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DEFYING odds is at the crux of the story of Hong Kong self-made tycoon toymaker Lam Leung-tim. Born into poverty, he rose from rags to riches, armed with nothing more than a primary school education and a dream to one day run his own business. Even after having accomplished his earlier goals in life and "made it" as chairman of one of the city's leading toy companies, Forward Winsome Industries, Mr Lam's entrepreneurial spirit remains unflagging. In 2014, at the age of 90, he founded yet another company, Funderful Creations, in his efforts to revitalise one of his earlier toys - a bright yellow rubber duck that has become an icon in Hong Kong.
Now 93, Mr Lam still shows no signs of slowing down as he enthusiastically outlines plans to also open up coffee shops and cafes based on his rubber duck brand, as well as set up a charity foundation. The nonagenarian says he is now driven by the desire to set an example for younger generations, and to give back to society.
"I promised myself that the income from new toys will have a good share returned to society to help people," says Mr Lam in an interview with at his Chai Wan district office in the Eltee Building he owns that is named after his initials, "L T".
"I hope younger generations will learn from me how to fight through difficult times."
Mr Lam has certainly had his share of adversity. Born in Hong Kong to a father working as a chef and a mother who was a schoolteacher, Mr Lam was sent to the mainland for primary school just when the Japanese began invading China in the 1930s.
It was amid this turmoil that a young Mr Lam determined what he wanted to do with his life. "The Japanese were powerful… even the toys that Chinese people played were mostly from Japan. They sold toys to us Chinese, made money and at home they made airships, air planes, canons, and came to invade us," he says.
He turned to his mother then and told her that he wanted to make toys when he grew up so the Chinese would no longer have to buy toys from the Japanese.
His parents later brought him back to Hong Kong to continue his education, and Mr Lam was in 1941 admitted to Wah Yan College for secondary school. But his family could not afford the monthly school fees - his father was the sole breadwinner at the time, bringing home HK$20 each month for all three to live on.
So Mr Lam sought out the institution's headmaster to negotiate a lower fee.
But World War II broke out shortly after the school term began, bringing about the end of his formal education and the death of his father, who fell victim to Japanese soldiers.
Mr Lam and his mother went back to her hometown of Nanhai in the mainland, working as vegetable farmers and living off tree bark on days when food was scarce.
After the war finally came to an end in 1945, Mr Lam got married at the insistence of his mother, but soon left his new bride to go solo in Hong Kong, seeking a better life. "In China in those days, everything was so behind, it was difficult to make a living… As my father used to say, you learn some English, come to Hong Kong and you may find a better job, make a bit more money," he says.
"So I came back."
Money is secondary
With no university degree and only HK$100 in his pocket, he found work as an undertaker, making HK$2 on each funeral. When one of his old teachers snagged him an offer to be a bank teller, Mr Lam turned it down, choosing to work a lower-paying job as a salesman at a newsstand earning HK$60 a month.
"The kind of job I was looking for was one where I could pick up English and get a chance to know more people. Working in a bank at that time, you may know people, but as a teller... you are not allowed to talk to customers," he says.
"That's not the kind of job I want."
The newsstand, on the other hand, was located in the central district's business centre, enabling Mr Lam to meet all sorts of corporate figures and keep up with the latest news. "I could also borrow books or magazines back to read. I could learn more, money is secondary," he says.
It was through his voracious reading that he first came across the word "plastics" and its use in manufacturing. That was the start of his journey to realise his dream of making his own toys, says Mr Lam.
He began looking for a job related to plastics, and joined an industrial chemical company, Winsome Plastic Works, through an old friend of his late father, earning HK$100 a month as an assistant. In 1948, Winsome produced the yellow rubber ducks that have now become a city icon, and which helped spur the growth of the company. Mr Lam counts the first batch of rubber ducks as an important milestone in his career - he still keeps all the related documents and moulds from that year in bubble wrap, carefully tucked away in an ornate gold box.
Fuelled by his first taste of success, his ambitions grew. "I was very aggressive, I kept thinking of being a boss some day, to make toys by myself," he recalls. In 1955, he started Forward Products to produce other toys such as dolls, and by 1957 he had also launched Alice Doll Fashions to make doll apparel, a joint venture with his first wife who was adept at sewing.
Three years later, Forward Winsome Industries Limited (Fowind) was incorporated with the merger of Winsome Plastic Works and Forward Products.
In 1962, Mr Lam acquired Fowind to become the company's sole proprietor.
