How Bruce Lee made an ev­ery­day un­der­shirt a fash­ion trend

And its stub­bornly small Hong Kong man­u­fac­turer Lee Kung Man – which does not like col­lab­o­ra­tions, ex­pan­sion or in­ter­views with the press – a fash­ion icon.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus -

BRUCE Lee dressed in a white, round-necked T-shirt with three but­tons at the front. It’s an iconic im­age from the 1970s, thanks to which that hum­ble, light­weight un­der­shirt be­came fa­mous around the world. Few in­ter­na­tional fans knew it, but that sought-af­ter cot­ton gar­ment was made in Hong Kong – and still is.

Lee Kung Man, the me­dia-shy com­pany be­hind the shirt, was founded in Can­ton – mod­ern-day Guangzhou – in 1923. In Hong Kong, the firm has been man­u­fac­tur­ing that sim­ple but sig­na­ture prod­uct at its Lai Chi Kok fac­tory for decades, sell­ing it in the same pack­ag­ing and from the same shops – in She­ung Wan, Wan Chai, Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok.

En­ter­ing a Lee Kung Man store is like go­ing back in time, with the prod­ucts in card­board boxes, stacked be­hind the counter. Cus­tomers have to ask to see the mer­chan­dise and can­not try any­thing on. When it comes to the sum­mery un­der­shirt as worn by Lee, the choices are white, white or white, with short, long or no sleeves.

Prices start at HK$45 (RM23.90) and rises to HK$270 (RM143). Not cheap, but roll the fab­ric be­tween your fin­gers and you will dis­cover that it is ex­tremely thin yet durable. This qual­ity – cou­pled with the fact that Lee Kung Man has been do­ing its thing the same way for al­most a cen­tury – is what Dou­glas Young, co-founder of Hong Kong life­style la­bel G.O.D. (Goods of De­sire), loves about the brand.

“I wear their T-shirts all the time. They are so thin,” he says, de­scrib­ing the fab­ric used for the gar­ments as “mer­cerised cot­ton”, which is pro­duced by treat­ing raw cot­ton with caus­tic soda, mak­ing it shrink, be­come more hard-wear­ing and gain a silk-like tex­ture.

“The ma­te­rial is su­per ab­sorbent so that when you sweat, it evap­o­rates just like that. It’s bet­ter than those hi-tech fab­rics from Nike. The syn­thetic fab­ric is not as good as this cot­ton.”

In a tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tise­ment from 1974, an older man, though bun­dled up against the cold, is shiv­er­ing while a young man in a Lee Kung Man un­der­shirt ap­pears per­fectly com­fort­able.

“They are known as un­der­gar­ments; no one wore them ‘out’ – you didn’t see peo­ple wear­ing them,” Young says. “But Bruce Lee made it OK to wear it as a top.”

G.O.D. lib­er­ally plun­ders Hong Kong’s past for the dy­namic de­signs it ap­plies to its ap­parel and home­ware, so it comes as no sur­prise to dis­cover that Young ad­mires the Lee Kung Man shirt’s retro pack­ag­ing. The yel­low box fea­tures an il­lus­tra­tion of a pranc­ing Golden Deer, the gar­ment’s brand mark, and the all-im­por­tant dec­la­ra­tion, “Made in Hong Kong”, be­low.

“Nor­mally, you have to buy three items be­fore they will put them in a box,” Young says, “but I love the boxes so much that I buy three shirts and ask to have them put into three sep­a­rate boxes.”

Some years ago, G.O.D. at­tempted to col­lab­o­rate with Lee Kung Man.

“We had to beg them to do the col­lab­o­ra­tion, and the peo­ple at Lee Kung Man are very stub­born,” Young says. “We wanted to take the ex­ist­ing ma­te­rial they use and make it more con­tem­po­rary look­ing, but they re­fused to man­u­fac­ture the cloth­ing ac­cord­ing to our de­sign. In the end, we had to take their fin­ished prod­uct and then get some­one else to do the mod­i­fi­ca­tion.”

