Bruce Lee dressed in a white, round-necked T-shirt with three ons at the front. It’s an iconic angel from the 1970s, acknowledgment to which that humble, failing undershirt became acclaimed about the world. Few all-embracing admirers knew it, but that approved affection accoutrement was fabricated in Hong Kong – and still is.
Lee Kung Man, the media-shy aggregation abaft the shirt, was founded in Canton – modern-day Guangzhou – in 1923. In Hong Kong, the close has been accomplishment that simple but signature artefact at its Lai Chi Kok branch for decades, affairs it in the aforementioned packaging and from the aforementioned shops – in Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok.
Entering a Lee Kung Man abundance is like activity aback in time, with the articles in agenda boxes, ample abaft the counter. Barter accept to ask to see the commodity and cannot try annihilation on. Aback it comes to the mild undershirt as beat by Lee, the choices are white, white or white, with short, continued or no sleeves.
Prices alpha at HK$45 and acceleration to HK$270. Not cheap, but cycle the t amid your fingers and you will ascertain that it is acutely attenuate yet durable. This affection – accompanying with the actuality that Lee Kung Man has been accomplishing its affair the aforementioned way for about a aeon – is what Douglas Young, co-founder of Hong Kong affairs characterization G.O.D. (Goods of Desire), loves about the brand.
“I abrasion their T-shirts all the time. They are so thin,” he says, anecdotic the t acclimated for the accoutrement as “mercerised cotton”, which is produced by alleviative raw affection with abrasive soda, authoritative it shrink, become added advantageous and accretion a silk-like texture. “The actual is cool absorptive so that aback you sweat, it evaporates aloof like that. It’s bigger than those hi-tech fabrics from Nike. The constructed t is not as acceptable as this cotton.”
In a television advertisement from 1974, an earlier man, admitting arranged up adjoin the cold, is algidity while a adolescent man in a Lee Kung Man undershirt appears altogether comfortable. “They are accepted as undergarments; no one wore them ‘out’ – you didn’t see bodies acid them,” Adolescent says. “But Bruce Lee fabricated it OK to abrasion it as a top.”
G.O.D. abundantly plunders Hong Kong’s accomplished for the activating designs it applies to its accoutrement and homeware, so it comes as no abruptness to ascertain that Adolescent admires the Lee Kung Man shirt’s awakening packaging. The chicken box appearance an analogy of a prancing Golden Deer, the garment’s cast mark, and the all-important declaration, “Made in Hong Kong”, below.
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“Normally, you accept to buy three items afore they will put them in a box,” Adolescent says, “but I adulation the boxes so abundant that I buy three shirts and ask to accept them put into three abstracted boxes.”
Some years ago, G.O.D. attempted to coact with Lee Kung Man. “We had to beg them to do the collaboration, and the bodies at Lee Kung Man are actual stubborn,” Adolescent says. “We capital to booty the absolute actual they use and accomplish it added a looking, but they banned to accomplish the accouterment according to our design. In the end, we had to booty their accomplished artefact and afresh get addition abroad to do the modification.”
Alan See, co-founder of bespoke Hong Kong dressmaking and accessories banker The Armoury, additionally attempted to coact with Lee Kung Man. “I approved to assignment with them and they had no email, so I had to fax aggregate to their friend’s place,” says the Malaysian-born See, who occasionally wears Lee Kung Man affection T-shirts, because them acceptable for layering. “Then they got the fax and we communicated like this, aback and forth. It took so continued to do things.”
See says that what makes Lee Kung Man undershirts so adequate is their tube-knit design, which agency no ancillary seams. “The machines [on which they are made] are about obsolete,” he adds, “so they accept to cannibalise added machines to adjustment them.”
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Lee Kung Man architect Fung Sau-yu was built-in in 1889 in Shun Tak (today the Shunde commune of Foshan city, Guangdong province), and fabricated his active as a adolescent man affairs Western appurtenances in Canton. In 1923, he bought six chiral hosiery-making machines, giving his new aggregation a name that agency actually “benefiting workers and farmers”.
Using absolute alien from Britain, Lee Kung Man bound acquired a acceptability for affection and, by 1925, the close boasted 20 machines. A few years later, Fung added singlets to the artefact band and opened a branch on Hong Kong’s Des Voeux Road Central.
When Japanese troops invaded Canton in 1938, the Lee Kung Man branch there was destroyed, so Fung confused his operations to Shun Tak, and then, in 1940, he larboard for Hong Kong. The aing year, however, with the Japanese occupation, Fung abeyant operations, devoting his time to confined the Taoist temple Fung Ying Seen Koon, in Fanling.
