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Long And Nerdy Post On Guanleming's Pre-History In Nyc


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20 replies to this topic

#1 Seele

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 02:12

Being a bit of a nerd interested in history, the early story of Guanleming which started in New York City has always fascinated me; the lack of verifiable evidence and information has been vexing me for quite some time, until quite recently.

First I need to make sure that my fellow members understand a very important point regarding the Chinese language and its transliteration using Roman alphabets. The current system used in Mainland China is called "pinyin" which gives very accurate representation of how the Chinese words are pronounced, but it makes the assumption that they are pronounced as in Mandarin, also known in the Mainland as "Putonghua". This makes it tricky as Mandarin is one of more than 200 variants of the language, all other ways of pronouncing the same words are totally ignored. Nowadays the firm is spelt as "Guanleming" but how it was pronounced originally could bear no resemblance to that at all.

Furthermore, the information available online about the early history of the company appears to be much in wanting: it seems like many articles were cribbed from perhaps one or two primary sources, so they end up quoting each other without much hard information; I had to go through them with a fine tooth comb just to find them.

Here is what I can gather on the earliest days of the firm.

The Guanleming firm was established in NYC in 1926 by a Chinese-American called Guan Chongchang (1881-1961), and named after his young son Guan Leming. A southerner from Kaiping, Guangdong province, he was from an impoverished family, and followed his uncle (father's younger brother) to NYC in 1899 to chase his American dream. At first he studied to be a tailor, and then opened a small restaurant in 1906, at the age of 25.

He noticed that many Chinese-Americans still preferred to use the traditional brush for writing, but they were hard to come by in the US; he got the idea of integrating the brush with the self-inking design of the fountain pen, and proceeded to design one, and had his designs patented. In 1926, he sold his restaurant, and with investment capitals from his circle of friends, he started the manufacture of these fountain brushes locally, using pre-assembled kolinsky brush heads from China, and locally sourced components. He also made a newly formulated ink for these brush pens using local ingredients too. In 1928, he hauled anchor and moved to Shanghai, and the firm has been there ever since.

The above is a brief account of the firm's "pre-history", so to speak, I do not feel any strong reason to doubt all the fine details therein. But there are many assertions online which got me thinking for a long time, and I believe I have found the answers after some detective work.

No example of NYC-built products has been found so far, so we cannot be sure of the branding and markings used. But it is well known that the firm also used an alternate brand "Rockman", with a logo which is "WKR" in a circle, perhaps with additional markings such as "Made by Guanleming" in Chinese; some Chinese correspondents said it's a measure to facilitate export, but I feel convinced that it was a groundless speculation. Prior to WWII China's industry was lagging behind the rest of the industrial world. One of the reasons for Guan to relocate to Shanghai was that the buying public felt a need to support local industries, thus making the social and economic situations favourable. But imports were still quite strong, and local makers were in no position whatsoever to think about export at all.

Further investigations revealed that WKR stood for William K. Rockman; but who was he? Looking at yet another Chinese source revealed another snippet of information. Traditionally, Chinese people have alternate names, Guan Chongchang's original first name was Weilin.

Here is the interesting part: being one from the deep south he would not have pronounced it in the Mandarin way. I do not know if his hometown Kaiping had a specific local tongue, but I know if it's pronounced in Cantonese - the language spoken in the provincial capital of Guangdong - it would not be "Weilin" but closer to "Wailam"... see how close it is to "William"?

Likewise, his last name "Guan" was - and still is - rendered in alternative ways including Quan, Quant, Gwan, and mostly commonly in the south, "Kwan". An example is the actress Nancy Kwan whose father's side was southern Chinese and her mother's side was Scottish. So the K in William K. Rockman could very well stood for "Kwan".

The evidence is starting to build up: William K. Rockman and Guan Chongchang were the same person; Guan was known under the name William K. Rockman in the US, but nowadays with retrospect, the Mainland Chinese rendered his Chinese name in Pinyin, thus totally obliterating the clues hiding inside.

