Meet Hong Kong’s rubber baron: the colourful king of condoms

Wonder Life is the only Hong Kong company that makes contraceptives for the local and China market. We talk to the colourful patriarch behind the business

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 5:09pm

A warehouse space in Fo Tan is packed with box upon box of condoms. It’s also the office of Wonder Life, the only Hong Kong company producing the male contraceptives exclusively for the local, Macau and mainland markets. It may be an underdog in an industry dominated by the likes of Durex and Japanese brand Okamoto, but Wonder Life claims to have a broader range of flavours than any rival – including fruity ones such as strawberry and banana, and even cappuccino.

Wonder Life, which also makes pregnancy kits and pleasure-enhancing lubricant gels, was founded by entrepreneur Albert Cheng Leung-cheong, 68, who has been in the condom business since 1978.

After Cheng finished studying in Canada, he returned to Hong Kong and started working in a bank, but he missed interacting with people.

“My salary at the time was HK$3,700 a month and I quit that steady job to do sales for HK$500,” he says. “My friends thought I was crazy, but I got a job selling air freight and went out every day to see customers.”

After about two years learning the ropes in sales, Cheng decided to start his own business and began selling cotton buds. Then the supplier introduced him to the idea of selling condoms made by Taiwanese brand Fulex.

“The first month I only made HK$2,000 selling condoms – less than my salary,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was so busy doing everything myself – sales, delivery, orders. I had no money to set up an office so I borrowed space in my older brother’s company.”

In the late 1970s, the only condom brands available in Hong Kong were Durex, Trojan and Ansell, and they were sold only in drug stores.

“At the time, the Hong Kong Family Planning Association began encouraging people not to have too many children. So I thought condoms must have a future. And during that time, it was believed taking too much [oral] contraceptives was not good for women’s health, and so the Family Planning Association promoted the use of condoms as safe and healthy.”

Seeing an opportunity, Cheng figured the best way to generate sales was to persuade grocery store owners to sell his condoms.

“They would say they only sold food and toiletries,” Cheng recalls. “I would say, ‘Why not try and display them in your store for three months and see what happens?’”

Eventually, through gentle persuasion, he managed to get the condoms on sale in a range of local shops. By the late 1980s, Wellcome, ParknShop, Watson’s and Mannings were opening up around Hong Kong, and they also stocked Cheng’s products.

Another idea he had to boost sales was selling condoms in packs of 12. His rivals sold them only in boxes of three.

Once Durex caught on to Cheng’s initiative, it also began producing boxes of a dozen condoms, he says.

Cheng also beat Durex in the race to get into the mainland market, in the late 1980s. Before 1994, foreign businesses were not allowed to sell condoms on the mainland, but Cheng managed to open doors by contacting the family planning association in Shenzhen to promote his products, who then introduced him to their counterparts in other Chinese cities. Once a year the representatives of all the family planning associations got together, and Cheng made sure he was there to meet them all.

Sales were “not bad then”, he says – and later, from 2006 to 2008, he achieved annual sales of HK$30 million.

However, just as Cheng was carving out a decent sized market share on the mainland, the Taiwanese manufacturer of Fulex decided it wanted a share of the profits and dragged him into a 10-year court battle over who owned the Fulex brand in the mainland and Hong Kong.

Cheng had registered the brand in both jurisdictions, but in the end lost the right to the Hong Kong market.

That’s when he decided he needed a brand of his own, and created Wonder Life. “It’s not an easy job competing against international and local brands. But each time I fall I get up again and eventually I win,” he says with a smile.

Knowing he could not compete with Durex and Okamoto in terms of pricing, Cheng tried a different strategy. “The cost to produce the condoms is almost the same. It’s not hi-tech,” he says. “They target high-end customers and we are set for mid to lower level ones. Our wholesale price is almost half the price of Durex, and Okamoto, too.”

On the table in Cheng’s office are a number of condom boxes, including ones made in about 12 different flavours. There are also sheaths similar to Okamoto’s, which are considered ultra thin. Wonder Life’s strategy is to cater predominantly to the 18- to 35-year-old market, and while the packaging features cartoonish characters, Cheng promises there are quality products inside the box.

“We have good quality products – we emphasise this. We guarantee high quality otherwise that will ruin us one day. We must have peng, leng, jeng – competitive price, attractive packaging, and quality product.”

Wonder Life’s condoms are manufactured in Thailand and Malaysia, following strict quality control standards, he says. They are tested individually, and if in a batch of 1,000, at least three are found to be defective, the entire batch is destroyed. There is a 99 per cent guarantee that the condoms won’t snap or tear in action.

“The other one per cent is misuse of the condom, but we won’t go into that,” Cheng says with a laugh.

He suffered another setback in the early 2000s, with shareholders in the company unwilling to support his plans to inject more capital into Wonder Life to further expand in China.

In 2009, the company went into liquidation, and his son Jacky Cheng Sai-kin stepped in to help out, even though the elder Cheng never expected his children to take over the business. The 35-year-old previously had ambitions to become a police officer, a pilot and a lawyer, but in the end studied an MBA and now runs Wonder Life for Cheng, who is now semi-retired.

The elder Cheng still has ambitions for Wonder Life to become an international brand name on a par with Trojan and Ansell, but the focus now is on making further inroads in the local and China market. “Never surrender!” he says. “This is my character.”

He puts his determination down to his upbringing. He was born in Swatow (now Shantou) in eastern Guangdong. When the communists took over, his father, being a landlord, was reviled. His father fled to Shanghai, leaving behind Cheng and his seven siblings and mother to fend for themselves.

In 1954, the family was reunited in Shanghai and then they migrated to Hong Kong in 1962.

“The economy in Hong Kong was not good then. My father sent me to a farm in Tai Po to raise chickens. I did this for three years. I would go to school and then I bought chicken feed and carried it, walking 45 minutes to the farm.”

When he was in high school, Cheng did odd jobs for Ming Pao to pay his school fees, but he didn’t fare well academically and was kicked out of school in Form Six. He worked during the day and then took night classes to catch up. He was well into his 20s by the time he studied at a university in Canada.

“I did all kinds of jobs to make money, washing dishes for C$2 (HK$12) an hour from 4pm to midnight, then back in class the next day. I was later promoted to assistant cook, making fried rice, and I butchered chickens for C$4 an hour.”

He also picked strawberries in the summer and sold cookies door to door. “When I think of the past, I can’t think of anything that can stop me,” he says.

Although his son now holds the reins of Wonder Life, Cheng keeps busy. He visits its Shenzhen office once a week, developing new products and finding ways to increase sales. His passion for the business and ambitions for Wonder Life – to be on par with his rivals and possibly seek a stock exchange listing – keep him energised.