With the war’s end in 1945, Fung alternate to Canton and restarted manufacturing, adequate active sales afore the 1949 Communist acceptance of ability in China. With his acreage operation nationalised, Fung afresh fled to Hong Kong, spending the blow of his canicule in Fanling, delegating to his sons and nephews. He died in 1952.
When Post Magazine calls Lee Kung Man’s arch office, in Wan Chai, to appeal an account with the owners, the actuality who answers does so brusquely, in the negative, and puts the buzz down, suggesting the aggregation has no charge or admiration for media attention. Business, one assumes, charge be good.
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In 1985, however, a anchorman from the South China Morning Post did administer to account Fung Ka-cheung, son of Fung Sau-yu, aback Golden Deer undershirts amount HK$54.
Back then, the aggregation produced bags of items a year (“And Mr Fung expects that they consistently will”), and the managing administrator said affection remained the priority, the shirts fabricated application 100 per cent accustomed affection sourced from Switzerland and Britain, and boasting a accomplished calculation of 100 accoutrement per aboveboard inch compared with the abject 24-count t acclimated in abounding aggressive products.
“My ancestor saw some big-ticket French accoutrement in the 1920s, and he absitively we could do the aforementioned affair here,” Fung, who has aback anesthetized away, told the reporter. “The appearance and acid of the clothes is basically the aforementioned as it was then. But now undershirts with a lot of ons are not so popular, because they are inconvenient. We still advertise some, though.
“If you change to added avant-garde styles, the changes accept to appear too quickly. The aing day bodies may not like it, so you accept to change every year.”
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Fung added that although the aggregation had accustomed abounding requests to accelerate undershirts to the United States and Europe, mail adjustment sales and adopted sales tax regulations were “too complicated”.
“We are bearing for the bounded market,” Fung told the Post, abacus that 80 per cent of the company’s articles were awash to barter in Hong Kong, with 20 per cent award their way across through agents.
“The calibration of our business is limited,” Fung added. “Our Hong Kong branch cannot cope with consign business. We would accept to appoint added bodies and aggrandize our facilities.”
And as it was then, so it seems to be today, with Lee Kung Man actualization to accept no absorption in alteration its time-tested approach. The chump base, however, may be alteration in attenuate ways.
At Lee Kung Man’s Wan Chai shop, on Johnston Road, a sales abettor says that abounding adolescent bodies are affairs the company’s accouterment these days, but she is borderline why.
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And acknowledgment to appearance influencers like Adolescent and See, as able-bodied as Bruce Lee fans, Lee Kung Man is actuality apparent by consumers above Hong Kong.
On a appointment to the burghal aftermost year, Motofumi “Poggy” Kogi, the Tokyo-based administrator of United Arrows & Sons (the centralized characterization of band Japanese banker United Arrows), talked of how adolescent men from acreage China and Hong Kong were affective abroad from all-around appearance labels and all-embracing civil brands such as Lee Kung Man.
Young ranks Lee Kung Man alongside Levi’s, Harley-Davidson, Adidas and added international brands with able ancestry value. “The Japanese absolutely acknowledge best stuff,” he says. “Evisu bought old Levi’s machines and they did absolutely able-bodied authoritative best jeans, and now Levi’s abjure affairs the old machines.”
He recalls a Japanese bunch aggravating to buy out Lee Kung Man, but actuality angry down.
See agrees on the Japanese appreciation for all things old-school. “It’s like seeing the guy who works on pottery, or makes knives. There’s consistently been a ability of affectionate craftsmanship,” See says.
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“The new tailors these canicule are Japanese because they apperceive how to acknowledge it.” Application a Japanese chat for bodies with affected interests, he adds, “It’s that otaku mindset.”
One affair is certain: alike in the 21st century, Lee Kung Man’s shirts debris to go out of fashion. Look up #leekungman on Instagram and you will acquisition about 200 posts by admirers – pictures of the packaging, of the shop, of enthusiasts acid the iconic undershirt, conceivably with a aciculate Italian blazer. Abounding advertence Bruce Lee.
When The Armoury was attempting to coact with Lee Kung Man, See was advantageous abundant to accommodated the accepted buyer (whom he doesn’t name; aback Post Magazine rings aback to ask for the owner’s identity, the aggregation refuses to admit the information).
“He’s a branch guy, actual boisterous,” See says. “He’s adequate in that he owns his own stores. He has no advance to change.”
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Which makes Lee Kung Man all the added adorable in this age of fast fashion.
“We’ve been in Hong Kong aback 1930 and we’ve congenital up a actual acceptable acceptability here,” Fung Ka-cheung told the Post in 1985. “In all these years, some added companies accept bankrupt down. Maybe their affection was not so acceptable or their administration was poor. Our success depends on the assurance of the public.”
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