Alan See, co-founder of be­spoke Hong Kong tai­lor­ing and ac­ces­sories re­tailer The Ar­moury, also at­tempted to col­lab­o­rate with Lee Kung Man.

“I tried to work with them and they had no email, so I had to fax ev­ery­thing to their friend’s place,” says the Malaysian-born See, who oc­ca­sion­ally wears Lee Kung Man cot­ton T-shirts, con­sid­er­ing them good for lay­er­ing.

“Then they got the fax and we com­mu­ni­cated like this, back and forth. It took so long to do things.”

See says that what makes Lee Kung Man un­der­shirts so com­fort­able is their tube-knit de­sign, which means no side seams.

“The ma­chines [on which they are made] are al­most ob­so­lete,” he adds, “so they have to can­ni­balise other ma­chines to re­pair them.”

Lee Kung Man founder Fung Sauyu was born in 1889 in Shun Tak (to­day the Shunde dis­trict of Foshan city, Guang­dong prov­ince), and made his liv­ing as a young man sell­ing Western goods in Can­ton. In 1923, he bought six hand-op­er­ated hosiery-mak­ing ma­chines, giv­ing his new com­pany a name that means lit­er­ally “ben­e­fit­ing work­ers and farm­ers”.

Us­ing wool im­ported from Bri­tain, Lee Kung Man quickly gained a rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity and, by 1925, the firm boasted 20 ma­chines. A few years later, Fung added sin­glets to the prod­uct line and opened a fac­tory on Hong Kong’s Des Voeux Road Cen­tral.

When Ja­panese troops in­vaded Can­ton in 1938, the Lee Kung Man fac­tory there was de­stroyed, so Fung moved his op­er­a­tions to Shun Tak, and then, in 1940, he left for Hong Kong. The next year, how­ever, with the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion, Fung sus­pended op­er­a­tions, de­vot­ing his time to serv­ing the Taoist tem­ple Fung Ying Seen Koon, in Fan­ling.

With the war’s end in 1945, Fung re­turned to Can­ton and restarted man­u­fac­tur­ing, en­joy­ing brisk sales be­fore the 1949 Com­mu­nist as­sump­tion of power in China. With his main­land op­er­a­tion na­tion­alised, Fung again fled to Hong Kong, spend­ing the rest of his days in Fan­ling, del­e­gat­ing to his sons and neph­ews. He died in 1952.

When Post Magazine calls Lee Kung Man’s head of­fice, in Wan Chai, to re­quest an in­ter­view with the own­ers, the per­son who an­swers does so brusquely, in the neg­a­tive, and puts the phone down, sug­gest­ing the com­pany has no need or de­sire for me­dia at­ten­tion. Busi­ness, one as­sumes, must be good. In 1985, how­ever, a re­porter

from the South China Morn­ing Post did man­age to in­ter­view Fung Ka-che­ung, son of Fung Sau-yu, when Golden Deer un­der­shirts cost HK$54 (RM28.60).

Back then, the com­pany pro­duced thou­sands of items a year (“And Mr Fung ex­pects that they al­ways will”), and the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor said qual­ity re­mained the pri­or­ity, the shirts made us­ing 100% nat­u­ral cot­ton sourced from Switzer­land and Bri­tain, and boast­ing a fine count of 100 threads per square inch com­pared with the coarse 24-count fab­ric used in many com­pet­ing prod­ucts.

“My fa­ther saw some ex­pen­sive French gar­ments in the 1920s, and he de­cided we could do the same thing here,” Fung, who has since passed away, told the re­porter.

“The style and cut­ting of the clothes is ba­si­cally the same as it was then. But now un­der­shirts with a lot of but­tons are not so pop­u­lar, be­cause they are in­con­ve­nient. We still sell some, though. If you change to more mod­ern styles, the changes have to come too quickly. The next day peo­ple may not like it, so you have to change ev­ery year.”

