Toy story: how tycoon Lam Leung-tim built his empire

Toy tycoon Lam Leung-tim once sold vegetables and slept in a coffin; now he spends his time giving back, a trait that helped him win his wife

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 4:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 4:38am

He's the son of a chef; she's the daughter of a movie director. They met some 20 years ago at a hotel in Beijing, introduced by the actress Siqin Gaowa. And despite a 30-year age gap, the toy tycoon known as "LT" and his wife, Shelly Lam Qi Xiaobin, have been together pretty much ever since.

"You know, when I first met him, I thought, he's so old and so short," the 60-year-old Shelly says of her husband Lam Leung-tim, who will turn 90 next month. "But the more I got to know him, the more I realised he had a good character. He was always so considerate of people."

They are an unusual pair. LT made his fortune selling plastic toys to American companies Hasbro and Hallmark. His wife was an optometrist for the PLA.

But after a career that has involved everything from selling newspapers to sleeping in coffins, LT is used to the unusual.

"Never be afraid of being taken advantage of, just learn from it," says LT, now head of Forward Winsome Industries.

LT was born in 1924 into a Hong Kong still recovering from the first world war. When Japan invaded, he and his family fled to the mainland. For years he was a farmer, selling vegetables at a village, where he met the daughter of a wealthy landowner. He married her and returned to Hong Kong, but with little money.

For a month or two he lived and worked in a coffin shop and would sleep in one of the wooden coffins at night. Seeking better pay, he took a job on a magazine and newspaper stall, but still earned just HK$60 a month. However, LT had things in mind beyond his salary. "One, I could pick up English easily. And two, all the people who came to buy papers were big shots," he said.

On the side, he ran a business finding older issues of publications and selling them for 20 times the newsstand price. Within a few months he had saved several thousand dollars. He also cemented relationships with many merchants, some of whom would become clients when he joined the fledgling plastics industry.

Throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Hong Kong was the place to come to for cheap plastic toys. LT's company began with three-inch dolls, but soon expanded into selling precursors to Barbie and the now iconic rubber ducks, G.I. Joe accessories and Transformer toys. .

He takes pride in having run an honest business. "I've never taken a bribe, and I've refused to work with people who wanted kickbacks," he said. "I know some might find it hard to believe. But I have always been honest."

LT terminated his relationship with a major US company after its Hong Kong representative asked for kickbacks. "That made me famous in the toy industry," he said.

In 1976, LT became the first Hong Kong toymaker to move factories onto the mainland. He set up before Deng Xiaoping began opening up the Chinese economy, despite his first wife's reservations about mainland China under the communists. Her father had been tortured and killed by communists. LT's father was shot by the Japanese.

"I wanted to help China build up a toy industry so Japan wouldn't dominate the toy market," he said.

The toys also helped him meet his current wife. While on a trip to Shanghai, he met a man whose little boy was obsessed with Transformers. That man introduced him to actress Siqin Gaowa, which led to that fateful meeting all those years ago.

Since retiring 30 years ago, LT has been giving back to universities, vocational training institutes and schools in China, Hong Kong and the US. He has been a benefactor of the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education at Morrison Hill for almost five years.

"If more people did what Mr Lam did, I think there would be much less hatred of businessmen," said Daniel Kwok Kai-hing, the institute's principal.

He has set up the LT Lam Foundation to oversee funds to schools in Nanhai, Guangdong, and has donated millions to Cornell University.

"I have six 'Ms' in my life. Make mistakes, make money and make miracles. My first 20 years, I made mistakes; the next I made money. Now, I make miracles."

LT, the father of Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, a member of Hong Kong's Executive Council, has stepped back from the day-to-day running of Forward Winsome Industries. His family continues to operate it.


"LT" Lam Leung-tim

Age: 89

Occupation: Retired Industrialist and philanthropist

Company: Forward Winsome Industries

Industry: Toys and plastics

Known for: Transformers, G.I. Joe, Lilli (the inspiration for Barbie), the rubber duck

Spouse: Shelly Lam Qi Xiaobin

Children: Linda Lam Ka-key, 64, Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, 62, Daniel Lam Kin-fun, 60