Having tea last week with toy industry legend Lam Leung-tim, “LT”, one of the original pioneers of Hong Kong plastics and toy industries, he gazed wistfully out the window at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club in Causeway Bay. “It’s September 18, the Japanese invaded China today in 1931,” he observed. Indeed they did. The Japanese military exploded a small stick of dynamite in Manchuria and their invasion of the northern part of China had begun. The main difference here is that I had to look that up. LT actually remembers it happening. He was seven. He turns 90 next March, but is probably the youngest, spryest 89-year-old you will ever meet.
Grim war years
It’s hard for us pampered softies to imagine how grim life was back then. At seven LT was sent home to Guangdong for Chinese schooling, returning after four years for English education in Hong Kong, in order to get a better job. China was seen as too poor, with no prospects. Just as the Jesuits agreed to halve the HK$8 a month school fees, so that his father, a HK$30-a-month chef at Jardine’s mess could afford them, disaster struck.
On Christmas Eve 1941 LT’s father was bayonetted to death by Japanese soldiers as he crossed the road in Causeway Bay. LT went searching and found his body. There was HK$200 tucked into his sock – it was all the money they had. LT asked the Japanese why his father was shot. He was told he had failed to stop when ordered to do so by a young curfew sentry. “My father never heard the command – he had been deafened by a Japanese bomb a few days before,” says LT.
Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese the next day and Lams returned to the farm in China to sit out the war. LT walked 10 miles to sell vegetables by the roadside, a daily round trip of 20 miles. He returned to Hong Kong five years later, to a HK$60-a-month job selling newspapers in Central. Here he could brush up his English talking to foreign customers and make contacts. Ever-ambitious, he was fascinated by the new plastics, thinking the bright colours would appeal to people jaded with war time drabness. He and a partner developed a hand-and-foot driven plastic extraction machine and Hong Kong’s plastics industry was born. LT actually started the first toy factory in China after the mainland started to open up in 1976. His company, Forward Winsome Enterprises, made toys for the world’s biggest companies. LT says proudly that the third generation now works in the family business.
The first rubber duck
LT created the world’s first rubber duck. He also made the clothes for, and played a big part in discovering the doll that went on to become the German Lilli, who in turn inspired Barbie. His joint venture with toys giant Hasbro, resulted in manufacturing and selling Transformers in China, leading to LT being known as the Father of Transformers. At its height in 1988, the company employed 20,000 people in five factories in China and one in Thailand.
Rubber ducks for charity
He may be nearly 90, but there’s no stopping LT-every day he’s out and about. He’s back on the subject of rubber ducks. “We made the first yellow rubber duck in 1949,” he says proudly, presenting me with one. A dedicated fund raiser for educating youngsters, now that rubber ducks are famous once more, he’s putting them to work for charity. He plans to raise a million dollars for the China Manufacturers Association (CMA) and the Vocational Training Council (VTC), selling rubber ducks at upcoming functions at HK$300 each. “Why not use ducks to raise funds? I am not jealous of Hofman (Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who created the giant rubber duck) who brought the duck to Hong Kong. But I want people to know I am the first maker of rubber ducks.”
So what’s his secret of eternal youth? “Be optimistic and happy, never get nervous and remember: enough is enough. I never get angry. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I sleep well at night, - that’s the name of the game – that’s why I am still so active.” He thinks a bit more. “To succeed in life you need thick skin on the face, small heart and big courage. My policy is to be fair and honest and don’t cheat people.”