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Tai Ping Carpets: A Humble Beginning in Hong Kong 篳路藍縷：太平地氈
Tai Ping Carpets was founded by the Kadoorie brothers along with a group of their friends in 1956, at a time when employment opportunities were much needed for the surging population. The company had flourished since the late 1950s, leading the way in Hong Kong’s industrialisation and rapidly establishing itself as the supplier of choice for many including royalty and heads of state. Tai Ping's story tells not only the history of the company, it also mirrors the extraordinary changes in the socio-economic landscape of Hong Kong and the Asia-Pacific region post-Second World War.
Tai Ping Carpets catalogue 1960s
Lawrence Kadoorie recalled that “it (Tai Ping) all began in a complete state of ignorance”: George Lin and his friend from North China who claimed to be an expert in the making of Tianjin carpets went to Lawrence to seek help to set up a carpet factory in Tai Po. Lawrence, who was preoccupied with other family businesses, was not very interested. On their way out, they met Kadoories’ friend, American businessman Al Rabin who saw enormous opportunities for selling carpets in the United States. So in early 1956, six friends including the Kadoorie brothers, Al Rabin, Shanghainese industrialists Y.C. Wang and H.S. Yung, and garment businessman Linden Johnson formed a carpet manufacturing company, which would also provide much-needed employment for Hong Kong's burgeoning refugee population.
羅蘭士嘉道理曾經憶述，開創太平時對地氈可謂一無所知：當時商人George Lin及他來自華北、熟悉天津手織地氈的朋友找他幫忙在大埔開設地氈廠，當時羅蘭士忙於其他家族業務，所以沒有太大興趣。他們離開時遇上嘉道理的朋友Al Rabin，這位美國商人認為地氈在美國大有市場，加上當時香港因大批內地難民湧入，人口急增，新的企業可提供社會亟需的就業機會。六位友儕包括嘉道理兄弟、Al Rabin、上海工業家王雲程、榮鴻慶，以及成衣商人Linden Johnson就這樣在1956年初共同開辦了太平地氈。
Al Rabin (left)
Al Rabin (左)
Production commenced on a very small scale in Cheung Yuen, a two-storey villa at "22 Mile" Castle Peak Road, Tuen Mun (today’s Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery site), making use of wooden knotting looms. Due to its residential nature the villa was not suitable for large-scale commercial activities. So the hunt for a site on which to construct a permanent, purpose-built factory was earnestly pursued.
太平的小作坊誕生於屯門青山公路「廿二咪」兩層高的民房張園 (今妙法寺所在地) ，最早期是在木製織梭上手織地氈。由於住宅長遠不適合用作具規模的生產活動，所以公司開始積極覓地興建專用廠房。
Cheung Yuen in Tuen Mun, 1956
Despite Tai Ping's fair treatment and generous welfare for employees, staff turnover was high and productivity low in the early days. It was soon realised that the Tianjin hand knotting technique used to manufacture carpets at Tai Ping was very slow and called for great patience. This inefficient production method was not fit for Hong Kong’s workforce who was more sophisticated and could easily find better opportunities elsewhere.
Early carpet making in Tai Ping
Tai Ping was determined to tackle their technical problem. General manager Anthony Yeh flaunted his engineering innovation to develop a new cut-pile needle modelled on a U.S. single-needle tufting machine and a domestic hand tufting kit. This tool helped boost productivity during the first few years of the company’s activities. In 1973 a lightweight motorised tufting gun was invented, capable of further improving efficiency and handling the most intricate designs.
Operating a tufting gun
One of Tai Ping’s first commissions was for the Hong Kong Airport. When Governor Alexander Grantham met Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia at Kai Tak’s new VIP lounge in late 1956, a carpet had to be borrowed from Government House for the occasion. The Kadoorie brothers, sensing an opportunity, decided to gift a Tai Ping carpet to the airport as a gesture of goodwill and as a “splendid advertisement for the company’s products”. No doubt it was – the carpet, adorned with the Hong Kong crest, greeted passengers as they disembarked their flights and was a much remarked-upon sight.