This also explains why I totally failed to find any writing instrument-related US patents within the mid-1920s timeframe attributed to anyone with the name Guan, Quan, Gwan, Kwan etc, because as far as the US was concerned, it was not his name at all. A search for patents issued to William K. Rockman immediately came up with two: US patent 1,526,093 dated 10th February 1925, and US patent 1,621,432 dated 15th March 1927, both pertaining to fountain brush designs: the evidence is indeed mounting up!

Reading the patent description is even more interesting: both of them described the designs as for writing in Chinese, and the 1925 patent stated explicitly that the inventor William K. Rockman, was "a citizen of the Chinese Republic residing in New York City, in the State of New York". This was the Eureka moment! :eureka:

With these evidences it also seems extremely unlikely that the name of his company in NYC was spelt as "Guanleming" at all; I do not have access to company registration records in NYC, but it would be a very neat idea if a NYC-based member can look up the records, for a firm established in 1926 by one William K. Rockman....

Edited by Seele, 29 November 2012 - 20:53.

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#2 hari317

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 05:52

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. What might have been the reason for this gentleman to move to China? Chinese Migrants in the US wanted to support makers based in Chinese mainland?

Have you contacted the noted collector David Nishimura? From reading his blog it appears he is also very interested in such topics.

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#3 Seele

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 06:17

Thanks for your appreciation, Hari.

The 20s and 30s was a turbulent period in China, when a search for a new national identity was in full swing. Part of this involves supporting a local manufacturing industry when practically all products were imports dumped into the Chinese market. In this respect, most of the pen makers of consequence were founded at about that time.

The first pen manufacturer in China was Guoyi, founded in Shanghai in 1926, later renamed Doctor, and now a part of Hero. Guanleming was the second to be founded, followed by Huafu - now Hero - in 1931, Golden Star in 1932... and others to follow.

So it was a time when the demand for local products was tremendous in China, and Guan Chongchang spotted an opportunity there; the fact that he's of Chinese descent certainly helped a lot too.

I am aware of some of David's work but I haven't been in touch with him; actually the idea of comparing notes with him did not pop into my head at all... :embarrassed_smile:

Edited by Seele, 29 November 2012 - 06:22.

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#4 rwilsonedn

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 20:04

Fascinating story. It must have felt wonderful to see the pieces drop into place.
Whatever Guan Chongchang's reason for moving to Shanghai, his timing was perfect, given the economic catastrophe that struck New York and the rest of the US the next year. One doubts that such a small, specialized company could have survived long after the crash of 1929 and into the following depression.
ron

#5 Seele

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 21:06

Ron,

It certainly seems like Guan and his firm managed to avoid the immediate impact of the Wall Street Crash by leaving the US, but his career - and that of his company - fell into a rollercoaster ride from hell since his move to Shanghai too. With the benefit of hindsight, it's quite amazing to see how it managed to survive at all: while the demand for local products was there in the first decade of operation in Shanghai, local materials were not even available, they had to source them from Japan - who was the enemy at the time - using a lot of cloak-and-dagger operations. The firm was only able to source totally local materials and components during the war. In 1950, immediately after the establishment of the PRC, the company's assets and staff were loaded into trucks and sent to the far north-east to establish Youlian (Alliance Pens), so they had to start all over again in Shanghai, and that's just for starts!

By the way I also tried to look up the 1920 census records and was not able to find Guan/Rockman's entry in NYC; there is the speculation that the name of the firm during the NYC days was "Wm. K. Rockman Inc" but I was not able to track it down either.

Interestingly, Guan Leming was never interested in the pen manufacturing business, and was never involved with the company bearing his name. He died quite young, in 1945. He was definitely born in NYC, but I have no idea under what name; if his given name written in English was, say, Abe B. Rockman, then the firm's should not be transliterated into "Guanleming" at all.

Edited by Seele, 29 November 2012 - 22:49.

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#6 rwilsonedn

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 19:50

Ron,

It certainly seems like Guan and his firm managed to avoid the immediate impact of the Wall Street Crash by leaving the US, but his career - and that of his company - fell into a rollercoaster ride from hell since his move to Shanghai too. With the benefit of hindsight, it's quite amazing to see how it managed to survive at all: while the demand for local products was there in the first decade of operation in Shanghai, local materials were not even available, they had to source them from Japan - who was the enemy at the time - using a lot of cloak-and-dagger operations. The firm was only able to source totally local materials and components during the war. In 1950, immediately after the establishment of the PRC, the company's assets and staff were loaded into trucks and sent to the far north-east to establish Youlian (Alliance Pens), so they had to start all over again in Shanghai, and that's just for starts!

