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Choy Chong (Cai Chang)


Updated: 2019-02-20

Choy Chong (Cai Chang)

China's department store titan


The first large department store in modern China -- Sincere -- opened in Hong Kong on Jan 8, 1899 as Hong Kong's business boom began in the late 19th century. Soon, a young Chinese merchant returning from Australia was appointed to the corporate board. The Zhuhai native was destined to become China's department store titan.

That man was Choy Chong, who was born on Nov 2, 1877.


Choy Chong (Cai Chang) (1877-1953)

His business masterpiece was the Da Sun chain, which was dominant in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shanghai in the early 20th century and propelled China's department store industry.


Choy Chong was a native of today's Waisha Village, Jinding Town, Tangjiawan. He and elder brother Choy Hing (Cai Xing) bid their parents farewell at the Choy (Cai) Ancestral Hall in the village when he was 14. Chong started in business by retailing fruit in Australia.


Choy (Cai) Ancestral Hall [Photo courtesy Zhuhai Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone]

In 1910, having been one of the directors of Sincere for 10 years, Chong told Hing that he was thinking about founding a global department store. As one of the cofounders of Sincere, Hing raised HK$4 million to support his younger brother in the endeavor.


Choy Hing (Cai Xing) [File photos]

In the spring of 1912, Sun Department Store opened on Central Des Voeus Road in Hong Kong and Choy Chong inaugurated his independent business operation as a manager.


China's retailing industry was limited to street peddlers and groceries at the time and there was quite a niche for all-round mass department stores.

Choy Chong took his ambition northward based upon success in Hong Kong.

He set up a branch store, In-Town Da Sun, on Central Hui'ai Road, today's Zhongshan Wulu, in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1916. Two years later, he co-established the 12-story Xidi Da Sun Co Ltd Building on the west bank of the Pearl River in the city.

The symbolized building in Guangzhou housed a department store and hotel with amusement ground, western restaurant, barbershop, photo house, and eyeglass shops on the veranda-style attic. The building had four elevators, power generators, and a parking lot on the fourth floor. It was the most magnificent and luxuriant department store in South China. Out-of-town visitors took it a must to go shopping at Da Sun.


Xidi Da Sun Department Store, later Nanfang Mansion [Photo courtesy Guangdong Archives]

Nonetheless, on the eve of Japanese occupation, the department store building burned for three days and four nights, leaving behind merely framework. Later, through reinforcement and restoration of the original structure by the Commercial Department of Guangzhou, Xidi Da Sun commenced business on the eve of National Day 1954 and was renamed Nanfang Mansion.


Choy Chong decided in 1929 to expand farther north. He financed HK$6 million and went to Shanghai in 1934.

Standing at the busiest intersections on Nanking (Nanjing) Road, he calculated traffic flow and the stream of people by counting beans in his pocket to choose the location of his department store.

The 10-story Shanghai Da Sun Co Building, today's Shanghai Number 1 Department Store Building, was completed at the intersection of Tibet and Nanking (Nanjing) roads on Jan 10, 1936 with floor space of 17,000 sq m. It was the largest and most lavish of four department stores in Shanghai -- the other three being Sincere, Wing On, and Sun Sun. 


Da Sun Department Store seen from the Race Club tower over Nanking and Tibet roads [Photo courtesy]

The architect was the large Chinese firm Messrs Kwan, Chu & Yang, which also designed the Continental Bank at 111 Jiujiang Road (now the office of Shanghai Trust) in Art Deco style. The contractor, the Voh Kee Construction Co, was also behind the Park Hotel.

The building was equipped with air conditioning and heating facilities as well as escalators running to the second and third floors with load capacity of 4,000 persons per hour. The two Otis escalators were imported from the United States. The first to be used in department stores in East Asia, these escalators became major attractions with thousands of people coming just to watch or try.

The Sun then started selling tickets for a ride that would be deducted from any purchase. It was estimated that 48,000 people visited The Sun on opening day. 


The Sun Co introduced the first two passenger escalators in China in the 1930s. [Photo courtesy]

In the 1930s, the basement and three floors served as shopping areas. The third floor contained the Taipan's and other administration offices whereas the upper floors offered a restaurant, theater, amusement park, and roof-garden tea house.

Additionally, the quality of goods was impressive with counters piled high with cigarettes from all over the world, Cuban cigars, American-made cotton shirts, Swiss watches, and German fountain pens.


Sunrise From the Cloud -- the trademark of Da Sun Co -- was a household logo in Shanghai and Guangzhou half a century ago. It was in vogue to go shopping at Da Sun during that era.

Da Sun, coming from English "The Sun," referred to "the sun to rise in the east and a time to fulfill the goals."


Archive photo of Da Sun Department Store in Shanghai [Photo courtesy]

Under the trademark, the capitalization of Da Sun topped the department stores in China and, even though he was not a foreigner, Choy Chong won the household name of "Taipan Chong."

The road near Da Sun Co Guangzhou was named Changxing Street to commemorate Choy Chong and Choy Hing.


Choy Chong built the three-story Lihe Primary School in his hometown in 1929 to educate children from around the village free of charge. He recruited skilled teachers from Hong Kong and Canton. The number of students reached 400 at a time.

The school remained open until Japan's invasion in 1937, which also sent Da Sun Co into recession. Nonetheless, the school building survived ups and downs for over 80 years to become a monument to Choy Chong.


Lihe Primary School [File photo]

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, all four department stores were nationalized with names and ownership changed more than once. For instance, the former Sun Sun Department Store is today's Shanghai First Food Store, and the former building of the Sincere Department Store has become the Shanghai Fashion Store, selling apparels and accessories. Only Wing On still uses its former Chinese name (Yong'an in pinyin), although it is now run by the State-owned Bailian Group and no longer uses Cantonese translation Wing On as its English title.


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