 

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Sing Chow’s address was listed as 4 Wing Hing Street in Causeway Bay and was listed as manufacturer of kerosene lamps in addition to torchlights and electric bulbs with Y.K. Tam (譚彥) as its manager. (HK Chinese Merchant Almanac, 1954; Kelly’s Directory of Merchants,1963) By 1969, the firm’s address was listed as 340 Fuk Wing Street, the Wai Tak Industrial Building developed by the Hung family discussed in another article. (AA Far East Businessman’s Directory

As a firm, Sing Chow Electric was incorporated in 1950 and dissolved in 1987. 

The family of Chan Ting-yu and United, Ching Yick and SMT

Chan Kei Kam (2) Kei Biu Chan

Left: Chung Yick Factory founder Keegom Chan in the 1960s (SCJP, 1966-8-27); Right: Chan Kei-biu (China Daily) 

Relative to other Chinese industrialists at the time, Chan Ting-yu was rather unique as he was also an inventor and actually held patents such as the one below:

In 1935, Chinese newspaper in HK announced that T.Y. Chan had invented the first torch in the world that requires no batteries and was applying for patents in Nanking and with the UK. (Tin Kwong Po, 1935-9-30) In June 1941, he announced the launch of an apprentice training program at Ling Nam which would teach machining and electroplating skills to 100 apprentices with free housing, meals and clothings and science lessons at the factory premise. Recruitment was to start in July and last for the rest of the year but plans were likely disrupted by the Japanese occupation months later in December of the same year. (TKP, 1941-6-25) After the War, Ling Nam continued to make “Horse”, “Cat” and “Sam Yick” brands of torchlight out of its factory in Ma Tau Wai Road and participated at the HK Products Expo and in 1956, it marketed a four color torchlight (red, blue, yellow, white) which sold for $1.20 each. (TKP, 1956-12-17)
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Ching Yick Building on Sam Chuk Street in San Po Kong (photo courtesy of Chan Ho-ming)

Chan Shek-hou’s son Keegom Chan (陳其淦, 1918-2008) graduated from the National Chekiang University with a degree in electrical engineering and worked for the US Army Supplies in China as an engineer before starting United Electrical Manufacturing Factory (聯合電器製造廠) in HK at 150-152 Castle Peak Road to manufacture the “U” brand of torchlights after the War with three others led by Law Kei-pak (羅膺白), a native of Panyu born in 1900 who was a mechanical expert who had worked for Kowloon Canton Railway. The firm had about 100 workers in the late 1940s and exported to Southeast Asia and other British Commonwealth markets. (KSDN, 1947-11-22) By the late 1950s, the firm had moved to 912-914 Cheung Sha Wan Road and also expanded to manufacturing of electric wires and metal wares. Keegom later sold his shares in United to his cousin Chan Kei-lai (陳其籟) who was an employee of the firm and established Ching Yick Factory (精益電器廠) which manufactured plastic torchlight, headlight and signal light for exports to Western Europe and America with three factories – a 6-story building at 19 Sam Chuk Street in San Po Kong, a 3-story building in Castle Peak Road and 428-430 Un Chau Street in Cheung Sha Wan in the 1960s. In 1966, Keegom teamed up with the Lee brothers of Din Wai, Datuk Chan Swee-ho and property developer Cho Shiu-chung and established Din Wai Malaya with Keegom serving as its director and chief engineer. In the mid-1970s, Keegom sold Ching Yick and its San Po Kong building to the Japanese motor giant Mabuchi (which built its first factory in HK in 1964) and immigrated to the US where his three sons had settled after graduation.

Kei-lai operated United until the 1990s before closing it down and selling the Cheung Sha Wan site to SHK Properties for $30 million who re-developed the site into Trust Centre (時信中心) in 1994. Kei-lai’s son Wilfrid Chan Shu-nam (陳樹楠) graduated from Pui Ching Middle School in HK and Columbia University in the US before returning to HK where he started his own business and later set up a joint venture with the Germans to make bicycle parts in Shilong.

Chan Ting-yu died in HK in 1970 and was survived by seven sons and five daughters. His sons included Chan Kei-yam (陳其任) who worked for Ling Nam, Chan Kee-nam (陳其楠), a graduate of the University of Chicago Medical School who practiced medicine in Canada and Chan Kei-biu (陳其鑣), PhD graduate of the University of London who founded electronics manufacturing service provider Surface Mount Technology Ltd (新進科技) in 1986 and been operating its plant in Donguan since 1993. Kei-biu had served as chairman of the HK Electronic Industries Association and director of two listed electronics companies – Benelux International and Gold Peak Industries. Ting-yu’s sons in law included Liu Lit-mo (廖烈武, 1937-2017) of Liu Chong Hing Bank and a member of the Zau family, pioneers of the HK electronics industry. As a firm, Ling Nam Hardware was incorporated in 1939 and dissolved in 2003.

Sources (other than what’s cited above):

This article was first posted on 10th February 2020.

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