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40 years of reform and opening up

Billionaire ‘Textile King’ Tang Hsiang-chien earned Beijing’s respect by investing in far-flung Xinjiang and other provinces as soon as China opened up

  • But Tang Hsiang-chien’s son, former chief secretary Henry Tang, says getting clothes shipped overseas still had its challenges
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 11:34am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 7:09pm

The far-flung Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region seemed an improbable place for Hong Kong entrepreneurs to invest as the Chinese economy opened up in the late 1970s.

But Hong Kong “Textile King” Tang Hsiang-chien took a gamble in 1979 and set up a woollen textile factory in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

It became a joint venture company the following year, making Xinjiang Tian Shan Wool Tex the first of its kind in China. It produced cashmere and knitted sweaters for overseas markets, including the United States.

Tang’s son and Hong Kong’s former chief secretary, Henry Tang Ying-yen, said: “We sent sweaters from Urumqi to Kwai Chung Container Terminal via Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province, and on to Shenzhen by train, after which the goods were shipped to the US.”

Several times in the 1980s the sweaters were bumped off the trains because officials took over the cargo space to transport perishable Hami melons, a Xinjiang speciality, to other provinces.

“They didn’t understand that some US buyers would cancel our orders if we failed to deliver our sweaters on time,” Henry Tang said. “We had our orders cancelled several times.”

Henry Tang, now 66, joined the family business upon his return to Hong Kong in 1976, after completing his university education in the US.

His father, who died in March this year aged 95, was a trailblazer among Hong Kong businesspeople for investing on the mainland early.

Even before the Xinjiang venture, he set up a textile factory in Huangbeiling, Shenzhen, in 1978. Three years later, he joined Shanghai textile authorities to establish Shanghai United Wool Tex, the first joint venture company there, and recouped his investment within three and a half years.

Henry Tang said that in those early days, it was hard to motivate mainland workers, who were used to the Chinese system of paying everyone the same wage no matter how much each person did.

“They had no incentive to work harder,” he said. “At our factory, the more pieces you made, the more money you earned. Many of our workers excelled, and they became supervisors or managers.”

He said his father made an impression by being willing to take a chance on the mainland.

“We were not the biggest investor but we were the first,” he said. “That’s why the Chinese respected us. We invested while others were cynical.”

Aside from textiles, his father turned his attention in the mid-1980s to printed circuit boards and his manufacturing firm Meadville became a market leader before being sold to a US company in 2009.

Tang’s family still holds shares in the company. The late industrialist was estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of US$1.6 billion (HK$12.5 billion) when he died.

Tang’s family currently operates eight factories, mainly producing electronics, in Guangdong, Shanghai, Xian and Jiangxi.

In 2012 Henry Tang stood for election to be Hong Kong’s chief executive, but lost to Leung Chun-ying. He is currently chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and a member of the standing committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

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Henry Tang said: “In these 40 years, China went from a very poor rural type of country to what they are today. I’m very happy we made our very modest contribution to the development of China.”