Wing Tai Cheung (榮泰祥木廠) – Timber Merchant and Saw Mill

York Lo: Wing Tai Cheung (榮泰祥木廠) – Timber Merchant and Saw Mill

Wing Tai Cheung Timber Merchant Image 1 York Lo

Ad for Wing Tai Cheung Co in 1958 (HKBCA yearbook) 

For most of the 20th century, Wing Tai Cheung operated by three generations of the Kan family was one of the leading timber merchants and saw mills in Hong Kong with branches across Hong Kong and Kowloon and was one of the major suppliers to the local construction, shipbuilding and furniture industries.  

Wing Tai Cheung founder Kan Yew-cho (簡耀初, 1867-1936) and the firm before the War 

A native of the Nanhoi district in Guangdong, Wing Tai Cheung founder Kan Yew-cho lost his father at a young age and was raised by his mother. As the family was poor, Yew-cho was mostly home schooled and was sent by his relatives to a proper school for two years at the age of 17, during which he obtained fair knowledge in writing and counting that enabled him to succeed in business later in life.    

Yew-cho started his career as an apprentice in the lumber business in Canton and when he accumulated enough savings and experience, he established a lumber firm in Canton by the name of Wing Cheong (榮昌) in 1891 in partnership with a kinsman. Soon he started Wing Tai Cheung on his own and expanded to Hong Kong where he built a lumber empire and co-founded the HK Timber Guild (𣛜木行商) in 1916 with a dozen other lumber merchants such as Ng Jim-kai of Kwong Mow Hing Timber Yard in Mongkok and Wong Cheuk-hing of Wong Tong Kee (see articles on Ng and Wong).  By the time of his death, Wing Tai Cheung had nine lumber shops and five godowns in Hong Kong, making the firm a leader in the industry. 

By the 1930s, the main site for Wing Tai Cheung in HK was located at 375 Lockhart Road which included a one story tall godown to its left. In May 1939, heavy rain resulted in the roof of the godown collapsing, critically injured Ng Lung, a staff member of Shun Lee Construction who was picking up metal wires at the godown.  

While he was alive, Kan split his time between HK and Canton where he had built a three-story mansion named Yew Villa (耀廬) in the Nanhua West district. The still standing mansion had Roman columns and Manchu style windows and was a front for underground Communist activities under the KMT regime as Chung Ming (鍾明,1919-2003), the brother in law of Yew-cho’s third son, was a Communist operative in the 1930s and 1940s who later became deputy mayor of Guangzhou after 1949. 

Wing Tai Cheung Timber Merchant Image 2 York Lo Left: Kan Yew-cho (Who’s Who of HK Chinese, 1937); Right: article about the collapse of the Wing Tai Cheung godown in Wanchai in 1939 which critically injured a customer (KSDN, 1939-5-30) 

Outside of business, Kan Yew-cho was very philanthropic, especially in causes related to his native village in Namhoi. As early as in the 1890s, he donated money to build ramparts and earthworks in his village to protect the villagers from the robbers and bandits which were active in the area. As his native village was located on the bank of a river and often threatened by flood, Kan donated funds to build dike to prevent flooding. In 1920, he became a director of the Kok Man School (國民學) and in 1935, he founded a school in his native village.  In Hong Kong, he served on the board of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (1934-35) and the Nam Hoi Traders Association. Records showed that he donated a property at 18 Wanchai Road in Wanchai to Tung Wah which was worth $15600 at the time. 

Second Generation Leader: Kan Chi-nam (簡熾南, 1907-1979) 

Kan Yew-cho had 12 children but was succeeded in business by his fifth son Kan Chi-nam (also went by Kan Kwong-chiu 簡廣照), who was born and raised in Canton where he received his early education from a local school. He joined the family business as an apprentice in Canton and later moved to Hong Kong where he re-organized the various family controlled lumber yards and consolidated the business under Wing Tai Cheung Co Ltd, which was incorporated in 1935. 

In the 1930s, Kan Chi-nam already distinguished himself as a community leader and donated money towards the construction of the Sixth District Primary School in his native Namhoi, which named him honorary principal. In 1937, he was elected chairman of the HK Timber Guild which was founded by his father. 

During the Japanese occupation of HK (1941-45), Kan Chi-nam split his time between Canton and Hong Kong. In HK, he was appointed to the district committee for the “Spring Day” district (renamed by the Japanese military administration), formerly the Bowrington area between Wanchai and Causeway Bay where his lumber yard was located. 

Wing Tai Cheung Timber Merchant Image 3 York Lo Left: Kan Chi-nam; right: article which includes an interview with Kan Chi-nam about the state of the timber industry in Hong Kong in 1953 (WKYP, 1953-7-4) 

After the War, Kan Chi-nam returned to HK and left the Canton branch in the hands of his kinsman Kan Hau-foon. In HK, he was assisted by his brother Kan Woon-tong (煥堂) and together, they rebuilt the family business. The early post-War years were good thanks to the reconstruction effort and business peaked in 1948-49. With the regime change in the mainland in 1949 (which restricted the import and export trade of timber associated with the mainland) and the outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s however, business dropped by half with the first half of 1953 seeing a 70% drop from the same period the prior year as explained by Kan to the press in above article. But thankfully prices were relatively steady that year after a year of oversupply the previous year so most timber merchants were able to stay afloat. (WKYP, 1953-7-4) 

Thanks to the building and ship construction boom in the mid to late 1950s, business rebounded, and the firm had branches on King’s Road in North Point waterfront, 615 Canton Road in Yau Ma Tei (managed by Woon-tong) and Cheung Wah Street in Cheung Sha Wan in addition to its main site on Lockhart Road in Wanchai by the late 1950s. It sourced its wood from across the globe, ranging from mainland China to Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest in America, to teakwood from Thailand to hardwood from Borneo and beyond. 

