The World Pencil Co. (大華鉛筆廠) – the first Chinese-owned manufacturer of pencils in HK and China
York Lo: The World Pencil Co. (大華鉛筆廠) – the first Chinese-owned manufacturer of pencils in HK and China
Although largely forgotten today, The World Pencil Company Ltd which was founded in 1932 was the first Chinese-owned manufacturer of pencils not only in Hong Kong but China and was known for its “Double Arrow” (雙箭牌) brand of pencils. In fact, Wu Keng-mei (吳羹梅, 1906-1990), the creator of the more famous and iconic black and red “Chung Hwa” (中華牌) brand of pencils cited World Pencil as an inspiration when he started China Standard Pencil Factory (中國標準國貨鉛筆廠), the predecessor of “Chung Hwa” manufacturer China First Pencil in Shanghai in 1935 although he criticized that World Pencil’s effort was not enough which was what motivated him to start his own venture. Ng Ip-hing (吳業興), the founder of World Pencil established a branch factory in Canton after the War, the predecessor of Guangzhou Pencil Factory which was the largest pencil manufacturer in Guangdong and after the failure of World Pencil in HK, he started Malaya Pencil Manufactory, the first pencil manufacturer in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1950s.
Riding the Patriotic Wave: The First Decade of World Pencil (1932-1941)
Left: World Pencil founder Ng Ip-hing (Straits Times); center: article about World Pencil’s new 700 pencils in 1933 and bulk discount schedule (KSEN, 1933-3-3); Right: Vintage World Pencil pencil (Etsy)
In the early 20th century, pencils in China were predominantly imported from Germany, the US and Japan, resulting in millions in trade deficits every year. In 1918, a group of English and Chinese businessmen started China Pencil Co, the first pencil factory in China in Shanghai with $100,000 in paid up capacity and daily production capacity of 100 gross (one gross equal 12 dozen or 144 pencils) with machinery imported from Japan. (China Monthly Review, Commerce Reports, 1918) Not much info is available about China Pencil Co afterwards, so it presumably failed sometime in the 1920s.
In 1931, the Japanese occupied Manchuria which triggered a nationalistic wave of demand for Chinese-made products and establishment of local factories, especially in areas which historically had relied on imports from Japan and other foreign countries. It was with this background that the World Pencil Co was incorporated in September 1932. Allegedly the firm was established through the acquisition of a former British-owned pencil factory according to some sources although no record of the British factory exists. Aside from the Ng family, the backers of World Pencil included the Kwok family of Wing On department store, whose patriarch Philip Gokchin served as chairman of the board of World Pencil.
According to trade reports, the firm imported Pacific Coast incense cedar slats from America to make its pencils at launch. (The Timberman, 1932) The firm also established its plant at 432 Castle Peak Road (also known as N.K.I.L. 420 Castle Peak Road) which was likely built in the mid-1930s as the permission for construction was granted in 1935 based on government report. World Pencil marketed its “Double Arrows” brand of pencils through general merchandise stores (likely including Wing On) and stationers and book stores (e.g. Commercial Press) where 20 percent were given to orders of 50 gross or under and further discount were given to merchants buying 50 gross or more or could meet certain sales quota within a certain period. Soon World Pencil’s products were sold nationwide and by 1938, it had branches in Canton and Shanghai. (Directory and Chronicle for China, Japan,,,, 1938) Several competitors such as China Standard mentioned earlier had also emerged in the mainland by that time but World Pencil remained the only pencil manufacturer in Hong Kong.
From early on, World Pencil like many Chinese manufacturers established around the same time placed huge emphasis on the Southeast Asian market as overseas Chinese were keen to support Chinese made products as part of the war effort against Japanese aggression. In 1935, World Pencil was one of seven HK manufacturers (including Amoy Canning) participated in the Chinese Products Fair organized by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (Nanyang Siang Pau, 1935-9-15) and the next year, it appointed Nanyang Book Co (南洋書局) of Singapore (also agent for Shanghai Commercial Press) as distributor. (Nanyang Siang Pau, 1936-6-11) In early 1939, World Pencil opened a branch office in Singapore to further promote its pencils in Southeast Asia. (Nanyang Siang Pau, 1939-1-12)
Surviving the Real War but Losing the Pencil War (1941-1951)
Left: World Pencil’ factory on Castle Peak Road in 1949 (Michael Rogge film, 1949); Right: article about the closure of World Pencil in 1951 (TKP, 1951-11-2)
During the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941, the World Pencil factory with its strategic location near the junction of Castle Peak and Tai Po roads was used as the rear battalion headquarters by British major Stanford Burn. (Cracknell, Philip, Battle for Hong Kong: December 1941, 2019)
During the Japanese occupation, World Pencil continued its operations and Allen Ng Chung-chew (吳仲朝) served as sales manager and secretary of the firm. Allen was the great grandson of Ng Ying-cheong (吳應昌), the first comprador of Douglas Lapraik & Co who died in 1873 and son of Ng Kwok-hing (吳國興), the comprador of W.G. Humphreys (紹昌洋行) which went out of business. Prior to joining World Pencil, Allen worked for Asiatic Petroleum for over a decade. Based on his father’s name, it is possible that Allen was Ng Ip-hing’s nephew (to be confirmed). After the War, Allen started his own businesses such as The World Trading Corporation and Swift Slide Fastener Co and was an active community leader having served as chairman of the Happy Valley & Canal Road District Kaifong Welfare Advancement Association, vice chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Chung Sing Benevolent Society while his wife Mathilde Pang Woon-ching, the daughter of shipping tycoon Pang Kwok-sui (彭國瑞), was a HKU graduate and chair of the Council of Women. (HK Who’s Who, edited by Rola Luzzato, 1973; HK Album, 1967)
After the War was over, World Pencil continued to operate out of the National Bank Building at 2A Des Voeux Road in Central and its factory on Castle Peak Road. In December 1946, World Pencil opened a branch factory in Canton at 112 Nam Wah Road to manufacture “Double Arrows” pencils for the mainland market. Unfortunately, the Civil War situation affected sales in the mainland and by May 1949, the Canton plant suspended production.
