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LT Lam; A Toy Industry Giant
While recently visiting China and Hong Kong I had the pleasure of spending time with one of the toy industry's great influencers: LT Lam. If you know LT, you cannot escape the incredible vitality that belies his 88 years. LT is one of the founders of the Hong Kong and Chinese toy industries. Today, he, along with his sons Jeffrey (who is on the Hong Kong City Council) and Daniel run Forward Winsome and the company's seven factories.
LT's life is a prime example of what these men and women had to overcome and what they have accomplished. Life did not start easily for LT. On Christmas day, 1941, his father did not come home from work. LT went to find him and discovered his body, lying in the street, across from what is today the Regal Hotel in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. His father had been bayoneted by a Japanese soldier during the invasion of Hong Kong. LT confronted the soldier who told him that his father had not stopped when ordered to do so. The soldier had not known that LT's father was deaf.
LT's father left the family $200 in cash and 2 acres of farm land in China. LT's mother took the family to the farm where they stayed for the next three years. Life in China was hard for LT and his family. He would, in order to support his family, walk ten miles each way to sell vegetables at a roadside market.
LT was and is a powerful individual and his father's death did not cause him to hate nor did it effect his determination to succeed in life. LT returned to Hong Kong after the war where he took a job at a newsstand in the busiest section of Hong Kong. That job became a critical element in LT's life. Because he worked there: He learned English; he met people from all walks of life and he began arbitraging products that were in demand.
LT, still an incredible connector of people, used his new relationships to help him get started in the new business of plastics. In 1949 he recognized this new material as a major breakthrough and was drawn to it (and thought others would be) by the bright colors after the dark war years. LT was the first person to make plastic toys in China.
LT found a partner and developed hand and foot operated plastic extrusion machines. These non-electric, human powered instruments turned out Hong Kong's first plastics. LT went on to found factories in Hong Kong and was the first to set up a toy factory in mainland China following the easing of restrictions by the Chinese Communist leadership in 1976.
I asked LT if he wasn't taking a chance that the newly opened Communist China might just nationalize his factory. No, he told me, he was never worried. He believed in China. He knew change was inevitable. LT was right and today his state of the art factories produce toys for the world's largest toy companies.
There is not sufficient room here to tell LT's full story but the highlights include his invention of the Rubber Ducky (yes, it was LT who came up with that classic design); creating clothes for the doll look
alike the German Lilli doll that was the inspiration for Barbie and producing a joint venture with Hasbro that manufactured and sold Transformer figures in China. LT's factories today produce 60% of the world's Play-Doh for Hasbro.
LT received a life time achievement award from the Toy Manufacturers Association of Hong Kong in 1998. In 2010, he was again awarded a life time achievement award, this time by the China Toy Council in Beijing for his 60 years of doing toy business in China.
LT's 3 children, 6 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren have attended Cornel, Boston University, Tufts, Ithaca and the University of South Wales. Some are in the business so you may be seeing Lams in the toy industry in the 22nd century.
One final and very important note about LT; he is an extremely charitable person having endowed the LT Lam Research Awards at Cornell University: provided educations for Chinese underprivileged children; underwritten a library and having established the L. T. Lam Training and Research Centre at the Guangdong Toys Association which works with young Chinese children who are interested in entering the toy industry. He has, in short, accomplished (and is accomplishing much more) in giving back to his communities and the toy industry.
On a personal note, LT has been generous to me with his time, his friends and his memories. If you have the opportunity, make it your business to get to know LT. He is a giant of the global toy industry.
And, by the way; LT's first toy? It was a ping pong ball given to him by an American banker who employed LT's father as his personal chef in Hong Kong when LT was 4 years old. He cried when it broke.