Sunbeam Manufacturing (日昇製造廠): from torchlights to kitchenware
York Lo: Sunbeam Manufacturing (日昇製造廠): from torchlights to kitchenware
Left: old Sunbeam factory; Right: Sunbeam Centre today
Founded in 1929 (this is based on the company’s own description although several external sources cite 1931 as the inception date), Sunbeam is one of the oldest industrial enterprises in Hong Kong and one of the few that continues to thrive to this day. Under the leadership of three generations of the Yu family, the firm transformed from a maker of torchlights to a maker of kitchenware.
First Generation: Yu Kan-hing, founder of Sunbeam and Lepack
Left: Sunbeam founder Yu Kan-hing (HK Album, 1967); Right: Trademark filed by Lepack in 1935 for “Camel brand” high quality imported European paper (HK Government Report, 1935)
A native of Hoiping in Guangdong province, Sunbeam founder Yu Kan-hing (余近卿, 1881-1976) left home at the age of 18 for Hong Kong where he started working for a Gold Mountain firm (firms that specialized in trading with Chinese Americans) as an apprentice. He soon co-founded the department store True Light Co (真光公司) with friends (some of whom Chinese Christian merchants who were associated with Sincere)in 1905 and a branch was established in Canton in 1910. In 1920, he went on a 11 month round the world trip to learn the latest developments covering Shanghai, Japan, the US, UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt and Singapore. Upon his return, he started Lepack Co Ltd (利百洋行) to engage in import and export trade. For whatever reason, the original Lepack Co was liquidated in 1928 and the liquidators listed were Yu Kan-hing, Chiu Yuk-chow and Sam Chak-chiu and chairman was listed as Chiu Chung-how. (True Light went out of business in the late 1920s) But by 1930, Lepack was back in business filing trademark registration for “Cross” brand of brandy with the HK government. The firm also dealt in other products such as cotton and paper before the War.
Staff of Sunbeam in 1963 welcoming the return of the founder’s second son Dr. Henry Yu at the new Kwun Tong plant (華僑日報, 1963-07-08)
In 1929, Yu decided to go into manufacturing and established Sunbeam to manufacture flashlights (under the “Lion” and “Deer Head” brands) and batteries (under the “Double Peach” brand), which were popular as they were comparable to imported ones in quality but at better prices. The original factory was in Shamshuipo but by 1940, bigger space was required and a new plant was constructed at K.I.L. 4001 on Canton Road in Mongkok at the cost of HK$50,000. The firm also had a plant in Canton which was destroyed when the Japanese attacked Canton in 1938. During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, Sunbeam’s HK plant was also looted with losses in metallic materials alone valued at over HK$260,000. After the War, Sunbeam’s operations in HK resumed in 1946 with the help of 250 workers and the financial support of Bank of East Asia and Bank of Canton. Soon thanks to the strong export markets in Dutch East Indies, Philippines, South Africa, Australia, South America and Europe, Sunbeam was manufacturing 10000 dozens torchlight, 20000 dozens batteries and 2000 dozens bicycle lamps on a monthly basis and branches were established in Shanghai, Singapore and Malaysia with annual revenue run rate of over HK$1 million. An engineering and design department was also established after the War although customers in Africa and Asia were not keen on any design modifications.
Outside of work, Yu Kan-hing was very active with community affairs, having served as director of Tung Wah Group of Hospitals in 1951-52, vice president of the Shamshuipo Kaifong Welfare Association, advisor to the CMA and was involved for decades with Lok Sin Tong Benevolent Society. When Lok Sin Tong built its first secondary school in Wang Tau Hom in the late 1960s, Yu contributed significant amount of funding and the school which was named in his honor was opened in 1970 by Governor David Trench and Education Secretary John Canning. He died at the age of 95 in 1976 and was survived by 2 sons, 5 daughters (his eldest daughter predeceased him) and 21 grandchildren.
