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August 2014

Tai Ping Carpets - A Brief History

Tai Ping's factory on Tolo Harbour, 1960

Prior to the 1950s, carpets were rarely seen in tropical, humid regions such as Hong Kong. Luxury hotels such as the Repulse Bay and Peninsula Hotel had no use for wall-to-wall carpeting. The floors of their guestrooms were of polished wood, with small rugs at the sides of the bed. Gradually the scene changed, thanks in part to the introduction of air conditioning. CLP’s 1954 Annual Report touched on the growing presence of air conditioning in Hong Kong homes: ‘an interesting development has been the considerable expansion of air-conditioning not only by centralised systems in large modern buildings but also by individual units in private houses and flats. This form of cooling will replace fans as surely as the latter replaced punkas of old.’
 
While this change in daily living in the tropics was taking place, dramatic new chapters were unfolding in the Far East power game, re-shaping patterns of trade and uprooting populations. For Hong Kong, this intensified an already serious problem of incoming refugees. It also affected business and trade. The movement from Mainland to Hong Kong brought big businessmen from Shanghai and other cities, many of whom had already started to switch their activities to Hong Kong. Among them were bankers, textile-men and ship-owners. With the trade embargo of 1950, no China Mainland goods of any kind were allowed into America. There was a vacuum waiting to be filled by those with the capital and know-how to meet American consumer needs.
 
In 1956 a group of businessmen founded Hong Kong Carpet Manufacturers Limited with the aim of providing much-needed employment for Hong Kong’s burgeoning population, and to cater to the booming U.S. consumer market. The company’s founding directors included friends and businessmen who had known each other in Shanghai before the war. Lawrence and Horace Kadoorie had connections with Y.C. Wang and H.C. Yung (two immigrants from Shanghai) through Nanyang Cotton Mills, one of the first cotton spinning mills in Hong Kong which started operation in 1948. Lawrence Kadoorie (later Lord) was the company’s first Chairman. Another founding director was Tse Koong Kai (K.K. Tse), a senior executive at insurance giant AIA. The company also had two American founding directors: Linden E. Johnson, who ran garment export companies in Hong Kong including Mandarin Textiles Ltd. based in Kowloon City, and the Los Angeles based super-salesman, Allen H. Rabin (Al Rabin). Both were quick to see the potential of selling luxury hand-made carpets ‘from the Far East’ to the booming U.S. consumer market.
 
The group soon set about manufacturing Tianjin style knotted carpets under the ‘Tai Ping’ brand - meaning Great Peace - to appeal to overseas admirers of Oriental artistry. The company’s first make-shift workshop was established in 1956 in a two-storey villa in Tuen Mun, employing 32 workers and a supervisor. The workshop’s operations were soon expanded thanks to a large tent fitted over the concrete surface of a basket-ball court situated next door. The tent was bought from a visiting circus which had gone bankrupt while in Hong Kong (the tent has since been immortalised in the Tai Ping logo). Production started on a small scale at first. In a letter to his friend and business partner Al Rabin on 6 January 1956, Lawrence described initial progress and preparations for the workshop’s first VIP guest: ‘the following purchases have been made: properly seasoned timber – sufficient to construct 25 looms – is being delivered to the site. A Volkswagen bus will be delivered on Tuesday next ... His Excellency (the Governor) and Lady Grantham will visit the factory on 21 January at noon, and I have been assured the loom will be set up so as to demonstrate how a carpet is actually made. It is intended that the carpets should be similar to the type you saw in Manila, that is, with the design embossed on the pile.’ When the time came for the Governor’s visit, only a very small piece of knotted carpet could be shown. It quickly became apparent that hand-knotting was neither a widely held skill in Southern China, nor something that translated easily to the production line.
 
In a bid to save the company, Y.C. Wang and H.S. Yung suggested that Anthony Yeh, a young prodigious engineer from Nanyang Cotton Mills, manage the small factory. Soon after he had come on board, through a timely mix of serendipity and engineering innovation, Yeh developed the cut-pile needle that is a predecessor of the hand-tufting tools used today. Once armed with the ingenious hand-tufting needle, Tai Ping’s young workers quickly adapted to creating hand-tufted carpets. Across the Pacific leading American stores of the day were delighted with the quality of Tai Ping’s carpets and orders began to flood in. The company’s first showroom opened in 1957 in the new Peninsula Court located behind The Peninsula Hotel, and Tai Ping also supplied the carpet for the Peninsula Court’s Marco Polo restaurant. A year later  John D. Rockefeller visited Hong Kong and became Tai Ping’s sole distributor to the U.S. through his company ‘Products of Asia’, a line of merchandise with the attributes ‘prestige, character and quality’ which aimed to promote and boost the economies of Asia and the international free trade market. The sequel was an order, through Rockefeller, for a giant carpet to be installed in the world’s most famous cinema – Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The order was finished in Tai Ping’s over-sized tent, despite the relentless rain and extreme weather wrought by Typhoon Ida. Tai Ping had turned a corner, and more orders immediately followed in the U.S. for the Ford Company Boardroom and the Chase Manhattan Bank.
 
In light of this success, Tai Ping purchased land in Tai Po on the edge of Plover Cove to accommodate the company’s expanding workforce. The deal included a large old metal shed belonging to Nanyang Cotton Mills, where Anthony Yeh had worked as a textile engineer in former years. In 1960 a newly-built five-storey factory was opened next door. This was the first factory established in Tai Po and the tallest building in the area at the time. Lawrence wrote to Al Rabin on 23 April 1960: ‘the product we make is improving steadily and we have received some interesting enquiries – about 200,000 sq. ft. of carpet for Korea – possibly to be sent by air (we think this may be for Eisenhower’s visit) and 4,000 sq. ft. sample order made up in some really beautiful old Chinese designs for Paris’. As orders flooded in, Lawrence suggested the company use a ‘colorimeter’ so as to establish a definite standard of comparison between colours and material types for discerning consumers.
 
By 1959 the company’s Head Office had relocated to the 2nd floor (room 34) of St George’s Building in Central. Tai Ping had finally achieved the founder’s goal of being recognised for the quality of its products, and was a significant local employer in Tai Po. From a small workshop employing a few dozen workers, by 1960 the company’s new purpose-built factory in Tai Po employed over 500 people. 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. Industry was rare in Tai Po in those days and the animated life of the factory – swarms of bicycles, lunch-hour games on the basketball ground, work in progress on giant carpets in the great hall – brought a new vitality to the small market town.
 
The manufacturing industry prospered through the 1960s and early 1970s, as did Tai Ping. 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 later the Prince of Wales. Tai Ping also catered to Buckingham Palace and Princess Margaret. In 1960, the new Tai Ping factory was included on the itinerary of the Hong Kong Tourist Association’s (HKTA) New Territories tour. The newly founded HKTA (today’s Hong Kong Tourism Board) was located in the East Wing of the Peninsula Hotel and aimed to encourage tourism through brochures, bulletins and tours throughout Hong Kong. One astute move was to equip the Tai Ping factory with the most attractive ladies rest-room in the whole of the New Territories. Visits to the New Territories could be tiring in the hot weather, and Tai Ping provided a good resting place, where potential customers had the pleasure of seeing the carpets being made by hand. During the 1970s Tai Ping established showrooms in locations in London, Paris and Germany. Today, with sustainability as a watchword throughout the company, carpets are made at wholly-owned factories in Southern China, Thailand and France, while design and development takes place in any one of a global network of studios and showrooms.
 
Please browse the Tai Ping Carpets website: www.taipingcarpets.com for further information.