Monday, June 06, 2005

The Origins of Hong Kong's Lane Crawford

Today, many visitors to Hong Kong's most luxurious shopping malls will soon find themselves within the elegant confines of Lane Crawford, by-words in these days for luxury, opulence and conspicuous consumption. We too, must let people know of this on our guided walks about Hong Kong's oldest continuously running store, especially if they come from out of town.

But while Hong Kong has long been the Emporium of the East (as Rudyard Kipling once said: "When you come to these parts, head straight to a bank, and deposit all your money. Tell the manager man to give you any, however much you ask. So shall you be saved from bankruptcy when you come to Hong Kong."), Lane Crawford has not always been the purveyor of finery to Hong Kong's high and mighty. The people at Lane Crawford must have realized this, which must be why they've left the company history conveniently out of their website.

In fact, in 1850, Thomas Ash Lane and Ninian Crawford set up a store that sold hard tack biscuits out of a matshed. Yes, that's right, for those of you less aware of the finer points of squatter building construction, a matshed is a hut made of rush mats covering a frame made of bamboo. Lane was a minor government clerk and Crawford was a retail shop assistant. The two made a business out of selling bread that would last for months-long, grueling sea voyages (indeed, they supplied the gruel).

This became an unexpectedly good business after the bread from the Chinese E. Sing bakery was laced heavily with arsenic, almost poisoning the entire expatriate population (Chinese didn't eat bread) had not the dosage been so strong that it induced vomiting. Lane and Crawford set up a full scale bakery of their own, and along with other bakers like Dorabjee Nowrojee (of Star Ferry and Hong Kong Hotel fame) made loads of money selling bread to both sailors and to Hong Kong residents. The ships they used to deliver bread became a good side transport venture.

Their business, from humble beginnings in a hut, were flush enough to build a 6-storey department store opposite Alexandra House in 1905, in a building purpose designed by architects Leigh and Orange. Anything was said to be available, from a 'pin to an anchor.' According to local historian Dan Waters:

"In the last decade of the twentieth century, Lane Crawfords caters for the affluent local community, and the emphasis is still on quality. The staff are mainly Chinese. This contrasts with a Lane Crawford staff group photograph taken in 1904, of European shop assistants and floor walkers, on a beach. The 33 members mostly wore long, one-piece swimming costumes [and no, they weren't Speedos! - Ed.], and several sported walrus moustaches."

So, the next time you stroll through one of Lane Crawford's temples to Hong Kong consumerism (including new branches in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Harbin), it may amuse you to think of sweaty huts and impressive displays of facial hair. Or not. Suit yourself (or they'll do it for you, haha).

3 comments:

Tony Edwards said...

One of the founders of lanecrawford,T.A. Lane with Douglas lapriak and other adventurous opportunists went in the august of 1846 to Canton and there, with difficulty purchased a hoochow tradeing junk, keying. One of the purchasers captain for the voyage,Charles Alfred Auckland Kellet sailed Keying with a Chinese crew and a passenger Mandarin Hesing(Xisheng) who presented himself to Queen Victoria at the opening of the Great exhibition of 1851. Keying was the first Chinese vessel to sail to the USA and UK... a large model of Keying takes pride of place in the new Maritime museum opening in Hong Kong in September...I am researching the history of Keying any information about the history of her purchase most welcome and what happened to the crew after she was dismantled on the shores of the Mersey at tranmere Ferry will be much appreciated ...

tony edwards said...

The last report found of Keying is sadly of rotting remains of her hull in 1855.My advert in the Guangzhou Daily february 16,asking about the mysterious Hessing didnt achieve any replies... anyone know if he returned to Guangzhou?...nobody in Liverpool knows if he was a founder of the oldest Chinese community in Europe...the hull shape of the model in the new Maritime museum isnt correct given the effort and expense of produceing such a large model you would think they would have got it right!

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