Yu Kan-hing (standing) delivering the New Year speech as chairman of Lok Sin Tong in January 1961. From the right to left – Kwong Ming-kwong (aka “Emperor of Kowloon City”), Wong Yat-hung, Yu Pak-kau (leading distributor of dyestuff, father of Lawrence Yu Kam-kee) and Yeung Chung-ming. (WKYP, 1961-1-3)
Second generation: Yu Luen-wai and Henry Yu, Sunnex and Cosmotron
Left: Wedding picture of Yu Luen-wai (華僑日報, 1956-05-16); Right: Dr. Henry Yu
In the 1950s and 60s, the second generation joined Sunbeam (including daughter Yu Yuen-kit 余緣潔 who was also a director of the firm). Born in 1923, Yu Kan-hing’s eldest son Yu Luen-wai (余麟威) graduated from Wuhan University and received a master degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin. By the time he married the daughter of Citibank comprador Iu Tak-cheuk in 1956, he was managing director of Sunbeam. In 1955, the group’s trading arm Lepack was re-incorporated as Lepack (1955) Ltd and by then Lepack’s focus had shifted to distribution of industrial products such as electric switch, tools and hardware from leading manufacturers in European countries such as France, UK, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Lepack participated in the HK Products Expo in 1965. As a firm, Lepack was dissolved in 2017. In 1961, the family formed Cosmotron Industries (大宇實業) and the firm manufactured a variety of plastic products such as cosmetic combs, toilet seats, plastic bottles, water containers and industrial parts before shutting down its operations in HK in 1991 when it moved its production to the north. Outside of work, Yu Luen-wai was elected a director of Lok Sin Tong in 1963 and established the Yu Luen Wai Foundation in 1989 which has donated to many causes such as Red Cross over the years.
Dr. Henry Yu (center with glasses) and his brother in law Dr. Ng from Canada returning to HK to visit families in 1962 (WKYP 1962-9-21)
In 1963, Sunbeam moved into its new plant in Kwun Tong at 27 Shing Yip Street. The same year, Yu Kan-hing’s second son Henry Yu Tat-ching (余達澄, 1931-2017) also returned from the US and joined the family business. Graduated from Wah Ying College in Foshan, Henry received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1957 and worked for International Harvesters for a year and General Motors for 6 years as an engineer in the US where he worked on internal combustion engine. By the mid-1960s, the HK torchlight industry was becoming saturated with firms such as Sonca, Hing Wah and Chiaphua churning out large quantity for foreign brands such as Eveready, Winchester and Ray-O-Vac and the global demand for torchlights also beginning to decline as electric supply became more abundant. Sensing a need for shift in business focus for survival and driven by his interest in R&D, Henry Yu began working on a new product line of kitchenware and in 1967, Sunbeam introduced its first stainless steel condiment set. The Sunnex brand was registered in HK and the UK in 1970 and from the start, the firm decided to focus on its own brand rather than doing OEM for big foreign brands. In 1972, Sunnex Products Ltd (日昇實業) was formed as a subsidiary of Sunbeam to focus on stainless steel kitchenware. In 1975, Zodiac Stainless Products Co was established in the UK to target the European market and in the 1970s and 1980s, over 1 million Sunnexteaware sets were sold in the UK annually. In 1987, Sunnex’s first oval chaffing dish was introduced.
In 1986, the Sunbeam factory at 27 Shing Yip Street was re-developed into an industrial and commercial building Sunbeam Centre. Other than the building, the family residence (Sunpeace Court at 136-142 Boundary Street in Kowloon) and residential project in Stanley through Leewall Enterprises, Sunbeam did not go big into real estate and focused on manufacturing, investing its excess cash in less volatile but also rewarding liquid investments such as US Treasuries instead. In 1989, Sunbeam, Sunnex and Cosmotron began shifting its production to the mainland with the formation of Sunnex Products (China) Ltd and Sunnex Metal Products (Shenzhen) Ltd and its Shenzhen plant commenced production in 1991. The relocation of Cosmotron triggered a lengthy lawsuit with the Department of Inland Revenue on whether severance pays to workers are tax deductible. The case went all the way from the Board of Review to the UK courts and Cosmotron prevailed at all levels. By the early 1990s, Sunbeam had sales of over HK$150 million as reported in the Members’ Directory of the Federation of HK Industries in 1993.
Although Henry Yu was involved in several industry groups such as the Vocational Training Council and the HK Metals Manufacturers Association (for which he was a permanent honorary chairman), he preferred to spend time on product development and writing about economics and politics (he published a series of essays in the HK Economic Journal from 1997 to 2004) rather than business functions.
In 1992, Henry’s son Michael Yu (余立明. 1966-) joined the firm after graduation from Carnegie Mellon with a MBA degree and eventually took from his parents Henry and Florence (胡淼). Under his leadership, the firm expanded further into the China market. In 2002, Sunnex registered its trademark in China and entered the professional food service supplies market in China. The next year (2003), Sunnex launched its first electrical appliance – a soup warmer followed by a series of electric chafing dishes. It also developed Sunnex China (Tai Shan) Factory the same year. Today, China is over 30% of the group’s sales.
Design History: An Anthology, 1995, MIT Press
WahKiu Yat Po, 1965-1-5, 1960-02-20
This article was first posted on 14th September 2018.
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