Spear and Yips – Pioneers of the HK Shirt Industry
York Lo: Spear and Yips – Pioneers of the HK Shirt Industry
Before the war, shirts in Hong Kong were dominated by imported brands from overseas (e.g. Arrow Shirt from America) or the mainland (e.g. Smart Shirt and 555 Shirt from Shanghai). The first two domestic shirt brands to emerge in the post War period were Spear Shirt (槍牌恤) and Yips Shirt (葉牌恤) which were both started shortly after the War was over and before the emergence of Union V-Tex shirts and Crocodile. They held considerable market share not only in the local market but also overseas. Unfortunately due to competition and the economic environment, both of these pioneering brands have faded into history.
Left: Spear Shirt advertisement promoting its booth at the 1956 HKPE. Right: Yips Shirt advertisement from 1952. (Source for both: 吳昊老花鏡)
Spear Shirt was started in 1946 by Cheung Chiu (張超), a prominent importer who was also the owner of two department stores in Central – Keensen Co (建成公司) on the ground floor of China Building and Vansen Co (萬成公司) at 33 Queens Road Central (current site of Melbourne Plaza), both of which he founded in 1947. While bigger department stores such as Wing On and Sincere focused on the mass market, Vansen and Keensen like its peers Dragon Seed (its neighbor in Central) and Shui Hing focused on the higher end consumers, importing fashion from Italy and the UK (e.g. Burberry coats) and cosmetics from France.
As Hong Kong made shirts were new to the market, the shelf space provided by sister companies Vansen and Keensen was critical to Spear’s penetration into the domestic market in its early years. Not necessarily the cheapest, Spear focused on offering a wide variety and high quality material. By 1952, Spear shirts were so popular there long lines of consumers queued up to buy them.
A 1963 Spear Shirt advertisement in Singapore (Source: Straits Times, 1963-1-10) Right: Miss Spear Shirt at a HKPE preview show at Vansen in 1956 (Source:大公報, 1956-11-28)
By 1954, Spear had two factories – one on Cheung Sha Wan Road and one on Tai Po Road producing 60,000 shirts per month which included 16 varieties of dress shirts and over 20 varieties of Hawaiian shirts. It also claimed to be the first shirt company in Hong Kong with an export license to the United States and also shipped its products throughout the British Commonwealth. At the HKPE that year, they markeedt two shirts – one retailing for $9.50 which used imported American textiles and another for $6.50. (Ta Kung Pao, 1954-12-30).
At the 1955 HKPE, it offered 54 types of shirts and also provided a free name embroidery service. (Ta Kung Po, 1955-11-29). The variety continued to increase and by the 1960s, it offered four different lines of shirts – Topcron, Terylene, Coolene (introduced in 1963) and Topura (80 percent polyester fibre, 20 percent cotton; introduced in 1965). In addition to Vansen and Keensen, at least 3 Spear Shirt shops (including one in Man Yee Building in Central) were established and Cheung promoted his shirts aggressively through newspaper ads and participation at the annual HKPE.
In 1958, Spear Shirt began marketing in Singapore and Malaya, selling their shirts in department stores such as Metro. By 1963, annual sales in the region topped $2 million and the firm decided to establish a subsidiary in Singapore called Century Garments with paid up capital of $2 million and plans to build a factory to make shirts locally. (The Straits Times, 27 December 1963, Page 18)
Article about Mr & Mrs Cheung Chiu returning to HK after a 2 month long round the world business trip which included visiting the World Expo in Seattle and the Milan fashion show in 1962 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1962)
In 1965, a banking crisis ripped through Hong Kong which resulted in the closure of a number of banks (most prominent was the Canton Trust and Commercial Bank) and Spear Shirt suffered a major blow financially.
The next two years of riots did not help matters and by the end of 1967, Spear Shirt was out of business with its assets being taken over by 3 banks and auctioned off. (Kung Sheung Daily News 1967-12-15, Ta Kung Pao, 1968-1-15)
Left: Spear Shirt booth which won first runner up for booth display at the 1959 HKPE (Source: HK Memory); Right: Vansen Company at 33 Queen’s Road in Central in 1955, you can see the signs of the Commercial Press and Dragon Seed to the left. (Source: Weshare)
Yips Shirt was named after the last name of its founder and its logo was a leaf which is the meaning of Yip in Chinese. The shirts were manufactured by Tung Yick Garment (同益製衣廠), which was founded in 1945 as a small factory by Yip Chan-yuk (葉燦煜). A relatively low key businessman, little is known about the background of Yip except his father was involved in the shipping industry in the Kwangsi province and he was assisted by a younger brother by the name Yip Chan-sang (葉燦生).
The main value proposition for Yips shirts was quality. For example, a 1952 Yips ad guaranteed its shirts would not shrink since they were made of imported American cotton fabric that were “Sanforized” (a treatment to prevent shrinkage pioneered by Cluett Peabody & Co, the maker of the famous Arrow shirt). In 1946, Tung Yick relocated to a larger space (6500 square feet) in 80 Larch Street (洋松街) in Tai Kok Tsui and by 1959, the factory employed over 300 workers, fully equipped with the latest machines for all aspects of production from sewing to packaging. Domestically, Yips promoted its shirts at the annual HKPE and also had three retail outlets by 1959 – 265 Des Voeux Road in Central, 467-9 Hennessey Rd in the Eastern district and 636 Nathan Road in Kowloon. It also expanded from men’s shirts to pajames, jackets and ladies/children wear. But domestic sales only represented 30 percent of total revenues as 70 percent of Yip shirts were actually exported, with West Germany being the most important market, and UK, US, Sweden and Southeast Asia to a lesser degree. (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1959-12-04)
Opening of Yips Shirt’s branch at 467-469 Hennessey Road in 1958. (Source: Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1958-5-2)
While Yips Shirt was fairly high profile in the 1950s, it seemed to have faded away in the 1960s and 1970s (perhaps due to competition) although Its manufacturer Tung Yick Garment was still active as of 1977.
This article was first posted on 12th October 2016.
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