shedding light

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am

Known locally as a sizeable housing estate and transport interchange in northwestern Kowloon, Mei Foo was once one of the most famous brand names in China.

Founded by US entrepreneur John D. Rockefeller, Standard Vacuum Oil Company commenced operations in China and Japan in the late 19th century.

Standard Oil (the initials S.O. were later incorporated into worldwide brand ESSO) manufactured small glass oil lamps of about one candlepower each, which were marketed under the charming name Mei Foo ('beautiful and trustworthy'). The Mei Foo lamp was designed so that a 3.8 litres of kerosene would provide about 240 hours of light. Each sold for a few Chinese cents and the thrifty, useful Mei Foo lamp became an affordable household item for even poor rural families. Inexpensive variants are still widely available all over China.

The domestic illumination that existed before Mei Foo lights were small peanut- or rapeseed-oil lamps. Most rural families got up at dawn and went to bed with the chickens. Staying up late at night was frowned upon, as something that only gamblers, drunkards and persons of dubious character would do.

Kerosene for home lighting was the principal value-added product of petroleum refining at the time. Until the internal combustion engine revolutionised transport around the world, petrol was regarded as an almost worthless by-product and mostly sold as a cleaning fluid.

By the early 1920s, Standard Oil controlled most of the inland China market for kerosene and had agents in even the most remote locations. At this time, much of the oil sold in the region, whether as kerosene for lighting or POL (petrol, oil and lubrication) products, originated from either the United States or the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia).

Embargoes on oil exports to Japan imposed by both the US and Dutch governments in 1941 greatly added to the pressure on Japan to go to war in an attempt to secure essential supplies for its ongoing conflict in China. The Pacific war, therefore, was probably the first of the 20th century's 'oil wars'.

Standard Oil maintained an extensive presence in Hong Kong and a remote out-of-town location, in Lai Chi Kok, became an oil storage facility in the 20s. With the gradual expansion of the Kowloon urban area in the 50s, the company's oil storage facilities were moved to Tsing Yi, and the vacated site was redeveloped as one of Hong Kong's first middle-class estates. Now some 40 years old, Mei Foo Sun Chuen (Mei Foo New Estate, below) remains a popular residential area.



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