Fowind would go on to take up big manufacturing projects from American toy-making giants Hallmark and Hasbro, most notably producing GI Joe and Transformers toys that were high in demand, earning Mr Lam the nickname "Father of Transformers" in mainland China.
His partnership with Hasbro exemplifies the honesty that underscores his business style, says Mr Lam. When Hasbro had first approached him with the idea of producing GI Joe dolls, Mr Lam turned the US company down because he felt Fowind was still new and didn't have the capacity to fulfil orders.
"I'm too small for you," he recalls as having said then. "My factory is so small, I don't want to let you down."
His truthfulness earned him Hasbro's trust, and they eventually returned with several project opportunities for Fowind. Mr Lam also counts his work ethic and perseverance as key factors behind his success.
Some of his earlier factories on the mainland did not do well, but he re-strategised and did not give up on his business expansion plans.
"I never say die. If I fall, I get up again," he says.
Even when his first wife and mother of his three children died of heart disease in 1985, Mr Lam trudged on in his work, increasing the number of factories he had on the mainland and growing his business beyond China's shores.
Today, Mr Lam oversees more than 6,000 staff across Fowind, Alice Doll Fashions, and Funderful Creations based in Hong Kong, the mainland and Thailand - up from just over 200 when Fowind was incorporated.
He has also donated around HK$10 million to help fund the education of needy Chinese students, including setting up educational foundations overseas.
His story is testament to the can-do spirit of Hong Kong, says Mr Lam. "I started out lacking three things in life: money, business experience and technical know-how. I only had a fighting spirit, diligence and a humble heart," he says.
"I built up the kingdom from nothing."
His empire has become a family affair. His two sons Jeffrey - a member of the Hong Kong executive and legislative councils - and Daniel help run Fowind and Alice Doll Fashions, while three of his six grandchildren also work in the companies or factories.
His second wife - a former optometrist for the Chinese military, Shelly Lam, whom he married in 1994 - is his pillar of support, helping with paperwork and ensuring he doesn't miss appointments.
Mr Lam says his family members are not comfortable with disclosing company financials, but shared that Fowind has been "all the way profitable" even as competition increased.
When he first told them about his plans to start Funderful, his wife was supportive, but his children were initially sceptical.
"They wanted to join me, but I said no... I'm trying to start again with my own 10 fingers, I don't need any help from you," he says with a wry smile.
The shore is behind you
He sees his rubber duck as a conduit for bringing about harmony in today's socio-politically divided Hong Kong.
"Young Chinese in Hong Kong have some funny thinking, they really mix up their idealogy of thinking about independence (from the mainland), instead of thinking of the fact that Hong Kong is definitely a part of China," he says.
"It's like seeing my duck swimming towards a big ocean. I would ask my duck to come back, the shore is behind you, don't swim towards the big sea where you have no horizon, you can't find any place to land."
The rubber duck toys have a note attached that reads: "You may wonder why we're yellow. The reason goes back nearly seven decades. After long, dark years of war, our creator... Mr LT Lam, dreamed of a world filled with colour. Today, we yellow ducks still have important work to do… Our hope is that all you children will learn to share, play and live together harmoniously so future generations will continue to enjoy peace, friendship and prosperity."
The words reflect Mr Lam's optimistic outlook on life and refusal to hold grudges.
"In my world, I only have friends, I have no enemies," he says. "You have to forget about the mischiefs and hatred to create harmony, make peace between people... I sleep very well at night, I keep an open mind. I never get angry. If you scold me, I swallow it, and I never scold people."
It is this carefree attitude that has enabled him to stay fit and passionate about his work even in his 90s, he says.
"I'm still so healthy and so active," he says with a chuckle.
"Work until you cannot work, this is a spirit that not many people can stick to."
Chairman, Forward Winsome Industries
Founder & Chairman, Funderful Creations
Born March 30, 1924, in Hong Kong
Accepted into Hong Kong secondary school Wah Yan College in 1941, but education disrupted by WWII
1942 Farmed vegetables in mainland China during the war
1945 Worked as an undertaker in Hong Kong
1946 Salesman at a newsstand
1947 Joined Winsome Plastic Works as an assistant
1948 Helped create the mould for the iconic yellow rubber duck
1955 Founded toy-making firm Forward Products Company
1957 Established Alice Doll Fashions
1960 Forward Winsome Industries Limited (Fowind) was incorporated by merging Winsome Plastic Works and Forward Products Company
1962 Acquired Fowind and became sole proprietor
2014 Founded Funderful Creations to revitalise the yellow rubber duck brand