Fung added that al­though the com­pany had re­ceived many re­quests to send un­der­shirts to the United States and Europe, mail or­der sales and for­eign sales tax reg­u­la­tions were “too com­pli­cated”.

“We are pro­duc­ing for the lo­cal mar­ket,” Fung told the Post, adding that 80% of the com­pany’s prod­ucts were sold to cus­tomers in Hong Kong, with 20% find­ing their way over­seas through agents.

“The scale of our busi­ness is lim­ited,” Fung added. “Our Hong Kong fac­tory can­not cope with ex­port busi­ness. We would have to hire more peo­ple and ex­pand our fa­cil­i­ties.”

And as it was then, so it seems to be to­day, with Lee Kung Man ap­pear­ing to have no in­ter­est in chang­ing its time-tested ap­proach. The cus­tomer base, how­ever, may be chang­ing in sub­tle ways.

At Lee Kung Man’s Wan Chai shop, on John­ston Road, a sales as­sis­tant says that many young peo­ple are buy­ing the com­pany’s cloth­ing these days, but she is un­sure why. And thanks to style in­flu­encers like Young and See, as well as Bruce Lee fans, Lee Kung Man is be­ing dis­cov­ered by con­sumers be­yond Hong Kong.

On a visit to the city last year, Moto­fumi “Poggy” Kogi, the Toky­obased di­rec­tor of United Ar­rows & Sons (the in-house la­bel of cult Ja­panese re­tailer United Ar­rows), talked of how young men from main­land China and Hong Kong were mov­ing away from global fash­ion la­bels and em­brac­ing home­grown brands such as Lee Kung Man.

Young ranks Lee Kung Man along­side Levi’s, Har­ley-David­son, Adi­das and other in­ter­na­tional brands with strong her­itage value.

“The Ja­panese re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate vin­tage stuff,” he says.

“Evisu bought old Levi’s ma­chines and they did re­ally well mak­ing vin­tage jeans, and now Levi’s re­grets sell­ing the old ma­chines.”

He re­calls a Ja­panese con­sor­tium try­ing to buy out Lee Kung Man, but be­ing turned 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 al­ways been a cul­ture of ap­pre­ci­at­ing crafts­man­ship,” See says.

“The new tai­lors these days are Ja­panese be­cause they know how to ap­pre­ci­ate it.” Us­ing a Ja­panese word for peo­ple with ob­ses­sive in­ter­ests, he adds, “It’s that otaku mind­set.”

One thing is cer­tain: even in the 21st cen­tury, Lee Kung Man’s shirts refuse to go out of fash­ion. Look up #leekung­man on In­sta­gram and you will find al­most 200 posts by fans – pic­tures of the pack­ag­ing, of the shop, of en­thu­si­asts wear­ing the iconic un­der­shirt, per­haps with a sharp Ital­ian blazer. Many ref­er­ence Bruce Lee.

When The Ar­moury was at­tempt­ing to col­lab­o­rate with Lee Kung Man, See was lucky enough to meet the cur­rent owner (whom he de­clined to name).

“He’s a fac­tory guy, very bois­ter­ous,” See says. “He’s com­fort­able in that he owns his own stores. He has no push to change.”

Which makes Lee Kung Man all the more al­lur­ing in this age of fast fash­ion.

“We’ve been in Hong Kong since 1930 and we’ve built up a very good rep­u­ta­tion here,” Fung Ka-che­ung told the Post in 1985.

“In all these years, some other com­pa­nies have closed down. Maybe their qual­ity was not so good or their man­age­ment was poor. Our suc­cess de­pends on the trust of the pub­lic.”

- Xiaomei Chen

Trendy trade­mark: Founded in then Can­ton in 1923, Lee Kung Man has been man­u­fac­tur­ing that sim­ple, sig­na­ture prod­uct and pack­ag­ing at its Lai Chi Kok fac­tory for decades.

Iconic im­age: Lee’s favourite cot­ton shirt is pop­u­lar among fash­ion­istas and film fans around the world.

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