When Chiang Chen passed away this month at the age of 98, the Hong Kong industrialist left behind an impressive legacy as a pioneering plastics manufacturer and philanthropist. But many Hongkongers might not realise that he was also responsible for one of their favourite childhood objects: the watermelon ball.
This vintage Hong Kong toy is so iconic, it is exhibited in the East Galleries of M+, the museum of visual culture. For many visitors to the museum, it’s an opportunity to indulge in nostalgia. But it’s also a window into a time when Hong Kong was one of the world’s leading toy manufacturers.
Chiang was born into a poor farming family in Heze, Shandong in 1923. He was orphaned 10 years later and eventually joined the Nationalist army, fighting first against the invading Japanese army and then against the Communist Party in China’s civil war. In 1949, when the Communists won the war, he and his brother fled to Hong Kong. He continued working with Nationalist factions until they disbanded in the late 1950s. That’s when he decided to join Hong Kong’s nascent plastics industry. In 1958, with savings of HK$200—less than HK$3,000 in today’s money—he launched a company called Chen Hsong.
One of its first products was Chiang’s own invention, an extrusion blow-mould machine, which uses air to create a plastic mould in multiple colours. To demonstrate the machine, Chiang used red and white plastic to make a ball. The two colours flowed like a river current—Chiang was reportedly inspired by the confluence of the muddy Yangtze and clear Jialing rivers in Chongqing—and the blow-mould technique meant that the pattern of each ball was unique.
The balls were a hit; as M+ notes in its catalogue description, their thin, hard plastic gave them a “dull bounce” that was “suited to the city’s compact spaces for play.” Chiang never managed to patent his invention and the balls soon proliferated as small manufacturers—many of them squatter factories—made them for the local market. Chiang did well for himself anyway, going on to invent a ten-ounce plastic injection press, which earned him the nickname “King of Plastic Injection Moulding Machines.” Chen Hsong expanded quickly and was quick to venture onto the mainland when China’s economy opened in the late 1970s. For a time it was the largest plastic moulding machinery manufacturer in the country.
The small factories that made watermelon balls were just the tip of the industrial iceberg. As the plastics industry developed through the 1960s, toys were crucial to its success; local manufacturers like Winsome Plastic Works were contracted by overseas toy companies to make products like Action Man figurines. Like Chen Hsong, Winsome had humble beginnings. It was founded by a Guangdong-born immigrant named LT Lam, who was working for a plastics importer when he realised it would be more profitable to make the plastics locally in Hong Kong. He began using British polystyrene to make rubber ducks—an improvement over the highly flammable celluloid ducks that were being imported from Japan—which were exported to the UK. Winsome eventually moved onto making toy dolls for the American market, with costumes sewn at a workshop overseen by Lam’s wife.
By the 1980s, Winsome and other companies were making everything from Transformers to Rubik’s cubes to Barbie dolls in Hong Kong. Much of the production moved to mainland China in the 1990s, but Hong Kong remains a major player in the toy industry, with 4,000 toy companies based in the city, employing just under 25,000 people, according to the most recent statistics from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. Nearly all of those companies make their products on the mainland or in other countries, but 40 of them still manufacture toys right here in Hong Kong. All told, the industry is worth nearly HK$30 billion.
The watermelon ball is a humble reminder of that industry’s beginnings. The original ones are hard to find—they had a tendency to break after a short while—but you can still buy modern versions at many local shops. There are other signs of the ball around the city, too. In Kwun Tong, the Tsun Yip Street Playground was renovated in 2019, and among the new additions is an interactive installation inspired by named Cam4 Kau4 (尋求, meaning to seek or pursue). Designed by artists Yan Chin-wing and Lau Mei-po, the work consists of seats that look like half-deflated watermelon balls. “The balls are placed in a circle and we hope users can sit together and chat, like kids in the 1970s and 80s who played with the watermelon ball and had fun,” Yan explained when the installation was unveiled.
In 2020, local craft brewery Gweilo Beer launched a one-off brew called Watermelon Ball Sour. Gweilo’s sales director, Henry Atkinson, says the name was inspired by his father, who played with watermelon balls when he lived in Hong Kong as a child. “When he came to visit me and my kids a few years back he saw them in the local stationery shop so bought a couple for our kids,” he says. “I wasn’t aware they were a Hong Kong specific toy prior to that, so when our head brewer said he’d like to do a watermelon beer, it seemed like a nice fit.”
Atkinson says the allusion was appreciated by Gweilo’s customers. “Sour beers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea and they definitely fit in the craft end of the beer spectrum, but this one seemed to hit the mark for Hong Kong and drew in some more conservative drinkers,” he says. “It was a refreshing drop [of watermelon] with a hint of tartness that brought back some nostalgia for those in the know.”