Hong Kong carpet maker weaves 60 years of history
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on August 6, 2016.
Tai Po was just a small fishing village when it was ushered into an era of rapid development in the 1960s – one that began with a local carpet factory.
It was a period of transformation not only for Tai Po, but also the whole of Hong Kong. The Communist Party takeover of China in 1949 prompted many refugees to flood into the then British-ruled city. At the same time, the United States implemented a trade embargo against China, which meant that goods could not be exported from the mainland.
To provide jobs for the influx of refugees and fill a business vacuum, Lawrence and Horace Kadoorie – members of one of the best known and oldest Jewish families in Hong Kong – and five prominent businessmen had a novel idea: they would create the city’s first carpet factory.
In 1956, they formed the brand Tai Ping or “Great Peace” in English, producing luxury carpets for export to the US and employing refugees as well as locals in Tai Po, the site of their first factory.
Now, Tai Ping is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
It all began with a small workshop in Tuen Mun. In 1960, the company built a five-storey factory in Tai Po before following in the footsteps of many other firms – relocating to Nanhai in the Pearl River Delta in the early 1990s.
With more than 500 workers employed in 1960, the Tai Po factory was the tallest building and the only factory in the district at the time.
Niven Ho, who joined Tai Ping Carpets in 1966 and served as general manager and director, told the Hong Kong Heritage Project, which was initiated by the Kadoorie family, that the factory’s workforce consisted of people living in nearby fishing villages and farming communities.
As the district became increasingly developed and projects like the construction of Plover Cove Reservoir commenced, fishing became difficult and people turned to the factory for a stable income, he said.
“Quite a lot of them worked here to supplement family income. We allowed flexible working hours and leave during the busy fishing season so they could help their families” Ho said.
“The development of Tai Po also brought about changes. The relocation of the fishing village of Yuen Chai Tsai [to make way for the reservoir] to Sam Mun Tsai caused a similar problem and prompted another major switch of fishermen becoming factory workers.”
Although the carpets were made using a hand-knotting technique during the first few years of production, the process was inefficient, prompting them to shift to using hand-tufting needles. Patented in 1960, the first electrical tufting gun was invented by Anthony Yeh, a mechanical engineer who was Tai Ping’s first general manager.
The core of the workforce was made up of women from farming and fishing families, who saw the factory as an opportunity to experience a new way of life and gain an alternative source of income.
Ng Yin-ping, a female artisan who reached the rank of master after working for 10 years, joined the factory in 1970 when she was just 13 years old. Born in a Tai Po farming family, she started as an apprentice at the factory after finishing her primary school education. Her mother, who stopped farming to work at Tai Ping in 1960, introduced her to the company.
“A basic work unit includes a master, a senior apprentice and junior apprentice – where I started,” Ng told the Hong Kong Heritage Project in 2009. “One had to spend at least a couple of years as junior apprentice to master the basic skills and different patterns before moving up.”
Over the years, the firm has gone global, with showrooms in places as far away as New York and Paris.
Tai Ping has produced carpets for many famous hotels, as well as for notable figures like Britain’s Princess Alexandra, Princess Anne and the Prince of Wales in the 1960s on behalf of Hong Kong.
Tai Ping also crafted the carpet that was used to cover the stage during Hong Kong’s 1997 handover ceremony at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.
Reflecting on the brand’s history, Stephen Wong, Tai Ping’s managing director for the Asia-Pacific region, told the Post that it remained proud to call itself a Hong Kong company.
“It’s important to look back on our heritage,” he said. “It’s amazing for a Hong Kong company to have this achievement.”
As part of the 60th anniversary celebrations, the company will be holding a reunion in the city on August 19 with about 100 former Tai Ping workers and senior managers.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: carpet maker weaves 60 years of history