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Wings Trading Company
"Sam Seng, Sam Seng Antler Pilose Medicinal Wine -- fantastic for men and women's health."
Although this may not be the most poetic of slogans, Hong Kong TV viewers know the 20-year-old commercial chant by heart. The story of Sam Seng Winery, however, is virtually unknown.
Sam Seng's founder, Hee Li (pictured left with his son Chung Yan Li), travelled to Hong Kong from his hometown of Foshan, Nanhai City in Mainland China when he was 15. He sought out his uncle who ran Tong Zhan Winery, which produ-ced a family-prescribed medicinal wine. The young Mr Li quickly picked up the secrets of dietary nourishment from his uncle. But as he was only helping out, he decided he needed to find a full-time job and went to work as a salesman for a retail firm selling Mainland medicinal wines.
When Mr Li turned 37 in 1971, he had reached a crossroads in his life. He could continue working in the wine retailing business, which held limited prospects, or he could strike out on his own. Given his knowledge of Chinese medicinal wine and his wholesale network that he had built up during his years as a salesman, he was confident he could make a success of it, and so decided to try his luck at producing and selling his own wine.
Mr Li sold his Mei Foo Sun Chuen flat, then a middle-class private housing estate, and moved to a remote plot on Sai Lau Kok Road in Tsuen Wan. With HK$10,000 and the help of two workers, Mr Li embarked on producing his own medicinal wine.
Nothing to cheer about
Despite his father's demur about his business plan, Mr Li said he was confident he would succeed. "Besides Western alcohol, Chinese medicinal wine was the only alternative on the market at that time. But the Mainland medicinal wines tasted like medicine, however efficacious they were, and so not a pleasure to drink,"he said.
With Hong Kong having about 4,000 outlets selling wine at the time, Mr Li rec-ognised there was a business opportunity for the taking if he could produce a palatable medicinal wine and promote its name. He began work brewing a new recipe and production process that focused on the aroma and tonic effect of the wine. One year after he started, Mr Li bottled his first Sam Seng Antler Pilose Medicinal Wine in 1972. With limited capital and materials, he could only manage to sell the wine on consignments of six to twelve bottles to shops.
"Money was so tight at that time,"Mr Li recollected. "We barely had enough money to make the wine and buy the bottles to put it in. As a last resort we bought old bottles of a popular whisky, replaced the labels and filled the bottles with our wine."
It was a strategy which backfired, because Mr Li was fined HK$500 for using another company's bottles to sell his wine. Once he had made enough money, Mr Li ordered new bottles and in 1974 bought a bottling machine.
"Sam Seng was the first winery in Hong Kong to use quality glass bottles and aluminium bottle tops,"Mr Li said proudly.
In the same year, Mr Li registered his brand, Sam Seng, which translates as "the previous life, current life and the next life."It also connotes luck and fortune.
Things looked to be working out for Mr Li. Even the oil crisis of the '70s which sent stock markets around the world crashing couldn't shake his business. But in 1975, toxic methanol was discovered in imported Chinese medicinal wines and scared people off buying any medicinal wines. The scare delivered a heavy blow to the company.
To win back the public's confidence in medicinal wines, Mr Li decided to improve the quality of his wine by upgrading his production line. He also began advertising his wine on TV and radio, which led to local supermarkets agreeing to stock Sam Seng wine in 1976 after he added barcodes to his products. He also he explored new marketing channels, one of which has resulted in porcelain ornamental wine bottles being sold in duty free shops.
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22/F United Centre, 95 Queensway
Admiralty, Hong Kong
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