Star Power: E. Penn Industrial Manufactory (興華實業) and “Butterfly” (胡蝶牌) Vacuum Flasks and Torch Cases
York Lo: Star Power: E. Penn Industrial Manufactory (興華實業) and “Butterfly” (胡蝶牌) Vacuum Flasks and Torch Cases
Left: the wedding of Eugene Penn and Butterfly Wu in Shanghai in 1935. The maid of honor was Koo Lan-kung (顾兰君) and bridesmaid Yuan Mei-yun (袁美雲); flower girls were Wu Yun-yun and Lo Siu-tik, and ringbearer Lai Hang (黎铿, son of Lai Man-wai, father of HK cinema) was in front of the bride. Right: Eugene Penn and his wife Butterfly Wu in front of the E. Penn booth at the HK Products Expo in 1948 (Kung Sheung Evening News, 1948-12-17)
In the late 1940s and 1950s, a popular line of vacuum flasks and torch cases named after Butterfly Wu (胡蝶, 1908-1989), the biggest movie actress in China during the Republican era was manufactured in Hong Kong and sold domestically and abroad by E. Penn Industrial Manufactory, a firm founded by the actress herself and her industrialist husband Eugene Penn (潘有聲, 1905-1958), cashing in on her fame.
The Movie Star and the Tea Merchant
A native of Heshan in Guangdong, Butterfly Wu was her stage name and her birth name was Wu Po-koon (胡寶娟) and she also used the name Wu Sui-wah (胡瑞華) during her school years. She grew up in the North where her father worked as a railroad inspector and became fluent in Mandarin, a huge asset for her talking film career later in her life. At the age of 16, she enrolled in the first film school in China in Shanghai and two years later had her first break being signed to the Unique Film Company founded by Run-je Shaw, the older brother of Run-run Shaw. In 1928, she joined the Star Motion Picture Company and became a huge star with the movie The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple the same year. In 1933, an entertainment publication ran a nationwide poll and she was voted China’s “Movie Queen” with 21334 votes, twice the number of votes of the first runner-up Chen Yu-mei (wife of Runje Shaw) and three times that of second runner-up Ruan Lingyu.
Through her cousin, Butterfly Wu met Eugene Penn (Pan Yousheng), a young tea merchant of Fukienese descent in 1931. A Christian who attended the YMCA School in Amoy, Penn worked for the trading firm of Paca Handels Compagnie in Shanghai. According to Wu in her memoir, Penn was not particularly successful, but she was impressed by his character. After five years of courtship, the couple were married in a high-profile wedding ceremony in November 1935 with over 2000 guests and press coverage across the globe. After the wedding, Wu continued to star in pictures while Penn ran his own trading business, allegedly taking over the operations of a German firm which he worked for.
Left: False report of Butterfly Wu’s death in Hong Kong by the American press in early 1942 (Chicago Daily Tribune, 1942-1-16); Right: Admiral Sir Alan Scott-Moncrief, commander of the Far East Fleet (first from left) and his wife (second from right) visiting E.Penn’s factory in To Kwa Wan in 1952 with Lawrence Kadoorie (first from right) and greeted by Eugene Penn (second from left). (WKYP, 1952-11-30)
After the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Eugene Penn relocated to Hong Kong where he continued his trading business under the name of E. Penn & Co (興華洋行, which joined the HK General Chamber of Commerce as a pre-war member). Wu joined her husband in HK where she starred in several films. When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong in December 1941, Butterfly Wu and her husband were stranded on the island and were rumored to be killed during the siege of HK. The reality was the Japanese military administration kept her under custody and tried to coerce her into starring in propaganda films. Refusing to collaborate with the Japanese, Wu and her husband disguised as beggars and with the help of resistance fighters managed to escape from HK in 1942 and eventually arrived at the wartime capital of Chungking in 1943.
Movie Star as Businesswoman
After the War, Penn and Wu moved to Hong Kong in 1946 where they started E. Penn Industrial Manufactory to make thermos flasks and torchlights and decided to cash in on the latter’s fame by naming their products “Butterfly”. Wu had long realized the commercial appeal of her star power, having acted as spokesperson for products such as Lux soaps and Sincere perfumes back in the 1930s. She also had a long relationship with the famous tailor shop Hong Zang (see article) which made her wedding gown that featured 400 butterflies. In 1933, she licensed her name and image to Foh Chong Tobacco (福昌烟公司), which produced the “Miss Butterfly” brand of cigarettes with the catchy of tagline “Tobacco King of 1933 meets Movie Queen of 1933”.
Left: Packaging of Foo Chong Tobacco’s “Miss Butterfly” brand of cigarettes in 1933; Right: Butterfly Wu’s ad for Lux soap.
Eugene Penn and Butterfly Wu (first two from the left) entertaining the press at the HK Products Expo in 1951 (WKYP, 1951-12-15)
In Hong Kong, E. Penn operated out of the Pedder Building in Central while its factory was in To Kwa Wan. More than just lending her name and image, Wu was a hands-on businesswoman who visited the firm’s booth at the HK Products Expo to drum up sales and participated in many business trips to markets such as Singapore to promote the firm’s products. Although competition was strong in both vacuum flasks and torch cases, business was doing well with daily production of 300 dozens with annual sales of HK$2-5 million by 1951. According to press interviews given by Eugene Penn, the biggest export markets for their torches were the UK, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia while their vacuum flasks were popular in Australia and Malaysia. In 1952, the firm also received orders totaling over HK$3 million from the UK after participating in the Industrial Fair. The firm also purchased state of the art equipment from the UK to manufacture the most advanced and stylish thermos flasks in the market.
Left:Article about E.Penn’s orders from the UK in 1952 (WKYP, 1952-6-15); Right: Picture and quote from Butterfly Wu as a businesswoman in Singapore in 1953 (Straits Times, 1953-5-5)
In February 1958, Eugene Penn died of liver cancer at his residence in Kowloon. The couple had a son Poon Ka-wing (潘家榮) and a daughter. After Penn’s death, the manufacturing business was wounded up and Butterfly Wu returned to acting, winning the Best Actress award at the Asian Film Festival in Tokyo in 1960 for her role in the Shaw Brothers film Rear Door. As a firm, E.Penn Industrial Manufactory was incorporated in 1949 and dissolved in 1990. Wu retired from acting in 1966 and moved to Canada in 1975 to join her son. She dictated her memoir in 1986 which were published in Taiwan and the mainland and died in Vancouver in 1989 – the name in her tombstone was Poon Po-kuen (潘寶娟), the name she used in her later years combining her late husband’s surname and her original name to maintain a low profile.
華僑日報, 1951-11-30; 1952-11-21; 1958-02-03; Ta Kung Pao, 1948-12-14
“Movie Star Now High Powered Saleslady” Sunday Standard, May 10,1953
Wakeman, Frederic, Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service, University of California Press, 2003
This article was first posted on 22nd April 2019.
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