By the way I also tried to look up the 1920 census records and was not able to find Guan/Rockman's entry in NYC; there is the speculation that the name of the firm during the NYC days was "Wm. K. Rockman Inc" but I was not able to track it down either.

Interestingly, Guan Leming was never interested in the pen manufacturing business, and was never involved with the company bearing his name. He died quite young, in 1945. He was definitely born in NYC, but I have no idea under what name; if his given name written in English was, say, Abe B. Rockman, then the firm's should not be transliterated into "Guanleming" at all.


I hope you are planning at least a paper, if not a book, on this subject. Your research is fascinating!
ron

#7 Jamesbmorley

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Posted 01 December 2012 - 07:30

My appreciation for my inexpensive guanleming 2001 demonstrator has just shot up thanks to your research. :thumbup:
With thanks

J. B. Morley

#8 Seele

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Posted 01 December 2012 - 08:13

Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for your appreciation!

I can hardly write anything of consequence due to the lack of original materials; the war has not been terribly kind to historians studying subjects on China; unfortunately I have to rely on secondary - or worse - sources, and that is hardly good enough.

Being somewhat conversant in the Chinese language, I have also posted in a pen enthusiasts forum based in Mainland China; while there were some comments, no additional information was forthcoming, except one member who said he has one of the early patented fountain brush pens. When he has posted the pictures I will ask for his permission to show them here.

In that post I have also included a recently arrived early Model 50 branded "Wm K. Rockman" but also marked "Made by Guanleming" in Chinese on the clip, made no earlier than 1937, which really needs a good once-over; I am not confident in tackling its restoration...

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Edited by Seele, 01 December 2012 - 08:16.

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#9 inkstainedruth

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 01:38

Fascinating article. I have three cheapie Guanleming pens and I had no idea that there was a US connection (other than the fact that I got them at Isellpens.com -- no affiliation other than being a happy customer).
Ruth Morrisson aka inkstainedruth

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#10 Seele

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 04:38

Ruth,

Although the true bloodline of the firm basically snuffed out in 1952, the successors of the brand haven't done too bad a job. Generally it seems that pens bearing the name are quite dependable too. Speaking for myself I would not mind getting a Model 102, or 103, or 961, or 700, or 304... or just a bunch of low-end 971 or 994 and give them away like confetti...

Interestingly, the Guanleming name is still extant and used by several firms. First there is Shanghai Guanleming Pens, with head office address just down the road from Hero's HQ. Then there is Shanghai Guanleming Ltd, engaged in ruby bearings for the horological industries: this might be closer to the true successor of the firm as it became the Shanghai Watch Components Factory. There is also the Shanghai Hirose-Guanleming Precision Machinery Co Ltd.

When active under Hero's ownership, the Guanleming brand, along with the Jinrong brand, was based in the Changsu works. I do not know if it is still extant, and if it is so, whether current Guangleming pens are manufactured there.
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#11 rwilsonedn

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 19:58

Your comment about extinction makes me curious about something. I have seen very, very few vintage Chinese pens for sale on the Web. Are vintage Chinese pens rare in China also, or is there an opportunity for someone to buy them in China and make them available to the curious in the rest of the world, much as some individuals have done for vintage Japanese pens?
ron

#12 Seele

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 21:27

Ron,

Apart from eBay, I also keep an eye on Taobao as well, and there are definitely more vintage pieces available. Understandably, during the early years, the manufacturers were working hard to keep up with demands in the domestic market, few were exported, making them hard to come by internationally. There are indeed dealers of vintage pens located in China, those who are web-savvy tend to list them in Taobao - and China-based forums at their buy-and-sell sections - as few have access to eBay/PayPal for international distribution, and then the vast majority of dealers just sell on a B&M, or collectors fair basis.

