Tam Shiu-hong (譚肇康 1875-1961) – HK Construction Industry Pioneer and Supporter of Sun Yat-sen’s Revolution

York Lo: Tam Shiu-hong (譚肇康 1875-1961) – HK Construction Industry Pioneer and Supporter of Sun Yat-sen’s Revolution

Tam Shiu Hong HK Construction Pioneer Image 1 York Lo

Left: Tam Shiu-hong Right: Memorial plaque at the HK Technical College building which cited its construction being supervised by Tam Shiu-hong (HKBCA Yearbook, 1954)

The history of the HK construction industry would not be complete without a profile of Tam Shiu-hong, one of the founders of the HK Building Contractors Association (HKBCA) in 1920 who served as chairman of the group in 1922. His Wing Lee & Co (永利建築) and Yee Lee & Co (裕利建築) were responsible for many important public and private projects from the 1910s to the 1950s (in fact the HKBCA asked him to write the history of the HK construction industry in 1954 given his background) and he also left his mark in modern Chinese history as a major supporter of Sun Yat-sen’s revolution from the 1900s to 1920s.

Early Years and Participation in Sun Yat-sen’s Revolution   

Tam Shiu Hong HK Construction Pioneer Image 2 York Lo

Left: young Tam Shiu-hong; Right: memorial plaque inside the “Liberation Pagoda” built in 1929 in Yuexiu Park in Guangzhou celebrating the contributions of Tam Shiu-hong and others in the 1911 revolution. 

A native of Sun Wui in Guangdong province, Tam’s original name was Tam Sze-nin (譚時年) and he also went by Tam Wing-on (譚永安). He came to Hong Kong in 1890 where he started working at the age of 15 to support his family. After a 2 years stint as a laborer in Vancouver, Canada, he returned to HK where he studied at St Paul’s College. From 1898 to 1903, he worked in the northern city of Dalian (then controlled by the Russians) as a draftsman for the construction of railroad and wharves. In 1904, tragedy struck as his mother, his wife and eldest son died during a plague in his hometown of Sun Wui and he returned to Hong Kong to join the Public Works department as a supervisor and later joined the leading Chinese construction firm of Sang Lee & Co (生利建造) as English secretary and construction supervisor.

The same time he was building his career in the construction business in HK, he was recruited by friends to join the revolutionary cause of Sun Yat-sen. In September 1906, Tam joined Sun’s revolutionary organization Tong Meng Hui and became a member of its fundraising committee in Hong Kong alongside fellow contractor Lam Woo, California potato king and HK garment industry pioneer Ng Jim-kai (see article) and financier Li Yuk-tong. (Recollection of the 1911 Revolution, Volume 1, pp 265-66) In March 1911, 72 revolutionaries were murdered during the failed uprising in Canton and their corpses were left on the streets to rot. Tam negotiated with the Ching government and provided proper burial for the revolutionaries.  After the revolution succeeded in October 1911, he assisted Hu Han-min in setting up the military government in Kwangtung and later led the fundraising effort for Sun Yat-sen’s constitutional protection movement between 1917 and 1922. In return for his contribution to the revolutionary causes, he was honored with many medals and titles. 

Wing Lee & Co (永利建築)

Tam Shiu Hong HK Construction Pioneer Image 3 York Lo

Left: Chinese ad of Wing Lee & Co in 1959 (HKBCA yearbook); Right: Article about Wing Lee & Co being fined $100 for blasting accident in To Kwa Wan in 1924 (The China Mail, 1924-11-21) 

In 1911, Tam Shiu-hong established Wing Lee & Co which operated out of 54 Ship Street in Wanchai. The firm quickly became a major contractor for the HK government, British Army and Navy and large corporate clients. Between 1913 and 1919, Wing Lee was mentioned in the HK government’s Public Works report every year except for 1914. According to the HK construction industry history written by Tam for the HKBCA yearbook in 1954, major projects completed by Wing Lee & Co in chronological order include: 

1912 – Pokfulam Road water pumping station

1912 – civil servants quarters in Happy Valley and Mount Parish in Wanchai at the cost of HK$400,000

1917 – foundation work for the Central Fire Station at the cost of $150,000

1919 – China Light & Power Hok Un power station 

1919 – Peak Tram Barker Road station – according to Tam, many of his peers refrained from bidding on the project due to its complexity, working night shifts to complete within 5 months, a month ahead of schedule and received $1000 bonus as a result. 

1920 – reclamation work in Aberdeen for the government at total cost $1 million 

1924 – Reclamation and construction of pier and warehouse for the Asiatic Petroleum oil depot in North Point at the total cost $1.5 million 

1915-40 – construction work at HK Electric’s North Point Power Station for over 25 years – total aggregate cost of $4 million.  

Yee Lee & Co (裕利建築)

Tam Shiu Hong HK Construction Pioneer Image 4 York Lo

Left: Yee Lee & Co’s signage (right) in the construction site of the Gloucester Building in Central in 1932 – noticed the signage for marble and granite expert Raoul Bigazzi (see article) on the left (HKBCA yearbook); Right: ad for Yee Lee & Co in 1959 (HKBCA yearbook)  

In 1922, Tam Shiu-hong established Yee Lee & Co with fellow contractor Ng Wah (to be covered). The firm operated out of 56 Ship Street, right next to Wing Lee & Co.  

