The Life and Family of S.M. Churn (張公勇, 1887-1959) of China Provident, Union Trading and Vibro

York Lo: The Life and Family of S.M. Churn (張公勇, 1887-1959) of China Provident, Union Trading and Vibro

Major Samuel Macomber Churn (hereafter referred to as “S.M. Churn”) was a prominent business figure in the first half of the 20th century as he was the taipan of China Provident, which controlled many godowns in the Western district and North Point, the head of Union Trading Co which was a major player in the rice trade and co-founder and chairman of Vibro, which remains one of the leading foundation contractors in Hong Kong after nine decades of operations.

The Family Background and Early Life of Major S.M. Churn

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Left: Picture and obituary of S.M. Churn in 1959 (KSEN, 1959-5-28); Right: the former Lena Lodge (now Enchi Lodge) bought by S.M. Churn in 1928 and named after his first wife.

According to the definitive book on HK Eurasians –In the Web, S.M. Churn was the son of William H. Macomber (a tea merchant of the same name worked for the Shanghai branch of the American trading firm of Russell & Co in the 1860s) and Madam Cheung, who later became the fourth concubine ofSinTak-fan (1856-1924), a leader of the Eurasian community in HK and well-known figure in the legal circle in the early 20th century who was also the maternal grandfather of Stanley Ho and paternal grandfather of former HK Land Company Secretary and In the Web author Peter Hall.S.M. was born in HK in 1887 and adopted the Chinese and English surname of Churn after his mother’s surname of Cheung.

Churn attended Queen’s College and later served as president of the Queen’s College Old Boys Association.In 1910, the 23 years-old Churn married Lena Johnsford (陳秀連, 1894-1940) in Shanghai. Lena was the daughter of Shanghai Eurasian Edwin Johnsford (陳錦文,1867- 1912) who was the son of Alfred Johnsford (1838-1909, he Anglicized his surname from Jonsson to Johnsford), the Swedish-born Overseer of Tax in Shanghai and his wife Wong Ah-Tsaw, a Cantonese woman. (Geni) In 1928, Churn and his Eurasian friend and stockbroker J.F. Grose bought a house that was built as a country club for Jardines staff on Castle Peak Road in Kam Tsin Tsuen in Sheung Shui and renamed it “Lena Lodge” after his wife. (The family has since sold the house which has been operating as “Enchi Lodge”, a drug addiction treatment center since 1991)

In 1929, Churn and three other prominent members of the HK Eurasian community – J.F. Grose, Wong Kam-fuk and Hung Hing-kam received an anonymous donation of HK$10,000 to form the Welfare League to serve the Eurasian community in Hong Kong. Churn served as the honorary treasurer of the group when it was formed in 1930 with Sir Robert Hotung as president and Robert Kotewall as vice president.

China Provident()

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Picture of China Provident’s godown in the Western district

After graduation from Queen’s College, Churn joined China Provident Loan & Mortgage Co Ltd in 1908. China Provident was incorporated a decade earlier in 1898, one of the many firms established by the Anglo-American trading house of Shewan Tomes & Co with the objective of “financing men of small means to build and own their own homes”. By the time Churn joined the firm, however, the focus of the firm had shifted to operations of godowns. In November 1917, a fire broke out at China Provident’s No. 1 godown at 263 Des Voeux Road West when a large bag of sugar belonged to the prominent Nam Pak Hong trading firm of Yuen Fat Hong was ignited. The fire was put out after two and a half hour and resulted in $60000 in damages (mostly due to water) which was fortunately fully covered by insurance. (Malaya Tribune, 1917-12-1)

In February 1925, China Provident acquired the North Point property of the American oil giant Standard Oil of New York (Socony) comprised of a large wharf and several godowns and buildings for an undisclosed sum. (HK Daily Press, 1925-2-5)

In 1930, Churn had joined the board of China Provident (a year later the prominent stockbroker Noel Croucher also joined the board, the first and longest of his board engagements) and in 1936, he succeeded C.A. da Roza as chairman of the firm. At the time, the shares were trading at 80 cents per share and the firm was unable to pay a dividend due to limited profits (and loss of $39000 in 1934). The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War turned out to be a boom for China Provident as the firm achieved record earnings thanks to cargo dislocation caused by the war in the mainland with a 10 percent dividend and 5 percent one-off bonus. In March 1940, China Provident reported profits of HK$283,675 for the previous year thanks to full capacity at its godowns, in fact there were so much demand they had to turn away business from two steamers and rented two smaller godowns for some of its old clients. (HK Telegraph, 1940-3-28)

Under the leadership of Churn for the next 24 years, the share price rose more than tenfold to $11.70 per share and the firm became one of the largest godown operators in the city.

