William S.T. Lee & Co (曉莊貿易) – the firm which brought Montblanc pens, Rodenstock glasses, Seiko watches, Ricoh cameras and Kenwood stereos to HK
York Lo: William S.T. Lee & Co (曉莊貿易) – the firm which brought Montblanc pens, Rodenstock glasses, Seiko watches, Ricoh cameras and Kenwood stereos to HK
Left: William ST Lee (second from right) with winners of the Montblanc coloring competition his firm sponsored in 1965 (KSDN, 1965-5-3); Right: Montblanc ad by William S.T. Lee Co
From the 1960s to the 1990s, a trading firm by the name of William S. T. Lee & Co represented several leading German and Japanese brands in Hong Kong such as Montblanc pens, Rodenstock glasses, Seiko watches, Ricoh cameras and office equipment and Kenwood audio equipment. Not much is known about the firm’s eponymous founder William S.T. Lee (李曉莊) despite all the famous brands he introduced to the region and his interests in the banking and insurance sectors.
As a firm, William S.T. Lee & Co Ltd was incorporated in 1963 but it was founded earlier as William S.T. Lee Company. The firm first operated out of the 14th floor of the Union House in Central before moving into 6th floor of the Wang Kee Building at 34-37 Connaught Road Central (see article on Wang Kee, a Century of Service in the Port of Hong Kong for details about the building’s construction). In addition to the brands mentioned in the title and to be covered in greater details in the article, the firm also represented other Japanese products such as binoculars from Denkar Industries, cigarette gas lighters from Crown Sangyo, woven labels from Ozaki Woven Labels Co Ltd, opera and sports glasses by Okaya Optical and aluminum containers from Zeniya Aluminum Engineering according to the HK Dollar Directory. In addition to exports, the Lee family was also involved in exports through William S.T. Lee (Export) Ltd (曉莊出口有限公司) which was incorporated in 1968 and dissolved in 2017. The products the export division focused on included umbrellas, woodscrews, diaries and stationery novelties, promotion gift items and plastic goods.
According to HK Dollar Directory in 1970, the chairman of the firm was William S.T. Lee while Y. Sydney Chang was executive director and general manager and the firm’s board included B.H. Tisdall (partner of the law firm of Johnson Stokes & Master and president of HK Law Society), C.W. Lam and his son Hung-Jau Lee (李宏祚), who also served as managing director of the firm.
The German brands – Montblanc and Rodenstock
William ST Lee’s Chinese ad for Montblanc pens in the 1960s; Right: William ST Lee’s ad in Singapore seeking distributors for Montblanc pens in Southeast Asia in 1961 (南洋商报 1961-3-31)
The brand which William S.T. Lee was most identified with was Montblanc, the German maker of pens founded in 1906 which it became the sole agent for the Far East in 1960. In 1960, William ST Lee ran a competition for the Chinese name of the brand and after reviewing over 2000 entries, Lee picked the entry “萬寶龍” – which translate to ten thousand precious dragons in Chinese and which captures the exclusivity and agility of the products and the top three winners received Montblanc pens. (華僑日報, 1960-08-04). At the time, Montblanc also manufactured pencils in addition to ballpoint and fountain pens and thanks to the products’ high quality and Lee’s marketing acumen, Montblanc was a quick hit in the region, resulting in Lee receiving the first global sales medal awarded by Montblanc when its chairman Wolfram Dziambor (son of the founder Wilhelm Dziambor) visited HK in late 1963. (He also traveled with Dziambor across the region earlier in the year)
Montblanc chairman Wolfram Dziambor pinning the first global sales medal on William S.T. Lee (left) in 1963 (KSDN, 1963-11-15)
William ST Lee (left) presenting a Montblanc gold pen to Abe Saperstein, founder of Harlem Globetrotters which was performing in HK in 1964. (WKYP, 1964-3-13)
Lee served as the agent for Montblanc in the region for over a quarter century until 1988 when Montblanc Pacific Distributors was formed. According to testimony given by H.J. Lee during a case filed by Montblanc against Hua Yuen Company in 1980 which tried to register a five pedaled flower trademark in HK for drawing instruments which closely resembled the Montblanc logo, Montblanc sales in the HK in the years ending March 1978, 1979 and 1980 were approximately HK$3.1 million, 7 million and 7 million and Lee & Co spent over HK$100,000-300,000 per year during the period in advertising expenses to promote the products.
William ST Lee (right) and representative of Rodenstock in 1965 (WKYP, 1965-10-28)
The other popular German brand represented by Lee & Co was Rodenstock, the maker of lenses and frames founded in Munich in 1877. Thanks to Lee’s effort selling through leading chains such as The Optical Shop (see section about Jimmy Chen in my article on Shanghainese tailors), Rodenstock became one of the top selling brand of glasses in HK and by the mid-1990s, HK represented 5-6% of its global sales and was growing at 25-30% year over year. In 1995, Lee & Co was replaced by Jebsen as sole agent of Rodenstock in HK as it was shutting down due to immigration of one of its partners and it was also not interested in entering the mainland Chinese market. (SCMP, 14 Jan 1995)
The Japanese Brands – Seiko, Ricoh and Kenwood (Trio)
William S.T. Lee (fifth from the left) and staff of Shewan Tomes with representatives from Seiko in early 1961 (WKYP, 1961-3-1)
While most people associate the popular Seiko watches from Japan with Thong Sia Watches, the distributor of the brand in HK and Southeast Asia since the early 1960s founded by Stelux founder Wong Chue-meng, based on old newspaper clippings such as the one above it was actually first represented in HK by the British firm of Shewan Tomes and the article above actually described William S.T. Lee as the Chinese manager of Shewan Tomes. By late 1961, William S.T. Lee & Co was the representative of Seiko as shown in article below. However, by 1963 the distributorship of Seiko watches appears to have transferred to Thong Sia although the 1968 HK $ Directory still list Lee & Co as representative of Seiko.