As property value soared on the Wanchai waterfront, Wing Tai Cheung decided to close its main site in Wanchai in 1959 in order to re-develop the site into a 19-story mix use building. The Shanghainese architect S.S. Chien (錢湘壽) was hired as the architect of the building which was to include three floors of shopping, restaurant and office space and 16 floors of 230 residential units. (WKYP, 1959-1-30) After this, the Canton Road location became the main address for Wing Tai Cheung.  

In 1962, the HK timber and lumber industry faced another headwind when the HK government proposed new rules starting January 1963 restricting the storage of timber in HK harbor which had significant negative impact on the industry. Kan Chi-nam along with other leaders of the industry petitioned the Governor, the Legco and Exco Councilors and the various chambers against the new rules. (WKYP, 1962-12-18) As a result of these new regulations and soaring waterfront property prices, many timber yards and saw mills relocated to more remote locations and in 1968, the address of Wing Tai Cheung’s saw mill was listed as Lot 23-24 Cha Kwo Ling Road in Yau Tong Bay (Xianggang Shi-kuang

Golden Crown (2)

Ad for Golden Crown Restaurant in 1980 (WKYP, 1980-11-3) 

Outside of Wing Tai Cheung, Kan Chi-nam invested in other businesses, most notably the Golden Crown Restaurant (金冠大酒樓) at 66-70 Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. As discussed in the article about real estate pioneer Au Shue-hung who was thought to be the developer of the building, Golden Crown Court was originally developed by Fu Luen Investment led by Shanghainese businessmen Lee Wai-lee (李惠利) of Enicar Watch and Godfrey Yeh of Hsin Chong in 1961. The same year, Kan together with preserved ginger tycoon Ma To-sang (馬道生), fellow Namhoi native and CGCC leader Ko Cheuk-hung (高卓雄, chairman of the board and majority shareholder) and restauranteurs Fook Woon-tong (霍煥堂) and Cheung Chi-on (張志安, father of Tommy Cheung and later proprietor of the Ocean Palace restaurant in Ocean Centre) incorporated Golden Crown Restaurant Ltd to develop one of the largest Chinese restaurants and nightclubs in Hong Kong on the first few floors of the new building.  In 1962, Golden Crown Investment Co Ltd (金冠置業), which Kan Chi-nam was also a director of, was incorporated to hold properties in the new building, including the restaurant space. During the Chinese New Year of 1964, the Golden Crown Restaurant, which occupied 45000 sq ft and cost HK$10 million, opened its doors after three years of planning. The restaurant was a popular establishment for three decades until its closure in the early 1990s and was sold by the Ko family to Coda Properties controlled by the Tong family which operated the Coda Wallpaper Co on the ground floor of the building (see article on wallpapers). 

Aside from Golden Crown, Kan was also a director of China Cultural Enterprise Co Ltd (中國文化事業有限公司), which published Home Life (家庭生活) magazine and books, alongside the “poetic industrialist” Yan Man-leung (see article) and newspaper editor Tong Pik-chuen (唐碧川). (HK Album, 1967) 

Outside of business, Kan Chi-nam was extremely active in community affairs, having served on the board of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (1948), Po Leung Kuk (1947), Chung Sing Benevolent Society, the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, Nam Hoi Traders Association and the Chinese Merchants Association and served as chairman of the HK Timber Guild and the HK & Kowloon Timber Merchants Association and permanent honorary chairman of the HK Kan’s Family Association. When his third son Kan Yuen-kin (簡元) was married in 1961, the wedding banquet at the Ying King restaurant in Wanchai was attended by over 1000 guests (over 100 tables and 2 floors) including leaders of the various organizations he was involved with. (WKYP, 1961-11-21) 

Kan Woon-tong died in July 1968 at the age of 64 and was survived by four sons and two daughters. His eldest son Kan Yuen-sum (簡元深) is a MBBS graduate of HKU and a physician while his daughter Wai-yin (惠賢) married Fung Yuen-on (馮元安), younger brother of Fung Yuen-hon profiled in another article earlier. In June 1979, Kan Chi-nam died at the HK Sanatorium and was buried at the Aberdeen Chinese Permanent Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Lau Pak-yuk (劉伯玉, whom he married in 1925), 9 sons (in order of birth) – Yuen-wing, Paul Yuen-pui (簡元培, 1931-2015), Yuen-kin, Yuen-too, Yuen-chiu, Yuen-ming, Yuen-fai, Yuen-chi and Yuen-shun and 3 daughters – Wai-kan, Wynna Wai-Lim Kan Metharom of Thailand and Mary Wai-ling Pan of Connecticut.

Wing Tai Cheung Timber Merchant Image 4 York Lo

Wedding picture of Paul Kan Yuen-pui in 1959 (WKYP, 1959-11-19) 

By the 1990s, Kan Chi-nam’s 8th son Kan Yuen-chi (簡元, there was a jockey of the same name in the 1970s but uncertain if it was the same person) was listed as the manager of Wing Tai Cheung while its Yau Tong Bay address was listed as its primary address and the Canton Road location has been redeveloped into a CLP power station. (Sino US Trading Almanac, 1994; WTC World Business Directory, 1996). According to his brother Paul’s obituary, Yuen-chi had immigrated to Canada as did his brother Yuen-chiu. 

As a firm, Wing Tai Cheung Co. Ltd was dissolved in 2008. 

Sources (other than those cited above):

吳醒濂編《香港華人名人史略》(香港:五洲書局‘ 1937)

This article was first posted on 21st February 2020.

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