Union Trading (捷記洋行)

Although Union Trading Co. was not incorporated until 1920, it was already in existence in 1917 operating out of Queen’s Building in Central with S.M. Churn and C. Honkey were listed as managers. (HK Government Gazette)By the mid-1920s, the firm which operated out of Prince’s Building in Central was quite substantial with Churn as managing director, fellow Eurasian and Shewan Tomes colleague Starling Jex (1892-1943, husband of Daisy Gittins) as secretary, F. E. d’Almada Remedios as signs per pro, 8 assistants and 2 stenographers (including Peter Hall’s mother Mabel Gittins) and the firm was underwriting agents for 6 insurance companies – Motor Union and United British of London, two American firms (Home Insurance Co of New York and American Insurance of New Jersey) and two French firms (Comacrib Directory, 1925) The firm however was best known for its dealing in rice and by the early 1920s, S.M. Churn was already a member of the Association of Exporters and Dealers of HK (Rice Journal, 1921)The rice trading business also had synergies with China Provident which was big in the storage of rice in its godowns.

Aside from rice, the firm engaged in the trading of wide range of merchandise. In November 1937, Union Trading was awarded $19729 by the Supreme Court for losses sustained on goods sold to the Chung Shan Knitting Co. (The China Mail, 1937-11-17) Another lawsuit which it also won that year revealed that the firm was also involved in the trading of old newspaper. In the late 1940s, the directors of the firm included Churn, Remedios and Lam Son-chuen.

Vibro (惠保)

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Picture showing a 140 ton test on a single Vibro pile in a Vibro ad in the early 1940s (HK Builder)

In 1929, S.M. Churn and fellow China Provident colleague Carlo Augusto da Roza (1884-1936) obtained the HK operating rights of the Vibro Piling System, which was invented by British structural engineer A. Hiley with the British Steel Piling Co. The duo incorporated Vibro Piling Co Ltd which commenced operations in HK with a few staff. In 1931, 172 Vibro piles were used for the foundation work of the Kai Tak Airport Depot. The next year (1932), the firm completed the old Wan Chai Police Station. In 1934, the firm extended its operations to Canton and in 1938, it completed the foundation work for the Central Market, one of the two remaining Bauhaus market buildings in HK. In 1939, Vibro HK entered the Philippines market. In 1941, Vibro piles were used in the construction of the Windsor House on Des Voeux Road, Loke Yew Building on Queen’s Road Central, the Government Stores Building in North Point and the ICI Godown in East Point. (HK Builder, 1941)

In the 1940s, the board of Vibro included Churn, J.J. Basto and H. J. Armstrong and the manager and secretary of the firm was F. E. d’Almada Remedios. They were also assisted at Vibro by Australian native E.W. Blackmore, who was technical manager of the firm for over 20 years before his retirement and return to Australia in 1950 and J.E. da Silva A.M.I.C.E. who was engineering consultant. (The China Mail, 1950-4-22; Business Directory of HK, Canton and Macao, 1949)

Wartime and Postwar Activities

By the early 1940s, Churn was also a civic leader in Hong Kong having been appointed Justice of the Peace and serving on the board of the government’s rice monopoly and District Watch Committee.In July 1940 when the HK government announced plans to evacuate residents, Churn was placed in charge of evacuation of Chinese residents.

Just before the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, S.M. Churn visited Bangkok on a mission on behalf of the HK government to buy rice for Hong Kong for the year 1942. When the Japanese launched their attacks across the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, Churn was still in Bangkokand managed to escape “by the skin of his teeth” as he described to reporters by charter flight to Rangoon and then later Calcutta where he served as an officer of the British Army in India for three and a half years, hence his title Major. When the war was over in 1945, Churn returned to Hong Kong where he became the Deputy Assistant Director of Civil Affairs and resumed his commercial enterprises.

In June 1948, Churn formed North Point Wharves Ltd (聯益貨倉) in partnership with the family of Kwik Djoen-Eng (see article) to build wharves and godowns in North Point with China Provident as manager and registered capital of $25 million. In the late 1940s, the board of China Provident led by Churn was comprised of Sir Robert Hotung, Li Tse-fong, Noel Croucher, Sir Robert Kotewall, D.H. Blake and R. Johanssen and the key executives included R.A. Wickerson as managing director, Captain R. Firkins as marine superintendent, A.D. Learmonth as secretary and G.C. Colman as supervisor. (Business Directory of HK, Canton and Macao, 1949)

For the year 1949, China Provident reported net profits of $1.15 million which was slightly lower than the previous year thanks to increase in labor and maintenance costs and half of the North Point Wharves property was requisitioned by the HK government for the military. (HK Sunday Herald, 1950-4-16) The same year, Churn commissioned the Shanghainese architect Robert Fan to design Pinecrest, his residence on Tai Po Road.

