A BANANA SALESMAN stepped into a department store called David Jones & Co and saw the future.
This was 1890s Sydney, and the man, Ma Ying-piu (馬應彪), had never seen anything like it. In front of him was a huge space in which people bought an unimaginably wide variety of goods, and above were multiple floors of similar activity.
The mouth of the banana trader surely dropped open.
This, Ma (right) decided, could be the future of retail – especially if it was transferred to Asia. The population of Sydney was just 480,000. If department stores were opened in China, with a population of 400 million, just imagine the potential for trade!
The Ma family were Guangdong natives, from Zhongshan, and had started out in the 1850s by panning for gold in Australia but had moved on to other businesses, such as importing bananas to Sydney from Fiji. They seemed to have a natural talent for business and they were soon running a profitable fruit and vegetable company.
But the presence of Asians in Australia had worried the previous generation of settlers, who instigated a White Australia policy. This meant that people from China could not do certain things, such as buy property.
No matter. Ma would head home. He had another reason for spending more time in China too. His family and friends had converted to Christianity, and he felt that the positive values and charity-mindedness that he got from his faith would be beneficial on the China coast, where people lived very stressful lives, some addicted to opium.
FRIENDS IN SYDNEY
Ma was one of a cluster of Chinese business people in Sydney, a group of friends which included a family called Kwok. The two families, both of which sold fruit at the time, thought on similar lines about many things. (And their family lines would later be tied together by several marriages.)
Sydney at the time had several department stores. David Jones & Co. claimed to be the oldest, having opened in 1838, although it started as a regular shop, and only became a multi-story emporium in the late 1880s. The king of department stores in Australia at the time was a man named Anthony Horden, whose massive shop was at the time the biggest department store on the planet. Some sources said that Horden knew the Chinese businessmen and encouraged them to take the concept of the department store to China, curious to see whether it would jump cultural barriers.
And did it? The short answer is: Yes. But not immediately.
TRANSPLANTED TO HONG KONG
In the second half of the 1800s, Ma’s family had been moving between China and Australia for some decades. In Australia, he had acquired a faith, a purpose, and enough money to try new things. In 1894, he hopped on a boat to go back to Hong Kong to try something new.
To start with, he and his family members and colleagues set up Wing Cheung Tai & Co (永昌泰金山莊) to provide an import-export service, and to handle remittances (money transfers) to Chinese migrants living in Australia. But Ma never forgot the department stores of Australia: the shopping “palaces” of David Jones & Co, Horden’s and Myers. He eventually gathered enough support to try out the concept in Hong Kong.
Ma and his team set up Sincere Company (先施公司) in Queen’s Road, in the business heart of Hong Kong island, on January 8, 1900. The budget to get started was HK$25,000, a huge sum in those days—and spending it on an untried venture was a big risk. The name was chosen because it implied honesty and integrity.
But he need not have worried. Sincere was an immediate hit. Staff estimated that 10,000 people entered the store on that first day alone.
This was not because it was the first department store in Hong Kong. The city already had a shop called Lane Crawford, but that was very European in style, and a little forbidding for local Chinese people.
Sincere was different. Hong Kong people found the mix of Chineseness and Australianness made a refreshing shopping experience.
Adopting the western model, Ma positioned staff at the main front doors who would greet customers, ask them what they were looking for, and send them to the right part of the shop. All shoppers received the same welcome, whether they appeared wealthy or not.
He hired female staff to man the counters. Until that time, virtually all shop staff in Hong Kong had been males. He also had a no-bargaining position at his counters – unusual for Chinese retailers selling to Chinese customers. It made everything much quicker and simpler. And every customer got a written receipt, unheard of for Chinese stores in those days.
To keep people coming back, the stores tried out different features – such as having a restaurant or having live entertainment. And, for a truly Chinese flavor, Sincere had a cloth department, and tailors and seamstresses would hand-make cheong-sum outfits for customers.
OTHER SHOPS SPRANG UP
In 1907, Ma’s friends from Australia, the Kwok brothers (Kwok Lok 郭樂 and Kwok Chuen 郭泉), followed suit with a department store called Wing On Company (永安公司), also in the Central part of Hong Kong island, then called “Victoria” or “Queenstown”. The shop had three floors of offerings, and dubbed itself “universal providers”.
Wing On literally means “perpetual peace” and the name was chosen to show the Kwok brothers’ aspiration to make a long-lasting, stable business. They soon became known for their shop window displays, and held fashion shows. They also created gift coupons so regular customers could entice others to visit.
Sincere was a big hit in Hong Kong, so the Ma family opened another branches, including in Macau and in Shanghai.
Ma and others also donated money to build the Hop Yat church in Caine Road on Hong Kong island (right).
As you can see, the church has hardly changed at all, at least on the outside, since it was built in the early 1920s, a century ago.
ONE THING MISSING
Today, both Sincere and Wing On remain in Central Hong Kong as busy department stores, although both companies have diversified to include many other business lines.
But while both have a huge variety of goods on sale, from fashion to household goods to toys, there’s one thing you won’t find at either store.
Bananas? No bananas.
This report was written by H.C. Lu and Nury Vittachi. Image at the top is art representing a visitor looking at David Jones & Co about the 1890s.