Carpet for Kai Tak Airport
In 1957 a site on the edge on Plover Cove in Tolo Harbour was secured for development. In October 1958 a new factory with better space, capacity and technological nous to tackle more and complex order was opened, heralding a decade of fast expansion for Tai Ping. It would become the "go-to" brand that supplied wall-to-wall carpets for Hong Kong's new hotels and towering skyscrapers, and handmade rugs and carpets for business travellers who routinely passed through the city.
Tai Ping's first factory in Tai Po in 1959
The 1960s was a golden decade for Tai Ping, and its carpets impressed the world with their design and artisanal qualities. The colonial administration took note of Tai Ping’s beautiful carpets and commissioned the company to produce wedding gifts on behalf of Hong Kong for Princess Alexandra, Princess Anne, and the Prince of Wales. Tai Ping also catered to Buckingham Palace and Princess Margaret, and carpeted the floors of numerous world famous hotels and theatres including the Sydney Opera House, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and The Ritz London.
Tai Ping embraced industrialisation in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, opening factories in the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Wedding gift from Hong Kong Government to Princess Alexandra
Women formed the core of the Tai Ping labour force. Many came from nearby boat or farming based families. The stable work environment at Tai Ping offered women an alternative source of income and a new way of life, distinct from traditional agriculture and fishing.
The company also adopted a flexible management approach for these communities - flexi-hours and leave during the busy fishing season were permitted for workers to help out their families. The construction of Plover Cove Reservoir in the 1960s, however, made fishing more difficult for the boatpeople. More of them relied on Tai Ping for full time employment and a stable income.
Tai Ping artisans working on a suspended platform, carving and tufting, 1970s
After the war, as far-flung destinations became more accessible with the rise of air travel and higher disposable incomes, Hong Kong attracted a new breed of travellers as a "window to China". From 1960 onwards the Hong Kong Tourist Association included Tai Ping in the itinerary of its official New Territories tour, offering tourists a glimpse of oriental artistry. The air-conditioned factory also served as a resting place, as visits to the New Territories in those days could be very tiring. The tours proved immensely popular and helped raised Tai Ping’s profile both locally and overseas.
Lawrence Kadoorie and guest at the Tai Ping factory, 1970s
In the 1960s and 1970s, worker girls kitted out in traditional Chinese dress represented Tai Ping at international tradeshows. They demonstrated their adept carpet making skills and always drew a large crowd.
When they were off duty, the girls proved as big a lure as the carpets themselves. Tai Ping girls would dine in Chinese restaurants where waiters were often boys from the New Territories. Following these encounters, many of the girls quickly got engaged and told the company they would not be coming back to Hong Kong. A company director recalled the embarrassing moment when he was called in by the Consulate-General who asked: “what are you supposed to be exporting – carpets or girls?”
Overseas tradeshows 1960s
To reach the rank of master artisan, workers had typically to spend 10 years as junior and senior apprentice honing the craft. Only the most skilled masters who had at least 15 years of experience could join a small team of Tai Ping's tapestry makers.
Work aside, many Tai Ping girls fondly remember the spectacular sight of hundreds of factory workers on bicycles flooding Ting Kok Road and the excitement from seeing Elizabeth Taylor in person. However, for these girls, the biggest takeaway from their Tai Ping experience was perhaps the lasting friendship they made with fellow workers.
Tai Ping artisans proudly showcase their work, 1980s
In the 1990s, the company embraced the opening-up of China. Like other Hong Kong industries, Tai Ping moved its manufacturing base to Guangdong Province. By July 1992 all carpet production was transferred to Nanhai. The Tai Po chapter, which started in 1958, had come to an end.
Further information is available at Tai Ping Carpet's website: www.taipingcarpets.com.
Tai Ping Carpets: A Humble Beginning in Hong Kong 篳路藍縷：太平地氈. Hong Kong Heritage Project, accessed 29/01/2023, https://www.hongkongheritage.org/nodes/view/25832