Union (V-Tex) Shirts (伊人恤) – the Rise and Fall of an Iconic Hong Kong Brand
York Lo: Union (V-Tex) Shirts (伊人恤) – the Rise and Fall of an Iconic Hong Kong Brand
Left: Close up view of the Union V-Tex booth at the 23rd HK Products Expo in 1966. Right: Governor David Trench (lower right with the hat and glasses) walking by the booths of Union V-Tex (left) and Pak Fah Yeow (right) at the same event (Source: HK Memory)
One of the most successful home-grown apparel brands in Hong Kong from the 1950s through the early 1970s was Union (V-Tex) Shirts (伊人恤). Best known for its wrinkle free dress shirts, Union (V-Tex) was one of the first apparel chains in HK with over 6 outlets at its peak. The brand extended to other clothing (pajamas, neckties, jackets, ladies and children wear etc), a bakery and restaurant with a publicly listed property arm, an office building in Central and a factory building in Kwun Tong.
It was also a prominent fixture at the popular annual Hong Kong Products Expos (now known as the HK Brands and Products Epo, hereafter referred to as “HKPE”) organized by the Chinese Manufacturers Association (hereafter referred to as “CMA”) during that era, often occupying one of the largest booths and where its competition with the other iconic HK shirt brand Crocodile was legendary.
Sadly the early death of its dynamic founder precipitated a rapid decline and by 1975 the firm was out of business and the brand faded into history.
Union (V-Tex) was the brainchild of Wong Ping-shan (黃平山, 1927-1973). According to his 1954 interview shown below, he started working at an early age and had worked in finance and the magazine publishing business before entering the garment industry with a partner. He later struck out on his own and founded Union Shirt Manufactory (聯合製衣廠, later incorporated as Union V-Tex Shirt Factory 伊人恤有限公司 in 1966) in the early 1950s to manufacture dress shirts. While the Chinese name of his factory also means union, for the shirt brand he picked the Chinese word 伊人 (Yee Yan in Cantonese) which sounded like Union but means “beautiful ladies” and to further enhance the brand image he employed attractive salesladies which appealed to his male customers.
The success of the Union brand could be attributed to Wong’s mastery of the 4Ps of marketing – product, price, promotion and place. In terms of product, Wong focused on innovation. At first the Union shirts were much like other shirts but in an attempt to differentiate from the competition, Wong searched for a unique product design that could also deliver convenience to the consumers. Back then to keep your shirts wrinkle free required the tedious process of soaking them in starch and hot water for hours before ironing. A friend who was a chemical engineer suggested that he look into a wrinkle resistant material imported from the UK that was used in hats.
After months of research and development, he launched his first wrinkle free shirts in June 1953 but the results were not satisfactory as they lost their wrinkle free quality within 3 months. He went back to the research lab and perfected the technology in 1954. To highlight the convenience of the new shirts, he called them “starch free shirts” (免槳恤in Chinese). The new and improved shirts became a runaway success and was a top seller at the 1954 HKPE where the 27 year old Wong was hailed as wunderkind.
According to records, the first wrinkle free shirt in the world was introduced by Brooks Brothers in the US in 1953 around the same time as Union so Wong was definitely a pioneer. To ensure that Union stayed ahead of the curve on the production front, Wong frequently travelled overseas to countries such as Japan to learn about the latest industry trends and technology.
Profile of 27 year old Wong Ping-shan and Union V-Tex at the 1954 HK Products Expo (Source: Ta Kung Pao 1954-12-28)
In terms of price, Wong marketed his shirts at half the rate of imported shirts such as Arrow (back in the 1950s-60s, that would be 7-10 HK dollars compared to foreign brands priced in the high teens), making it affordable to the masses. He also emphasized the bargain image of Union by frequently offering discount sales and discount coupons.
In terms of promotion, Union advertised regularly in the major Chinese newspapers and was also one of the first local brands to use celebrity endorsements, hiring local and foreign movie actresses to appear at store openings and promotional events such as the HKPE. The brand’s logo was its Chinese name in a very unique and eye catching font which was very memorable and easily identifiable from afar.
As for place, Union was one of the first apparel chains in Hong Kong. Starting out with one retail outlet at 32 Des Voeux Road in Central, Union expanded very quickly in the late 1950s and early 1960s to 6 stores by 1963. Three of the stores were located in the Central business district, one on Hennessey Road and another two on Nathan Road in the Mongkok shopping district. Lots of shirts were also sold at the annual HKPE organized by CMA. Wong served on the executive committee of the CMA alongside many leading industrialists of the time and always managed to secure prime real estate at the HKPE, where male customers (including the Governors of Hong Kong) were drawn to the Union booth staffed with attractive salesladies, often competing for business with the salesladies at the Crocodile Shirts booth nearby. One year Crocodile displayed live crocodiles in attempt to steal the spotlight from Union and another year, Union held a major raffle tickets draw to attract potential customers. Union shirts were also sold overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia by a Malaysian Chinese distributor.