I was very fortunate to find that MKR 50 located in Canberra (our national capital); the vendor acquired a complete collection of pens from a local collector, and that one was among the many in it.

Actually I have used Taobao through one of the many purchasing agents around: here is how it works. I deposit an amount of funds in my account with them and then proceed to find items of interest. I fill in their purchasing order form with the item numbers and they purchase them from the seller, receive them, examine them and report on conditions etc. Once I want them to send them to me, they box up the items and send by courier; they charge a service fee about 10% of the value of the items (including shipping charges by the sellers), and the cost of shipping. It actually works out quite well and I acquired most of my Chinese-made pens like this. It goes without saying that it is worth making each shipment to be worth as much as possible, to cut down on shipping cost for each item. I might even contemplate making a new order exclusively of Guanleming/WKR pens that Todd does not carry, and then make them available to fellow members... but of course, vintage examples tend to be absurdly expensive.

The seller wants about US$300 for this:
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More sensible are modern ones like the 102 with 14K gold nib:
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The 700:
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So I say the successor still did a good job.

Edited by Seele, 05 December 2012 - 21:46.

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#13 mchenart

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Posted 12 December 2012 - 05:51

Three thumbs up for your investigative work, Seele!

I am a Cantonese and I do speak Mandarin. If I may offer my little observation, 'lemin' and Rockman may be one and the same name. You see, Guanlemin is obviously a Pinyin translation from the Chinese name. While there are many possible words that could be translated this way from the Chinese, my guess is that 'le' stands for 'happiness' and 'min' for people. If that is true, the Cantonese pronumciation of those two words would be 'log man', which could very possibly be Romanised into 'Rockman' for the American public. There is no 'R' in Cantonese pronunciation, and if you go to Hong Kong, you'll see many English names starting with 'R' are indeed translated into 'L' sounding words in Chinese. A case of 'Rain Man' and 'Raymond', for example.

The above conjecture will be given more weight if you can find out if the Chinese characters for 'lemin' in Guanlemin are indeed 'happy people'.

#14 inkstainedruth

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Posted 12 December 2012 - 19:52

Ruth,

Although the true bloodline of the firm basically snuffed out in 1952, the successors of the brand haven't done too bad a job. Generally it seems that pens bearing the name are quite dependable too. Speaking for myself I would not mind getting a Model 102, or 103, or 961, or 700, or 304... or just a bunch of low-end 971 or 994 and give them away like confetti...



I'm not familiar with any of those. I have the three that are sold by isellpens.com: the #978 (Accountant); the #193 Calligraphy pen), and the 2001 Demonstrator. All were $5 US (no affiliation with isellpens other than being a happy customer).
The demonstrator is what it is; if the barrel cracks I'm not going to worry too much. I bought it for the "suggested" usage -- the designated pen for Noodler's Bay State Blue (which looks *great* in a clear barrel :clap1:, and I don't care if it stains the pen).
The Calligraphy pen goes in and out of rotation. Haven't entirely got the hand of the swoopy nib, but it sure makes my handwriting (read: relatively crummy printing :embarrassed_smile:) look a lot better than it is! :lol:
My favorite of the three is the Accountant, which has a metal body and a hooded nib, and seems a lot more substantial than the price would suggest (I impressed the heck out of a friend of mine last night with it -- he was surprised that it actually had tipping and wasn't just a folded over nib). And while I wouldn't normally match ink to pen barrel, it does look really swell having De Atramentis Tchaikowsky (silver grey) coming out of it.... :cloud9:
Ruth Morrisson aka inkstainedruth

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#15 Seele

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Posted 13 December 2012 - 01:43

mchenart,

It's a Chinese habit that ignore the original non-Chinese name of whatever it is, and then transliterate the Chinese version (or rendition) of the name into English, or whatever language it's meant to be. A familiar example is Kaigelu: it is originally "Kangaroo" but the transliteration in Chinese would sound like "Kaigelu", so written in latin letters it became "Kaigelu" rather than "Kangaroo".

The same situation happens here: the real name of the firm could very well be "Wm K Rockman Inc" or whatever, but the Chinese ignored it completely, and transliterate its Chinese name into "Guanleming" as if it's the real English name.

