Pewter with Panache - Malaysia's Royal Selangor
Peters, Helen Ann, The World and I
In 1885, a Chinese youth landed in Malaya with just a dream. Today, Royal Selangor, the company he founded in Kuala Lumpur, is the largest producer of fine pewter in the world.
A penniless lad of thirteen, all skin and bones, was one of many mainland Chinese who came to seek their fortune in Malaya in 1885. The fearless optimism of youth pushed him to embark on a sea voyage, fleeing the widespread famine and poverty affecting the Chinese peasant class.
Fast-forward to the year 2002. The cottage industry that this enterprising young man named Yong Koon started over one hundred years ago is now the largest pewterer in the world. The Royal Selangor pewter factory located in Setapak Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, now occupies about twelve acres and employs over thirteen hundred people worldwide. Approximately one and a half million individual pewter pieces are sold annually to customers all over the world, from Maine to Manila, Bombay to Brighton. Royal Selangor picture frames, candle holders, wine goblets, desk accessories, vases, and beer tankards end up gracing mantlepieces, dining tables, and boardrooms.
Royal Selangor is indeed a success story that can rival any rags-to- riches saga of European immigrants who came to the New World and within a few generations built up credible businesses. Chinese immigrants forged similar trails around the world, with many founding huge business empires and amassing untold fortunes. How did it happen in this particular case?
At the close of the nineteenth century, the world's largest and richest deposits of tin were discovered in the Malay Peninsula. The British, who were ruling Malaya, imported immigrant labor to work in tin mining. Scores of Chinese laborers subsequently came to Malaya. Their much- needed skills included making pewter from tin by adding copper and antimony, creating an alloy.
Among them was Yong Koon, who was descended from a family of pewterers from the province of Shantou. Taking advantage of the availability of high-grade tin, Yong Koon was able to make an invaluable contribution to his adopted homeland by creating exquisitely handcrafted ceremonial and domestic pewter items for wealthy clients. Today, his progeny are at the helm of this privately held company, steering it through the highs and lows of an increasingly competitive global marketplace. The managing director of Royal Selangor, Dato' Yong Poh Kon, is Koon's grandson.
The company, formerly known as Selangor Pewter, was incorporated in 1969. In 1979, it received the royal warrant from the sultan of Selangor, the ruler of the state where the company's headquarters is located, and changed its name to Royal Selangor. The company maintains a presence at major gift fairs in cities around the globe such as Frankfurt, Toronto, Sydney, and New York. Accolades have included the Design Plus Award in 1989 and 1991 at the Frankfurt International Gift Fair; the Formland Prize at Denmark's Formland Fair in 1989; and second place in the 1994 American Pewter Guild Design Competition.
Royal Selangor creations can be found in Harrods of London, Mitsukoshi of Japan, David Jones of Australia, and the Museum of Modern Art Gift Shop in New York City. They are exported to more than twenty-five countries.
At any one time, Royal Selangor carries an impressive catalog of about one thousand individual items. To keep its products moving and its line current, the company retires about fifty to a hundred slow-selling items each year, making way for new products on showroom shelves. This serious commitment to innovative design is the linchpin of the company's success.
Says Christopher Ponniah, manager of product development, "Our in-house design department numbers about thirty people, and these include designers, sculptors, and model makers. Anyone in the company can propose an idea for a design. …