The 1960s pointed to Hong Kong's golden era of plastic production and marked the beginning of many Hong Kong success stories, including that of Red A.
In the 1960s, Hong Kong perpetuated its rapid development and expansion in manufacturing. As a vibrant and dynamic city dancing between the East and the West, its economic progress illuminated its presence as one of the Four Asian Tigers on the global stage. It also marked the beginning of a Hong Kong success story: Red A, a brand under Star Industrial Co., Ltd. founded by the Leung family from Shanghai. They created the iconic red lampshade found in Hong Kong's wet markets, besides a range of plastic household staples that still bear one of the few remaining ‘made in Hong Kong’ legacies today.
For a year and at its height in 1963, Hong Kong entered a critical phase of water rationing. Residents across the city were supplied water once every four days and each time for only four hours. Long stretches of queues at standpipes became an ordinary sight in various parts of Hong Kong. Everyone, including children, was busy shouldering large and small containers and basins of water—a memory shared by over three million people who lived in Hong Kong during the time. And in a factory in San Po Kong, machines casted molten plastic into six-gallon buckets of red and blue, which were then assembled by hand. Within days, Star Industrial Co., Ltd. produced thousands of buckets for families and trades that needed them for collecting and storing water. The rationing was not only a turning point in the city’s water supply policy but one that would cement Red A as a household name across the city and for generations.
Red A’s ascent mirrored that of the city. As plastics became a new material that gained widespread popularity and acceptance, it prompted companies to go creative and inventive in all directions. Red A not only continued to manufacture simple plastic items—such as brightly coloured cups and jugs to buckets—but also designed products that furnished households and kitchen tables. From off-white polystyrene chopsticks to translucent jelly cups with scallop lips, Lunar New Year confectionary boxes to decorations that resemble auspicious paper hangings, shimmering faux-crystal chandeliers to self-assembled lamps of congregated plastic prisms, their products represented a uniquely-defined Hong Kong aesthetic.
Although the products were mass-produced, many carried along the sentiments of their maker and impeccable craftsmanship. For example, faux-crystal products’ moulds were hand chiselled with a nail in one hand and a hammer in another to create the replicated geometric patterns. ‘We didn’t have computer technology to help us, so we drew every one of the patterns manually,’ said Jessica Leung, the third-generation descendant and Business Development Director of Star Industrial Co., Ltd.. ‘Generally, products’ made in Hong Kong’ are made with a human touch.’
Red A’s simple yet thoughtful designs communicated the convenience of plastic to the routines of everyday life with new creative processes, forms, and materials. Its household staples were functional, accessible, and affordable, and the brand eventually found success in various geographic and cultural contexts. It furnished homes, hotels, and restaurants locally and internationally for the following decades. Red A’s ubiquitous products witness the success story of Hong Kong’s plastic manufacturing during the post-war decades. Today, while many companies have relocated their production to elsewhere due to rising costs, Red A continues to manufacture its products locally in San Po Kong.
Taken at a time when Hong Kong was known as one of the leading producers and exporters of the finest plastics goods in the world, Yau Leung’s monochrome photograph from the M+ Collection captures the pavilion of Star Industrial Co., Ltd. at the Exhibition of Hong Kong Products in the 1960s. The composition, featuring a trove of plastic products stacked between shelves, sheds light upon the city’s golden era as a manufacturing powerhouse. To some, the photograph holds strong the sociology of objects that illuminate the unspoken connections between design and every day from across time.
A Chinese-language version of this article was originally published on 15 February 2023 in Ming Pao.