What is worth noting is that "Leming" is 勒銘 , which literally means "to carve/make one's mark in stone"; it's a name created by someone who's well versed in classical culture, which is surprising that it was given to his son by someone who apparently received only rudimentary education.

Here is the problem: if Guan Chongchang arrived in the US as an 18-year-old and his son Leming was born after he got married there, the time scale would be all wrong. He would not have thought up "Leming" for his future son when arriving in the US and had it rendered as "Rockman" and then used it as his family name. I am not saying it is impossible, but its likelihood is pretty low, to my mind.

Ruth,

The models commonly available in the US, courtesy of Todd, is only a small vignette of the history of the firm; they're not, of course, designed and built to showcase their virtuosity in pen making, but they are indeed impressive beyond their prices and intended aspirations. Perhaps that's what makes a pen - or any product - a good one.
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#16 Sailor Kenshin

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Posted 13 December 2012 - 14:21

This. Is. Awesome!

Thank you so much for doing the work! I currently own and happily use four modern GLM pens, including the demonstrator and the fude. Tremendous value at the price!

#17 Seele

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Posted 14 December 2012 - 08:02

This. Is. Awesome!

Thank you so much for doing the work! I currently own and happily use four modern GLM pens, including the demonstrator and the fude. Tremendous value at the price!


Thanks Sailor Kenshin for your appreciation; while I do not have an extensive collection of GLM (or should we call them WKR?) pens, I am definitely contemplating the validity of addressing this situation; at least I would like to get the late 1930s WKR 50 sympathetically restored. It's probably something quite sentimental and evocative to think about a youngster in a strange land, with an adventurous idea, stir in a bit of American enterprising spirit, Shanghai savvy, southern cunning, and all played out on a stage of the turbulent decades in China; perhaps that adds an extra dimension to the pen in your hand, beyond the intrinsic values of the precious metals in another one a thousand times costlier.

Edited by Seele, 14 December 2012 - 08:48.

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#18 pienaar

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Posted 18 February 2013 - 00:18

Ruth,

Although the true bloodline of the firm basically snuffed out in 1952, the successors of the brand haven't done too bad a job. Generally it seems that pens bearing the name are quite dependable too. Speaking for myself I would not mind getting a Model 102, or 103, or 961, or 700, or 304... or just a bunch of low-end 971 or 994 and give them away like confetti...

Interestingly, the Guanleming name is still extant and used by several firms. First there is Shanghai Guanleming Pens, with head office address just down the road from Hero's HQ. Then there is Shanghai Guanleming Ltd, engaged in ruby bearings for the horological industries: this might be closer to the true successor of the firm as it became the Shanghai Watch Components Factory. There is also the Shanghai Hirose-Guanleming Precision Machinery Co Ltd.

When active under Hero's ownership, the Guanleming brand, along with the Jinrong brand, was based in the Changsu works. I do not know if it is still extant, and if it is so, whether current Guangleming pens are manufactured there.


I have had few Guanleming pens and I liked them. Really one of my favorite Chinese pen labels. I might look for another Demonstrator. But I also have a Shanghai watch with the standard movement.
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#19 suexilin

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Posted 18 February 2013 - 03:17

Absolutely fascinating! :clap1:

To me it read like a Dan Brown style mystery, with theories, questions, and people coming up and offering clues :)

Great job on finding out the history of the company!

I am very new to fountain pens, and have not paid much attention to where they actually come from and why, and I do not own any Guanleming pens, which is a situation bound to be rectified. ;)

#20 Seele

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Posted 18 February 2013 - 13:02

suexilin,

Thanks for your appreciation!

This brief account of Wm K Rockman's history is actually much briefer than I liked it to be; for quite a number of years when it went through some management changes, it became involved in some serious political intrigue: cloak and dagger stuff no less, where the firm turned into what was essentially a cover for certain politically sensitive characters. I did not have enough confirmed information so I could not get into that in more depth, but it would be interesting to see if more primary sources can turn up.

It sure seems like I am going to acquire more pens by the firm as well. Come to think of it, a novice collector would probably not feel short-changed if he concentrates on this one brand alone!
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