Left: Opening of the Eastern District branch of Union V-Tex by Wong Ping-shan (first from left) and actresses Chen Junjun, Sophie Auyang and Chu Hong. (Source: Kung Sheung Evening News 1957-4-11) Right: Wong Ping-shan introducing Union V-Tex shirts to Governor Robert Black at the 1959 HKPE. (Kung Sheung Daily News¸1959-12-6)
Left: Union V-Tex ad from 1957 advertising their anniversary sale during which 1000 shirts were available at half price in a first come first serve basis but limited to one shirt per customer. At this point they only had 1 shop at 32 Des Voeux Road Central. Right: Union V-Tex ad from 1963 which included a $5 coupon. By this time they had 6 shops and also had an extra-large booth at the HKPE (Source: 吳昊老花鏡)
Article about the opening of the second Union V-Tex shop in Central at the ground floor of the Hang Seng Bank Building. Left to right in the front: Wong Ping-shan, Wong Tok-Shau (chairman of CMA and Amoy Canning), Japanese actress. Also in the background were U Tat-chee (king of preserved ginger) and Wong Haking (maker of Halina cameras) amongst over 1000 guests (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1962-12-18)
Left: Union V-Tex shop on Nathan Road – 1960s. (Source: Flickr) Right: A Union V-Tex shopping bag from the 1960s. (Source: HK Museum of History)
The booth of Union V-Tex (left) and raffle draw organized by Union V-Tex (right) at the 29th HKPE in 1972. (Source: HK Memory)
In 1973, Union V-Tex reached its pinnacle of success. Its factory at 56 Tsun Yip Street in Kwun Tong was employing over 600 workers. At the end of February, its property arm Union V-Tex Realty (伊人置業,referred to as UVR hereafter) was listed on the Far East and Gold & Silver Stock Exchanges with registered capital of $50 million and paid-up capital of $12 million after the issuance of 3 million shares at $1 apiece. UVR’s board was comprised of Wong and his wife Chan Kam-chi (陳淦枝), Wai Tse-hang (韋子恆,executive director of Goodyear Estates), Wong Cho-ki (王祖基,manager of Hang Lung Bank), Winston Chu (徐嘉慎, solicitor, best known in the 2000s for the Victoria Harbor protection movement) and Lee Kwok-yat (李國逸, a long time Union V-Tex executive who was fined 5,500 dollars alongside another executive in 1966 for exporting shirts made in mainland China as Union shirts). (Source: Kung Sheung Evening News, 1973-2-27).
In May, a high end Western style restaurant under the Union V-Tex brand opened on Nathan Road with the wife of HSBC taipan Michael Sandberg as the guest of honor, highlighting the importance of the Union V-Tex group in the HK business community.
However, within 5 months of the restaurant opening, Wong Ping-shan was dead at the age of 46. His obituary did not disclose his cause of death but 1973 was a very stressful time as the HK stock market lost over 75% of its value in a very short period of time.
His funeral was well attended and he was laid to rest at the Catholic Cemetery in Happy Valley. (Source: 大公報, 1973-10-15)
Left: IPO notice of Union V-Tex Realty in 1973. Right: Article about the opening of the Union V-Tex restaurant on Nathan Road in 1973. Wong Ping-shan and Mrs Sandberg were first and second from the left (Kung Sheung Evening News, 1975-5-4)
At first business went on as usual, at least looking in from the outside. But the economic recession triggered by the global energy crisis did not help matters and by the end of 1974, the firm had difficulties making the payroll and was forced to reduce the size of its factory workforce from 600 to 200 and the number of stores to 5. In order to raise cash to stay afloat, the factory sold its premises to its sister company UVR but it was too late.
In March 1975, Union V-Tex Shirt Factory closed its doors due to its inability to service over $10 million of outstanding debt, primarily consisting of loans provided by HSBC but also including $1.2 million in rent owed to UVR. (Source: 大公報, 1975-03-08)
The aftermath included a highly publicized labor dispute (known as the “Union Shirt Incident” in labor union circles) and a long drawn out lawsuit between UVR and Union V-Tex Shirt which lasted almost a decade. Union V-Tex Shirt as a company was finally dissolved in 1988 and the listed shell of Union V-Tex Realty was acquired by the Australian taipan Bill Wyllie in January 1987 and renamed Asia Securities (now Dan Form Holdings).
The factory site was acquired by a garment manufacturer Kwong Luen Tai (廣聯泰), which re-developed it into Kwong Luen Tai Industrial Building in 1979 which has since been acquired and redeveloped by Billion Real Estate into COS Centre.
This article was first posted on 12th September 2016.
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