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!
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.