In 1930, Yee Lee was hired by HK Land to construct the Gloucester Building in Central which cost over HK$5 million, an astronomical sum at the time. The contract stipulated completion within 24 months and despite the fact that the delivery of the steel bars from the UK requested by the developer were delayed by 4 months, Yee Lee managed to finish the project within 24 months and as a result, received $30000 bonus at the recommendation of the project’s architect Leigh & Orange.   

In 1936, Yee Lee completed a 7000-feet long, 7 feet tall catch water at the Tai Tam Reservoir which collects water from the Dragon Back mountain. In 1938, Yee Lee was listed as the winner of government tender for construction of roof lanterns for the Stanley Prison and in 1939 as successful bidder for maintenance of water works. The firm also did projects in Canton for electric and water utilities and machinery factories.  

After the War, Yee Lee was managed by Tam’s fourth son Tam Wah-ching (譚華靖, 1915-2011) although it was no longer one of the largest players in the business. In 1954, it completed the construction of the Ma Tau Wai Girls’ Home at 464 Ma Tau Wai Road in Hunghom. In 1963, it won the tender for site formation for the Resettlement Department Staff Quarters at Tin Wan, Aberdeen with a contract value of US$34700. 

Philanthropy and Descendants 

Tam Shiu Hong HK Construction Pioneer Image 5 York Lo

Left: article about Tam Shiu-hong’s traffic accident in 1939 (TKP, 1939-5-14) Right: picture in 1938 of the original building for the Lai Chack School for Girls on 88 Kennedy Road which was co-founded by Tam Shiu-hong’s daughter Wai Fong. 

Outside of the construction business and revolution, Tam was also an active philanthropist and served on the board of the Tung Wah Hospital in 1932 and Po Leung Kuk in 1934. As a civil engineering expert, he provided advice on the construction of hospitals and schools for many charitable organizations in addition to providing monetary support. In 1936, he personally supervised the construction of the HK Technical College (precursor of HK Polytechnic University) in Aberdeen. He also contributed to the war relief effort and many other nonprofit groups. 

In 1939, he was accidentally hit by a car driven by a Westerner near the Alhambra Theatre (see article) on Nathan Road in Kowloon. Sent to Kowloon Hospital, Tam was unconscious for hours but thanks to medical attention provided by prominent surgeon and HKU professor K.H. Digby and other experts, he was able to recover. In his later years he wrote a memoir about the 1911 revolution in addition to the history of HK construction industry mentioned earlier. He and his family lived in Kwong Chiu Terrace (光超台) in North Point, which he developed and was named after his father Tam Kwong-chiu.

Tam Shiu hong died in July 1961 of intestine cancer at the age of 87 and was buried in the Tsuen Wan Cemetery. He was survived by his third and fourth sons – Tam Po-sum (譚寶琛, 1906-2001) and Tam Wah-ching and five daughters. His second daughter Wai-Fong Tam (譚蕙芳, 1909-2016) and six of her classmates from the Vernacular Normal School for Women (漢文女子師範學堂, active from 1920 to 1941) co-founded the Lai Chack School for Girls (麗澤女子中學, precursor of the present-day Lai Chack Middle School) in 1929 and she worked there in various capacities until 1974. She and her husband Youn-Way Un (伍容威) eventually settled in Los Angeles where they passed away. Since 1988, Tam Shiu-hong’s children and grandchildren such as his eldest grandson Tam Wing-lim (譚永廉) had contributed financially to over dozen projects in Sun Wui including a primary school, a secondary school and a road named in his memory.  

Tam Shiu Hong HK Construction Pioneer Image 6 York Lo

Tam Shiu-hong (seated) and his family in 1954 (Tam Family Tree) 

Sources (other than those quoted above): 

https://www.laichack.edu.hk/CustomPage/216/index.htm

http://wyq.jmlib.com/jmhq/listhq.asp?id=817

https://www.laichack.edu.hk/CustomPage/216/index.htm

This article was first posted on 19th July 2019.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Ng Jim Kai – Financier of the Chinese Revolution and Pioneer of the Garment and Shipping Industries in Hong Kong
  2. CLP – Hok Un (Yuen) Power Station 1921-1991 – updated
  3. Asiatic Petroleum Company Ltd – links to Arnhold & Company
  4. Leigh and Orange Ltd – 1889 “builders” of Hongkong Cotton-Spinning…Company
  5. Hong Kong Water Supply – Tai Tam Upper Dam (formally Tytam Reservoir)
  6. The Tai Tam Reservoirs – recent photographs
  7. Cheng Keng-chuen (鄭鏡泉) – Developer behind Alhambra Building (平安大厦) and Evergreen Villa (松柏新邨)
  8. Cheong Hing Co/Cheung Hing Construction (祥興建造) – leading building contractor
  9. Wan Hin & Co (德榮建築) a.k.a. Tak Wing Construction
  10. The Hongkong Engineering & Construction Company Ltd 1922-1993

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.