Tech and gadgets

Electric city: Hong Kong’s fixation with gadgets

From transistor radios to fintech – how Hong Kong led the boom in consumer technology

For most Hongkongers, consumer technology means the smartphone in your hand – most likely made by Apple or Samsung. Walk past the city’s Apple stores at the weekend and you’ll see how obsessed Hongkongers are with the latest technology.

This isn’t a new thing. Hong Kong has always been synonymous with consumer technology – as much as, or more so, than Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

In the 1960s, a huge proportion of transistor radios, electric razors, electronic toys and other small, low-cost products bore the mark ‘Made in Hong Kong’. Today, electronics manufacturing in Hong Kong, particularly of mass-consumer products, is a rarity.

Since the 1980s, factories and industrial plants have been relocating north to the Chinese mainland, most notably the Pearl River Delta, with its lower land rental rates and labour costs.

But Hong Kong’s connection with electronics, now mostly as a trading hub, remains extensive. Electronics are the territory’s biggest merchandise export. This month is the Hong Kong Electronics Fair, Asia’s largest. The oft-quoted story goes that two in 10 mobile phones sold in sub-Saharan Africa pass through tatty Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui.

But Hong Kong also has a booming new electronics start-up culture, with co-work spaces and incubators, technology training programmes and technology centres: like the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park in the New Territories, host to 500 tech companies. Modern Hong Kong is also a hot centre for fintech and the growing Internet of Things arena.

But how and when electronics came to be a Hong Kong Thing is no longer well known to generations born either in the territory or overseas.

The manufacturing industry in Hong Kong started in the 19th century, with the earliest factories producing products such as matches and paper. By the early 20th century, small metal and electronic goods manufacturing had emerged. Simple items like ‘Made in Hong Kong’ Bakelite mains plugs – later made of plastic – became common in the world’s nickel and dime stores.

The first real electronics factory in the territory was established in early 1959, making transistor radios – invented four years previously in the US and already being mass-produced in Japan.

Portable battery-operated radios were the cool new technology of their day and were the backbone of Hong Kong’s electronics manufacturing heyday. Less glamorous, but equally lucrative, was the manufacture of electronic components and circuit boards, along with cabinets, cases, knobs, chassis and more.

That first Hong Kong radio factory was owned by a local industrialist, Peter HT Woo, who subcontracted for Japan’s Sony, making 4,000 sets a month. In 1962, Woo set up the first Hong Kong radio brand, Atlas. Most Atlas radios were exported to the UK at first, then the US later.

There were three radio firms in Hong Kong by 1960, 12 by 1961 and 14 by May 1962. Much of the blossoming manufacturing activity took place in small apartments, where a few workers could assemble hundreds of radios a day. The dexterity of workers who often had previously worked in embroidery and carving favoured Hong Kong radio making.

Hong Kong radios undercut Japanese prices so effectively that Japan began to stop exporting components to the territory, but they were too late. By the early 1960s, Made in Hong Kong radios had Made in Hong Kong parts.

By the 1970s, transistor radios were passé, but computer memory, personal computers, TVs, VCRs, electronic watches and gaming devices were on the rise: the golden age of Hong Kong’s electronics manufacturing.

That time passed. Across the border, Shenzhen was growing from a fishing village into what would be the world centre for electronics manufacturing.

But by then, Hong Kong had moved on. 

The Hong Kong Electronics Fair (spring edition) takes place at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre over 13-16 April.

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