Wo Shing Company (和聲唱片): Leading Record Label from the 1930s to 1960s

York Lo: Wo Shing Company (和聲唱片): Leading Record Label from the 1930s to 1960s

Wo Shing Company Image 1 York Lo

Left: Robert Kotewall in 1941 (Harrison Forman Collection); Right: Wo Shing’s posthumousalbum for Siu Ming Sing after the War (review33)

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Wo Shing Co Ltd was a leading local record label in Hong Kong and the firm was also responsible for pioneering Cantonese popular songs (粵語時代曲) in the 1950s.

Wo Shing from 1928 to 1950: Collaboration with Columbia

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Ad for Columbia-Wo Shing in 1929 (YuetWa Po, 1929-8-31)

Wo Shing was incorporated in 1928 by Sir Robert H. Kotewall (羅旭龢, 1880-1949), the eloquent political figure who was one of HK’s leading importers of gramophones through his R.H. Kotewall& Co. The son of a Parsee father (HormusjeeKotwaj, surname Anglicized to Kotewall) and a Chinese mother, Kotewall attended DBS and Queen’s College and worked in the HK government until 1916 when he joined the business world by starting his namesake trading firm of R.H. Kotewall& Co (although as a firm it was incorporated in 1951 and dissolved in 1955.

). He quickly emerged in the 1920s as a leader of the Chinese community as a legislator who successfully lobbied the government for massive stimulus package after the 1925-26 strikes. A fan of Cantonese opera, he wrote a Cantonese opera in English called “Uncle Kim” (鑒叔) in 1921 to help foreigners understand Cantonese opera and also worked with a group of theatre owners and successfully petitioned the Governor to allow cast of both genders in Cantonese operas in 1933 (although there were no legal regulations, prior to that casts of Cantonese operas in HK were single sex). It was with this background in Cantonese opera that he started Wo Shing, which also supported the sales of his gramophones. As Kotewall was very busy with his political and social engagements in the 1930s, the key executive at Wo Shing was his eldest son in law Lee Shiu-kai (李兆楷) who was manager of the firm. A grandson of Li Sing (see other articles about the family, Shiu-kai was the eldest son of his second son Po-sum), Shiu-kai worked as Kotewall’s secretary for two years before he married Kotewall’seldest daughter Esther Mary Kotewall (羅慧基) in December 1927. The wedding, which took place at Hatton House on Conduit Road, was attended by over 1000 guests including Governor Sir Cecil Clementi and his wife who gave a toast along with Sir Shouson Chow. (HK Telegraph, 1927-12-22)

From inception until the 1950s, Wo Shing operated out of the 5th floor of the China Building in Central, which was developed in 1924 by Chinese Estates that counted Kotewall among its directors. Before the 1950s, Wo Shing primarily produced records under the brand of Columbia(歌林) as it entered into arrangement with Columbia Records (which has been active in HK since the 1900s) where it was responsible for the recording and Columbia was responsible for pressing at its affiliate Pathe’s Shanghai plant.

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Album cover of Wo Shing record of Lui Man-shing (left) and Tsui Lau-sin (right)

Wo Shing recruited the talented composer Lui Man-shing (呂文成, 1898-1981), who composed over 100 songs including the classic “Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake” (平湖秋月) and “Higher Step by Step” (步步高) and Lui in turn brought in other musicians such as Ho Ta-sho (何大傻, 1896-1957), lyricist Lam Ho-yin, Chu Ting-hok (朱頂鶴, 1899-1969) and Tam Pak-yip (譚伯葉, 1908-1963) to form the “Ko Sing Musical Group” (acronym of Columbia and Wo Shing) to produce records for Columbia-Wo Shing.

Other recording artists recorded by Wo Shing in the 1930 and 1940s include the “Four queens of Soft Voice”: Siu Ming Sing (小明星, 1912-1942), Tsui Lau-sin (徐柳仙, 1917-1985), Cheung Wai-fong (張惠芳)and Cheung Yuet-yee (張月兒) and male Cantonese opera stars such as Pak Kui-wing (白駒榮, 1892-1974) and Poon Yat On (半日安, 1902-1964).

When the Japanese attacked Shanghai after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Wo Shing moved the pressing of its records to EMI’s affiliate in India. Between 1937 and 1941, Columbia-Wo Shing produced many patriotic albums featuring some of the artists mentioned above and catering to the anti-Japanese sentiments at the time. During the Japanese occupation, Kotewallwas one of the highest profile figures working with the Japanese military administration although after the War the British colonial official R.A.C. North testified that Kotewall and other Chinese leaders such as Shouson Chow did so at his request. There are also no records that Wo Shing produced any records during the occupation to support Japanese propaganda but unfortunately Kotewall was barred from re-entering public life after the War and died of a broken heart in 1949.

