How the rubber duck is Hong Kong’s business and spirit of ‘can do’
Building a business in rubber ducks made Lam Leung-tim a fortune, a tale that embodied the heyday of Hong Kong manufacturing and the city’s feisty “can do” spirit
In 2013, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman set afloat a massive, 12-metre rubber duck in Victoria Harbour as part of a world tour. Hofman was on a vague mission of peace and togetherness dedicated to the citizens of the world. The ongoing tour that began in 2007 is a testament to the enduring cultural potency of the small children’s toy.
Along the way, the duck deflated in Hong Kong, blew apart in Taiwan, and was the subject of a legal battle with a Canadian organisation promoting its own duck. Hofman himself wound up in a public debate about art and intellectual property rights with Chinese artists. The duck tour has said as much about the business of pop art as it has about the reliance on day-to-day items that form a collective consciousness.
Hofman may not have realised just how much of a debt he owed to the original “King of Rubber Ducks”, Lam Leung-tim, the man who made his fortune selling rubber ducks to the world during Hong Kong’s heyday as toy supplier to the world. It was perhaps indicative of Hong Kong’s evolution as a city that a piece of its industrial history should wind up as giant installation pop art in Victoria Harbour.
When pundits, politicians and businessmen talk about Hong Kong’s strengths, and the invariable reference to the city’s “can-do” spirit today, the story of Lam Leung-tim, toy tycoon and founder of Hong Kong-based toy manufacturer Forward Winsome Industries, makes that association.
A young man’s journey
Born in 1924, Lam spent his early childhood in Hong Kong, where his father worked as a private chef at Old Peak Road. He went back to his hometown Nanhai with his mother at his age of seven, where his maternal grandfather taught him the classics. His father asked him to return to Hong Kong, and Lam was a student at Wah Yan College.
What should have been a happy childhood in Hong Kong was destroyed when Japan attacked the city on December 8, 1941. Lam remembers incoming Japanese fighter-planes bombing the harbour that morning. Worse was to come.
“In December, 1941, my father was killed when he was on the way home. Without father’s support, my dream to run a toy business vanished,” said Lam, who has spoken of his father being bayoneted by a Japanese sentry in the streets in Causeway Bay. Lam’s mother had asked the 17-year-old to go out in the street to find his father, only to discover his body.
“One day, while my mother was walking on the street with me, she showed me (that) the toys that Chinese people played with were from Japan,” said Lam.
“Then I told my mother I wanted to make toys when I grow up so the Chinese would no longer have to buy toys from the Japanese, who gained money from us and used the money to make weapons to attack Chinese people,” he said, recalling his childhood dream of one day owning a toy business.
In 1942, Lam and his mother returned to Nanhai, where Lam married his first wife, Yuki. By 1945, as the war against Japan came to an end and the threat of renewed civil war came up, Lam gathered HK$100 (US$12.76 at current rate) from his wife and mother and returned to Hong Kong.
“I felt grateful for her (Yuki), she gave me a lot of support when I developed my business,” said Lam. Yuki died of a heart attack in her sleep in 1985, a day after his 61st birthday.
Returning to Hong Kong, Lam knew no one but the principal of Wah Yan College, who eventually found two job offers for him, one as an assistant at Shek Kong airfield for HK$100 a month, and the other as a teller at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank for HK$120. Instead, he opted to work as a salesman for a newspaper vendor in Central for a monthly salary of HK$60.
“The salesman job gave me opportunities to talk to foreign customers. It also helped me build up my contact list,” said Lam pointing to the same notebook he used in 1946.
Lam’s own prodigious reading habit turned out to be very consequential, even after he left the news-stand to join an industrial firm run by Norman Young.
“When I was young, I read a lot of books and foreign magazines every day. One day I read an article about plastic, a material that be could be used to produce different products including toys. I proposed the idea to my boss, owner of Winsome Plastic,” Lam said. The focus on plastic products, including the yellow ducks, emerged.
“When I walked on the street to look for ideas, I saw different kinds of rubber toys such as rubber chickens, rubber cars and rubber ducks being sold by merchants. I picked up a colourful duck and thought it would be fun to play with, particularly in the bathtub.”
Designed by Lam, the first batch of yellow ducks was produced in 1948. “This was Hong Kong’s first plastic toy,” said Lam.
Lam said the yellow ducks, intended for small merchants, did not get strong sales and production stopped in the 1960s. It was around this time that his own company Forward Products, which he formed in 1955, merged with his former boss’s Winsome Plastic. Two years later he became the sole owner of a new company – Forward Winsome.
Industrialising Hong Kong
The business grew at a rapid pace in the following decades, when the toy industry in Hong Kong peaked.