William S.T. Lee (third from left) and his colleagues and watch distributor Lun Tin-lok (third from right) welcoming Seiko representative (second from right) in late 1961 (WKYP, 1961-10-9)
While William S.T. Lee’s partnership with Seiko was relatively short-lived, its alliance with two other leading Japanese brands – Ricoh and Kenwood (formerly known as Trio) – were more enduring. Ricoh was founded in 1936 and by the early 1960s when Lee & Co entered into partnership with the firm, it was a leading manufacturer of cameras and watches in Japan before going deeper into the office equipment business in the 1970s (although it launched its first office copiers in 1955). To launch the brand in the HK market in 1963, Lee helped Ricoh secured the largest neon sign at the time atop the Luk Kwok Hotel in Wanchai and held large shows at the Ambassador Hotel and Daimaru department store. The distributorship was later transferred to Gilman which had a lot of success in the office automation space in the 1980s.
Left: William ST Lee (left) and Ricoh founder Kiyoshi Ichimura switching on the largest neon sign in HK at the time atop the Luk Kwok Hotel in 1963 (WKYP, 1963-12-5); right: Ricoh sign atop Luk Kwok Hotel in 1966 (Gwulo) – note the Rediffusion building and the Sony sign next door in the Wanchai waterfront
In 1962, Lee & Co became the sole agents of radios manufactured by Trio Corporation (founded in 1946 as Kasuga Radio in Nagano and renamed Trio in 1960) in partnership with Che Ming Radio & Electric Co (志明無線電器行) which was operated by Yim Che-Ho (嚴志豪) and had branches at 517 Hennessy Road in Wanchai and Ocean Terminal (opened in 1966). Through the help of its Japanese American distributor George Aratani, Trio re-invented itself as Kenwood in the 1960s and in 1971, William Lee incorporated Kenwood & Lee Electronics (曉和電子音響) to distribute Kenwood products in HK. The partnership lasted until 1999 when the firm was renamed Kenwood Electronics (HK) Ltd.
William ST Lee (right) with representatives from Kenwood (middle two) and Yim Che-ho, owner of Che Ming Radio & Electric Co (left) in 1962 (WKYP, 1962-4-11)
Financial Services – William S.T. Lee Insurance and Kwong On Bank
Aside from distribution of brand name products, William S.T. Lee was also involved in the banking and insurance sectors through its partnership with two affiliates of the former Yasuda zaibatsu in Japan, Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance (安田火災海上保険) and Fuji Bank (founded in 1864 as Yasuda Bank by Zenjiro Yasuda, the great-great grandfather of singer Yoko Ono). In 1960, Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance entered the HK market with William S.T. Lee as its first agency and manager to underwrite insurance related to trading between HK and Japan. In 1971, William S.T. Lee Insurance Agency Ltd (曉莊保險代理) was incorporated and re-organized as William S.T. Lee Insurance Ltd (曉莊保險股份有限公司) in 1977 with Yasuda owning 80%, William S.T. Lee holding 15% and H.J. Lee holding 5%. In 1973, Yasuda affiliate Fuji Bank, the second largest commercial bank in Japan at the time, acquired the majority control of Kwong On Bank (廣安銀行) and William S.T. Lee became an executive director of Kwong On Bank alongside the members of the founding Leung family of the bank and Shanghainese tycoon L.S. Chang (張蘭生, father of Lister Chang). Fuji Bank later sold its stake in Kwong On to DBS Bank of Singapore.
The opening reception of Yasuda Insurance’s HK branch in 1960. Left to right: Kan Yuet-hing of Bank of East Asia, director Kato Kazunao (加藤和作), supervisor Hachiro Koyama (小山八郎), Lamson Kwok of Wing On, manager William ST Lee, deputy manager Lee Nam-kung (李楠公) (WKYP, 1960-11-13)
Left: William ST Lee (second from left), HJ Lee (second from right) and M.C. Ng (first from right) with representative from Kenwood at a new product showcase in 1973 (KSEN, 1973-8-4); Right: Lee Yeung Yat-fan (HK Federation of Women)
In the mid-1970s, William S.T. Lee’s daughter in law Lee Yeung Yat-fan (李楊一帆) joined the family business after working for 15 years for the HK government as a civil servant. A Shanghai native and graduate of Wuhan University who came to HK in 1961, she became the chairman of William S.T. Lee & Co after the passing of her father in law and husband in the 1980s and winded down the product distribution businesses in the 1990s while keeping the insurance business. Yasuda Fire merged with Nissan Fire & Marine to form Sompo in 2002 and William S.T. Lee Insurance was renamed Sompo Japan Insurance (HK) Ltd (日本財產保險) in 2008 while Yat-fan was retained as an advisor. Outside of work, she has taught etiquette courses in HK and China and served as vice chairperson of the HK Federation of Women and women committee member of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce.
Sources (other than those quoted above):
This article was first posted on 28th June 2019.
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