Wo Shing and the Rise of Cantonese Popular Songs in the 1950s

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Left: the first Cantonese popular song album released by Columbia-Wo Shing in 1952; Right: Wo Shing’s dancing album featuring solo performance by Lui Hung

After the Wo Shing resumed production and in the late 1940s, the board of Wo Shing was comprised of Kotewall, LeeShiu-kai, TseYat-cho (謝日初) and Tsun-Nin Chau and its staff included Tam Pak-yip, TseShau-yee, Chan Hoi, Lee Shiu-too and Phoebe M. Kotewall (羅懿基, 1911-2004). (Business Directory of HK, Canton and Macao, 1949) Phoebe’s first husband was Walter Hung (洪禹釗), the Chinese manager of HK Macao Steamboat Co and after his death in 1939, she married his brother Hung Mo-chiu (1912-1977). One of her sons is the former Wheelock taipan John Hung (洪承禧). Aside from Lee Shiu-kai, one of its key executives was Chew Kwok-shing (趙國成), also known as Chew Wai-lam (趙威林), who served as its sales and recording manager and started in the record industry in the 1920s. In 1957, Chew’s eldest son Chew Kam-chiu (趙錦超) and second son Chew Kam-biu (趙錦標) both got married on the same day and the marriage notice referred to Chew as a “giant in the record industry”. His sons did not follow his footsteps in the music business and instead operated a pharmacy and Kam-chiu was an amateur photographer whose pictures were showed in salons in Berlin and London. (WKYP, 1957-10-5)

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Chinese pop songs in HK were of the Mandarin variety and Wo Shingacted as distributor of Mandarin pop albums produced by EMI while its Cantonese albums were primarily Cantonese opera. In 1952, Wo Shing released the first Cantonese pop album featuring Lui Hung (呂紅), the daughter of its longtime collaborator Lui Man-shing and Pak Ying (白英, original name Tang Pak-ying), a popular lounge singer at the time.  The next year, Lui Hung recorded the popular duet“Happy Companion” (快樂伴侶, written by her father)with Chow Chung (周聰, 1925-1993), protégé of her father who was regarded by James Wong as the “father of Cantonese popular music”. Chow recorded at least 34 albums for Wo Shing between 1952 and 1970 while Lui Hung would go on to record over 70 singles and albums for Wo Shingin the same period, with 16 of them in 1952-53 alone (each album comprised of 2 sons).

Other artists for Wo Shing in the 1950s and 1960s includeFung Yuk-ling (馮玉玲), who recorded several albums between 1953-1961,Chu Lo-ting (朱老丁) who recorded 10 albums 1958 to 1970, and Hui Yim-chau(許艷秋) who recorded 15 albums for them between 1959 and 1970 and best known for her song “Gong Chai Leng” (哥仔靚).  Two new artists launched by Wo Shing in the early 1960s were Tam Ping-man (譚炳文), who recorded his first albums at Wo Shing in 1962 and Lee Yin-ping (李燕萍, 1923-1999), who became a star with her 7 albums at Wo Shing in 1961-62 and who later launched her own label Yin Ping Record in 1970. The popular star Cheng Kwan-min (鄭君綿)also recorded for Wo Shing between 1958-62 but he also sang for other labels such as SinHok and Crown at the same time. As some of the songs targeting the Southeast Asian market leaned more towards the comedic and colloquial spectrum, the artistic value of Wo Shing’s music in the 1950s and 1960s had generally been under appreciated but in recent years had been re-evaluated through the work of music historians such as Wong Chi-wah.

As a firm, Wo Shing Co Ltd was dissolved in 1976. Lee Shiu-kai died in 1983 followed by his widow Esther in 1985.

Sources (other than what’s cited above):

香港音樂的前世今生: 香港早期音樂發展歷程(1930s-1950s)

原創先鋒: 粵曲人的流行曲調創作 By 黃志華



This article was first posted on 1st February 2021.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Sir Robert Hormus Kotewall, founder of R.H.Kotewall & Co. and connected to many other Hong Kong companies
  2. Q+A50 R.H. Kotewall & Co
  3. Phonographs, Gramophones and Record Companies in Hong Kong
  4. Sir Shouson Chow – director of many Hong Kong firms and corporations
  5. The Bicentennial Saga of the Li Sing Family – Wealth, Revolution and Philanthropy


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