With the influx of mainland migrants in the post-war period, Hong Kong industrialists benefited from a low-cost labour force. This encouraged overseas toymakers to set up their plants in the city, with most toys made for export. By 1972, Hong Kong eclipsed Japan as a manufacturer and exporter of toys. It was during this era that many of Hong Kong’s old industrial estates were built, and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council worked to encourage buyers to come to Hong Kong. In 1972, the Kwai Chung Container Terminal opened, adding more competitive advantages in Hong Kong’s golden era of manufacturing.
By 1980, Hong Kong was home to 2,000 toy factories, employing tens of thousands. Light manufacturing contributed 30 per cent to Hong Kong’s GDP. But like most other manufacturing businesses in the city at the time, production was shifting to Guangdong province to take advantage of lower labour costs.
Lam was one of the first to make the move, setting up two factories in Dongguan in 1979. One of Forward Winsome’s earliest OEM (original equipment manufacturer) products was G.I Joe, owned by American toy company Hasbro. American toy company Hasbro later bought Palitoy. With the help of his long-time friend Alan Hassenfeld, a former chairman and chief executive officer of Hasbro Toys, Lam secured the OEM contract from a US-based toy company to produce The Transformers in its Nanhai plant in the late 1980s. The Transformers toy line was originally designed by a Japanese firm and had inspired spin-off graphic novels and films.
Forward Winsome now has 6,000 employees, with two plants in Nanhai and in Guangzhou, and one in northern Guangdong. The company manufactures and exports plastic, die-cast, stuff and plush, cold cast, wooden and electronic toys to North America, Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia and South America, with clients including Hasbro, Hallmark, Sanrio, and Lego.
A legend revived
In his later years, Lam has become a self-styled ambassador for the little rubber ducks, invoking their memory and with it, a period of Hong Kong’s industrialisation that has its physical traces all around the city. At a book launch ceremony in 2011, Lam reproduced 850 yellow rubber ducks, which were given to his guests. That received an overwhelming response: “They were surprised that I was the designer and creator of the duck,” he said.
In December 2016, Lam’s ducks made headlines again when 4,000 ducks were found in a pool at Morse Park at an event officiated by then Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong under China’s sovereignty.
“Decades after the first duck was produced, industry players and the world finally knew who created the duck,” Lam said.
After turning 90, he established a new firm, Funderful Creations, to rebrand and reproduce those yellow rubber ducks. “I want to prove at my age I can still launch a new business,” said Lam.
His new company was formally established in 2014 and obtained an official trademark for the ducks a year later. Its sole business is the reproduction and rebranding of the ducks, which include a family of four – a mother Lamon Tea (known as LT Duck) and three little ducks.
Since then, Lam continues to do his best to reintroduce the ducks to Hong Kong and the world. He had acted as spokesperson for bath products with his ducks, and in January this year, Chung Ying Theatre produced The Yellow Rubber Duck, an original production based on his life, all arranged by Lam.
am is not shy about proclaiming his self-reliance. “My son is an Executive Council member. If he says a word, my ducks will probably float in Victoria Harbour. But I have never asked him for help,” said Lam, in reference to Hofman’s 2013 display, which seems to irk him still. “My ducks had been reborn before the giant inflatable rubber duck by Hofman. Hofman’s product is art, but my duck is a toy.”
Lam has two sons and a daughter. His eldest son is Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, a member of the executive and legislative councils, who succeeded his father to run Forward Winsome but now spends a lot of time in the political community. Jeffrey Lam rose to prominence as the heir apparent to a major player in the Hong Kong toy business in the 1980s, before turning to politics as a pro-establishment figure.
Jeffrey’s son Victor Lam Hoi-cheung also works for Forward Winsome, while Lam’s younger son Daniel and his two sons also help run the company, keeping it a very family-focused enterprise.
But for Lam, it’s the rubber ducks that mean most.
“As my ducks became famous, I come up with a mission,” said Lam. “Most of us started from scratch when we entered the industry and successfully developed all the technical know-how over the years,” said Lam. Now, he wants to deliver a positive message to encourage the younger generation.
Lam isn’t shy about publicity. His second wife, Shelly Qi Xiaobin, a former optometrist for the Chinese military, whom Lam married in 1994, is now his chief support and PR person, as well as the writer of his biography,LT Lam: A Hong Kong Toy Entrepreneur, which was published in October last year. Also among Lam’s plans is a film based on his life and his ducks.
He also wants his start-up to be profitable in two years time, with all gains going to charity. It’s a testament to Lam’s own willpower.
“At my age, it’s really hard to tell what will happen to me tomorrow. I always pray and ask God to give me two more years. I want to see my new company profit,” said Lam.
(This article appears in the March issue of The Peak magazine, available this week at selected bookstores and by invitation.)