As for World Pencil in HK, post-War sales (mostly to Southeast Asia and Europe) were good and at one point it was selling 100,000 gross of pencils (14.4 million) a year. However, it was unable to survive two major headwinds in the early 1950s – the Korean War embargo which cut off the supply of raw materials from the US and the onslaught of cheap Japanese and German pencils flooding the market starting in June 1950. According to press reports, Japanese pencils were selling for HK$1 a dozen at the time with pencil sharpener as gift thanks to its access to raw materials and cheap labor with the support of the US government while the breakeven cost for local manufacturers like World Pencil was HK$1.05 and hence unable to compete. In January 1951, World Pencil suspended production but managed to resume in April but by October, the firm had to lay off around 30 workers and used the 7500 gross of pencils in production to cover half of a month of salary for the remaining workers. (TKP, 1951-10-15)
Unable to sell what was produced with allegedly another 100,000 gross of pencils in inventory, World Pencil shut down its factory for good on November 1, 1951 and laid off its remaining 63 workers (23 full time, 40 part time) with one-month severance pay for the full-time workers who were kicked out of their dormitories. (TKP, 1951-11-2) Although the World Pencil factory was closed, the firm remained an ongoing concern for a while. In 1958, World Pencil was still listed in the CMA Member’s Directory with Ng Ip-hing as general manager and office address at the Wing On Life Building at 22 Des Voeux Road and stated that a new factory was under planning. The plan never appears to have materialized although as a firm it was still listed in the HK Trade Directory in 1964 and Kelly’s Manufacturers and Merchants Directory in 1965 and 1968. As a firm, World Pencil Co Ltd was dissolved in 1968.
Reincarnations: Guangzhou Pencil Factory and Malaya Pencil Manufactory
After the closure of the HK business, Ng Ip-hing looked south for opportunities. In 1954, he raised $500,000 in capital from 25 shareholders led by Dato Wong Shee-fun (1899-1979), Cantonese planter and community leader in Johore and established Malaya Pencil Manufactory (馬華鉛筆廠), the first pencil manufacturer in Malaya with plans to build a plant in the industrial town of Queenstown in Singapore. At the time, 80% of the pencils in Malaya were imported from Germany and the Singaporean press refer to Ng as “Pencil King”. (Straits Times, 1954-11-26) For whatever reason, the firm did not go into production until 1957. The plant was completed at the cost of $70,000 and started with 50 workers trained by Yip Yat-chow, an expert from the HK plant. In terms of raw materials, aside from rubber tips which were locally sourced in Malaya, other were imported such as cedar wood from Britain and graphite for lead from Ceylon while Malayan wood after chemical treatment were being tested. (Straits Times, 1955-10-18) The new firm participated in the Great World Products Expo in 1957 with its “Badminton”, “Deer” and “Gold Fish” brand of pencils. Aside from its own brands, the firm also received orders from Yuen Kut Lam, the maker of Kam Wo herbal tea (see article), to produce “Yuen Kut Lam” branded promotional pencils. (Nanyang Siang Pao, 1957-10-8)
Left: article in HK about Ng Ip-hing’s Singapore pencil venture in 1954 (KSDN, 1954-1-7); Right: Malaya Pencil Manufactory’s booth at the Great World Products Expo in 1957 telling locals to buy local (Nanyang Siang Pao, 1957-10-8)
Ironically, one of Ng’s biggest competitors both in HK and Malaya was the now state-owned Guangzhou World Pencil Factory, which resumed production in January 1950 and had reached annual production of 720,000 pencils. Through other state-owned companies such as Chung Hwa Book Store, Guangzhou World Pencil exported “Double Arrows” pencils to HK and Southeast Asia. In addition to low cost, Guangzhou World Pencil also competed with product innovation by launching a pencil with eight different colors and pencils with fragrance in 1959. (TKP, 1959-2-7, 1959-4-26) Another strong competitor by this time was “Chung Hwa” brand from Shanghai, which was created in 1955.
Unable to compete, Malaya Pencil Manufactory was out of business by 1960 when its plant, its equipment and raw materials were sold in public auction conducted by Nassim & Co. (Straits Times, 1960-8-11)
As for Guangzhou World Pencil Factory, it was merged with other pencil factories in Guangzhou to form Guangzhou Pencil Factory, which by 1990 was the only pencil manufacturer in Guangzhou with annual production capacity of 200 million pencils and 450 workers. Guangzhou Pencil Factory later merged with Guangzhou Battery Factory (originally the Hing Wah Battery Factory in Canton, see article on Hing Wah) in 1990s and became part of the Guangzhou Tiger Head Battery Group, the largest dry battery manufacturer in China. The “Double Arrows” brand of pencils appear to have since faded into history.
Left: ad in the mainland for Guangzhou World Pencil Factory in the 1950s; Right: Ad in HK in the 1950s for the “Double Arrows” made by the Guangzhou factory and sold by Chunghwa Bookstore and Chung Fu Hong.
This article was first posted on 3rd August 2020.
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