Hong Kong’s richest man owes his wealth to plastic. Specifically, plastic flowers – the kind that now fills dollar stores and other discount retailers around the world. In the years after World War II, buying a bunch of plastic flowers was trendy, not tacky, and Li Ka-shing built their novelty into a business empire that now spans the globe.
Li was born in Chaozhou, Guangdong in 1928. He was 15 years old when his father died and he was forced to leave home in search of a job. He ended up in Hong Kong, where he earned a living sweeping the floors of a plastics factory. Luckily for him, he was related to the Chong family, which had made a fortune in manufacturing. They offered him a loan, which he used to start his own plastic flower factory in 1950.
“It was, in part, a cottage industry,” wrote journalists Tom Mitchell and Robin Kwong in a 2007 feature on Li for the Financial Times. Li’s factory, Cheung Kong, produced plastic flower petals and stems, but relied on local families to thread them together at home. “This was a popular practice back then because through this outsourcing, manufacturers could overcome the limitations of physical space,” Li told Mitchell and Kwong.
In 1962, Li married his cousin, Chong Yuet-ming, whose family had given him the loan that started it all. From there, he began buying up real estate assets, which he parlayed into a vast corporate empire and a personal net worth of nearly US$30 billion.
Li’s ascent mirrored that of Hong Kong. Plastic manufacturing helped the city become an industrial powerhouse in the postwar decades. It ignited the 1967 riots, which led to significant social reforms. And the wealth generated by plastic businesses led to Hong Kong’s rise as a global financial capital.
The modern plastics industry dates back to 1839, when a German apothecary named Eduard Simon discovered how to make polystyrene. But it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century when plastics such as nylon, teflon, polyester and polypropylene were invented, setting off a new era of plastics production.
One of the first industrialists to take advantage of these new technologies was Joseph Law Cho-yiu, the son of a Christian preacher, who began making plastic toys and flowers in the 1950s. He helped lead trade delegations that opened up international markets to Hong Kong-made products, and soon the kid’s rooms of suburban American houses were filled with dolls, cars and toy record players that all bore the same sticker: “Made in British Hong Kong.”
Some of the largest plastics manufacturers in Hong Kong were wealthy families who had fled Shanghai in 1949. But a much larger group were from Chaozhou—known in Hong Kong as Chiu Chow—and they had the reputation of being a hard-working, close-knit community. “Some worked outside the office during daytime to take orders and returned to the factory during the night to focus on production,” an 86-year-old plastics manufacturer named LT Lam told the HK Memory oral history project in 2010.
Legend has it that, when an American importer arrived in Hong Kong looking for a factory to supply him with plastic products, his Chiu Chow driver took him to Cheung Kong, run by a fellow Chiu Chow immigrant: Li Ka-shing. In 1960, Chiu Chow entrepreneurs founded the Chiu Chau Plastic Manufacturers Association to promote their joint interests.
As with Li Ka-shing’s plastic flowers, many working-class families in Hong Kong took home batches of plastic components and finished them at home, such as by cutting and gluing sheets of plastic to make photo frames. More affluent homes were filling up with some of those same products.
Some of the most distinctive of these were made by the Star Industrial Company, founded in San Po Kong by the Leung family, who came to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1949. Under the Red A brand, they made plastic homeware in the style of cut crystal, as well as the red lampshades that can now be found in every Hong Kong market. Like mosaic tiles, big-character signs and neon lights, these plastic products came to define a uniquely Hong Kong aesthetic.
These were mass-produced objects, but at the same time, they were handmade. “We didn’t have computer technology to help us, so we drew every one of the patterns manually,” said Jessica Leung, Star’s business development director, in an interview with M+ museum. She also notes that “the moulds were created by hand chiselling, using a nail in one hand and a hammer in the other.”
Leung’s interview was part of M+ effort’s to document the legacy of Hong Kong plastics. The museum is building a collection of Hong Kong-made plastic objects, but it hasn’t been easy. “It was very difficult,” says Jennifer Wong, an assistant curator of design and architecture. “Looking back, I always joke that while my other colleagues can go to galleries and comfortably look at wonderful paintings, I only go to where dust is.”
What has been particularly difficult is that “there isn’t a lot of information on the actual objects,” says Wong. Hong Kong’s plastics industry fell into decline in the 1980s, when most companies moved production to mainland China – or in the case of Cheung Kong , had already diversified out of the business entirely. Star Industries still runs its Red A factory in San Po Kong, and it was able to give M+ access to newspaper clippings, interviews and vintage objects. But when a factory has closed down, says Wong, “you can’t find out about the design process. Sometimes you have to find a former factory worker who can connect you to someone who then connects you to someone else, and after several layers of tracing you will find someone who tells you yes, it was designed in Hong Kong. It’s been a long research journey to find things.”
Still, Wong and her colleagues have been able to find enough material to “tell some stories.” And one of those stories is how, far from simply making cheap goods, Hong Kong’s plastics manufacturers were actually quite inventive. “They had room to experiment because these were small scale productions,” says Wong. She gives the example of the watermelon beach ball, which was invented by engineer Chiang Chen. “It’s basically an engineering innovation,” says Wong. “It wasn’t about the ball, it was about the machine that was invented to do two-colour injection.”
An accidental example is the Diana camera, a plastic-bodied camera that has been produced at the Great Wall Plastic Factory in Hung Hom since the early 1960s. It’s essentially a real-life Instagram filter, producing appealingly blurred, heavily vignetted images, which has earned it a cult following in recent years. Initially conceived as a cheap toy, its imperfections and idiosyncrasies have given it a second life.
One thing that isn’t yet in the M+ collection is a bouquet of plastic flowers. Nor are there any in the lobby of the Cheung Kong Center, the 63-storey tower Li Ka-shing built for his enterprise in 1999. But they cast a long shadow: you don’t have to look far to see that their legacy is everywhere.