In 1950, the Wharf Company acquired 92000 shares of China Provident which prompted Wharf chairman David Landale to reach out to S.M. Churn for discussion about a possible merger but the talks went nowhere and the Wharf Company sold its China Provident shares at a 25% premium and netting $276,901.44 in profits. (Hutcheon, Robin. “Wharf: The First Hundred Years”, p 106)

In 1952, S.M. Churn incorporated Samuel Macomber & Sons Ltd (宏業有限公司,dissolved in 1985). He also operated Samuel Macomber & Co (和平洋行), a trading firm which operated out of the same office at York Building in Central as Union Trading. S.M. Churn was also chairman of the listed Sandakan Light & Power Co. (FEER, 1958)

For fiscal year 1957, China Provident reported earning of HK$2.36 millionwith dividends and bonus of $1.10 per share. (FEER) The same year, Churn teamed up with Noel Croucher to incorporate General & Travelers Credit Corporation with $2 million in capital.

In late 1958, Churn celebrated his half a century with China Provident with a large gathering of prominent residents at a cocktail party at the Jockey Club. By 1959 however, Churn’s health had turned for the worst which resulted in him checking into the HK Sanatorium. In May 1959, he was released from the hospital, but he died at his residence Pinecrest on Taipo Road after suffering a heart attack. (The China Mail, 1959-5-27) He was buried in the HK Cemetery in Happy Valley and his estate was estimated at HK$825400, which was a sizeable sum at the time. (KSDN, 1959-6-29)

Legacy: Family and Companies

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Charlie Churn (right) receiving the top prize for the Waterskiing Marathon in 1960 from manager of the Omega distributor Omtis in Deepwater Bay. (WKYP, 1963-6-30)

Together with Lena, S.M. Churn had two sons –Eddie and Charlie and four daughters – Molly, Mabel, Eva and Doris. After Lena’s death in 1940, Churn married Ruby Sau-lan Cheng but that marriage did not produce any children.

S.M.’s eldest son Edwin Johnsford Macomber Churn (張宜榮, also known as “E.J.M. Churn” or Eddie, 1912-1991)worked for China Provident and Union Trading and served on the board of Vibro even after its acquisition by the New World Group in 1973. He has two daughters (Marlon and Diana) from his first marriage (1951-62) to Doris Frith (1921-1992, previously married to Oswald Tyson, youngest son of Chan Kai-ming and RAF pilot who was killed in a plane crash in Germany) and two sons (Simon and Adrian) from his marriage to Dora D.Y. Chang. S.M.’s second son Samuel “Charlie” Churn (張心如) was born in 1928 and ran Union Trading (operated out of Alexandra House in the 1950s and 41-47 Waterloo Road in the 1960s) which was the agent of Honda motorcycles in Hong Kong.

The eldest daughter Molly Churn (張慕梨, 1911-1982) married Dr. John D. Mackie, a malariologist who settled in Tasmania.

The second daughter Mabel Bronwyn Churn (張美寶,1919-2008) married Raymond Pierre Mardulyn (馬德齡, 1904-1985), who became taipan of the Belgian Bank in Hong Kong.

The third daughter Eva Churn (張綺華,1923-2004) was educated at DGS and was a medical student at HKU and an auxiliary nurse when the Japanese occupied HK. She followed her father to India and married Norman Leonard (1914-2004) in 1950 after completing his studies in physiotherapy in London. She became one of the first sports physiotherapists in HK, setting up her practice in the Gloucester Building and incorporated Chinese acupuncture into her treatment. She and her husband and three children later moved to London where she practiced at Barnet General Hospital and counted one of the giraffes in the London Zoo as her client.

The youngest daughter Doris Vivienne Churn (張慧雲) married Jimmy Slack (1926-1991).

As for the various companies started and/or led by Churn, Croucher succeeded S.M. Churn as chairman of China Provident and together with other directors such as Li Fook-wo and Li Fook-shu (son and nephew of longtime China Provident director and BEA co-founder Li Tse-fong) and developer Edward T.T. Chan (see article) sold the firm in 1970 to the Hutchison groupled by Sir Douglas Clague who was interested in the real estate potential of its properties. The godowns in the Western district were re-developed into Kwan Yick Building (均益大廈, which is the Chinese name of China Provident) which comprised of three phases in 1972-78. The godowns in North Point were re-developed by Hutchison into Provident Centre (和富中心) comprised of 17 residential towers in 1982-84.Union Trading Co Ltd was dissolved in 2005 but re-incorporated in 2006 although it is no longer a leading trading firm. Vibro remains a leading foundation contractor under the New World Group and responsible for many major public and private projects in Hong Kong.

Sources (other than those cited above):

https://www.scmp.com/article/467148/physio-eva-leonard-pioneered-use-acupuncture

https://www.geni.com/people/Samuel-Macomber-Churn/6000000013592903479

https://www.vibro.com.hk/en/about/history.php

England, Vaudine “The Quest of Noel Croucher: HK’s Quiet Philanthropist”

This article was first posted on 30th August 2021.

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