Header image courtesy of Camel
Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s was very different from the city we live in today. Many home-grown brands dominated the regional and international market with “Made in Hong Kong” goods. Camel was one among many iconic manufacturers.
Founded with a singular, humble product—a vacuum flask—the brand gradually became a household name due to its functional and decorative products. Now, as one of the few remaining historical companies, Camel persists in the public consciousness as a reflection of our industrial golden age and conveys a sense of nostalgia for many in the city.
We spoke with Raymond Leung, the third-generation CEO of Camel, about the origins of the brand, its evolution, and future plans for the iconic vacuum flask brand.
Officially established in 1940, Camel was a new contender in the already booming vacuum flask industry of Hong Kong. Why the name? Established during WWII, the founder of Camel wanted a symbol that not only alludes to the function of its products—albeit by playing into a common misconception—but one that also represents resilience. “My grandfather knew it was difficult to start and keep a brand going. So, he chose the idea of a camel to remind himself and his colleagues that the road [ahead] was going to be tough. The camel is very resilient and is able to sustain itself—funnily enough not by holding water but by storing fat.”
Camel halted operations shortly after its establishment in 1940 until the end of WWII. Camel rode out the rocky financial and political times before successfully launching its first product in 1947—the iconic 147 vacuum flask, a model that is still in use today.
Right from the start, the brand put its consumers at the forefront of its business model. At the time, energy was a scarce commodity that not many families could afford. Most households could only boil water once per day. In a culture where “boiled water can heal a hundred ills” (白開水能醫百病; baak6 hoi1 seoi2 nang4 ji1 baak3 beng6), finding solutions to keep hot water hot and cold water cold was essential. Vacuum flasks were amongst the many inventions of the era that worked towards this goal.
After producing its first flasks, Camel quickly branched out, manufacturing other insulating products. Hongkongers might be more familiar with the ice buckets produced in the 1950s and 1960s targeted at a Western and South Asian market, as well as food jars for the busy factory workers, perhaps even the bespoke stainless-steel flasks and plates used in hotels.
Camel’s operations went global with the Cold War. Now known to Western countries for producing large-volume insulating containers, Camel’s first international order was to manufacture tiffins for the UK’s Royal Air Force during the 1970s, where pilots could store their hot food during long-haul, overnight missions. Countries in Scandinavia were also Camel customers, purchasing smaller tiffins for food delivery to elderly homes. The brand’s largest flask—2.5 litres in volume—was sold to Western European countries’ train enterprises where tea and coffee was served to passengers. With its varied catalogue of products conceived for different types of consumers, Camel’s namesake resilience and adaptability shines through. As Leung put it, “As the market changed, we changed with it.”
Those old enough to remember the brand’s peak years would recall the wide range of fashionable, vibrant imagery that decorated the flasks’ bodies. Hand-spray-painted by artisans in the past, Camel’s earlier designs showed a mature level of craftsmanship that defined many “Made in Hong Kong” products during the city’s industrial boom.
Popular and trendy designs were favoured in order to cater to local consumers. One of the most crowd-pleasing patterns over the years was the old school floral design. Floral flasks functioned not only as a container, but doubled as interior décor to liven up many working-class family homes in the 1970s and 1980s.
Other popular series include references to contemporary pop culture by depicting historical and mythical characters, such as from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms book series, and the Sanxing celestial deities (三星; saam1 sing1; “three stars,” colloquially known in Hong Kong as 福祿壽; fuk1 luk6 sau6; names of the three celestial deities, literally “blessing,” “good fortune,” and “life”) as well as symbolic animals from Chinese culture.
“I found quite a lot of stencils which had different types of birds and phoenixes [depicted], obviously the phoenix is more for marriage and other celebrations. So, very typical Chinese imagery, but also things that we just tend to like, we will put that on our flasks,” said Leung.
“My favourite one [would be] one of the phoenix types with ‘double happiness’ (囍; hei2; made up of two characters for happiness; double happiness is associated with weddings and is a wish for double happiness of marriage and childbirth). Partly because I think it’s very colourful, but more because I think I just admired the technical side of it. It is so difficult to get so many colours on one flask—you’re talking over 30 colours, so you’re spray-painting over with stencils 30 times, and it gives real depth to the image.”
Historically, each design was first executed by artists in oil pastels, before another artisan dissected the drawing into layers, and each layer was made into metal stencils. Tin sheets were cleaned thoroughly before applying an undercoat followed by the base colour of the flask. Only once this layer dried would the design be spray-painted onto the body.
“We will put on the stencil with a marker, so every time you put another stencil on, you know where to centre it. You’ll spray on the bottom-most layer, and you would spray about 15 to 20 stencils per pattern in general, a bit like you would in silkscreen or lino printing. And then you put on a lacquer [to finish it off].” Although this labour-intensive craft is no more on an industrial scale, remaining artisans have sought to keep the craft alive elsewhere.
Industries in Hong Kong slowly but surely died out in the 1980s, and whilst Camel is one of the few manufacturing brands that survived this purge, the ride has not exactly been smooth. Continuously producing iconic and fully home-made vacuum flasks well into the mid-2000s, Camel’s sole factory was forced to close in 2008 due to a lack of workers with the right experience. “We were the last glass manufacturers in Hong Kong in terms of vacuum flasks. We turned off the [glass] furnace in 2008, simply because there was no one else who wants to learn the skill. We had no choice but to close it,” reminisced Leung.
A lack of glass blowers was not the only issue that the manufacturer faced. In fact, in the region’s post-industrial landscape, other raw materials were increasingly difficult to source. “We’re not huge in terms of the number of products we make. Nowadays, you have to buy things in quite large quantities. Like paint—there were still a few paint manufacturers in Hong Kong, but they’ve all moved away from [the city]. So, in the past five, six years, I’ve changed paint suppliers three times, simply because they no longer carry what we need.”
After turning off its furnace, Camel’s old factory in Kowloon Bay was quiet for a few years. However, Leung’s father had exciting plans for the complex that he built with his own hands. “In 2010, 2011, my father wanted to convert this factory into a hotel. Me being an architect, he wanted me to be involved.” Leung had not been brought up to inherit the family business, but there was still a fondness for the old factory when its demolition loomed on the horizon.
“My parents did a great job in ensuring we knew our roots. I remember, once a week, my father would take us to the factory to look at the process. I remember I used to—that was before the days of health and safety [regulations]—I used to play football with my brother on-site. This place was a desert—Kowloon Bay in the 1980s was nothing, this is reclaimed land, there’s no road, nothing around us—but my dad would keep us linked to Camel.”
“I was having dinner with friends in early 2000. [My father called and] said, ‘You must come over to [the factory]. There’s a fire in the furnace. You should come and see it.’ It’s not really fire, it’s the molten glass floating out, like lava from a volcano. He was saying, ‘You should see this, which is a rare thing to see.’ I was kept informed of things, in a different way.”
After an extensive period of renovation, Camlux Hotel finally opened its doors in 2013, revitalising the husk that used to be the old factory. Sandwiched between offices and industrial buildings, a humble, monochrome entrance greets visitors from the streets. A display of old plates repurposed into glistening décor follows them inside the property, showing the iconic logo and a world map marked with regions where the brand has distributed its products to.
The reception is decorated with prototype flasks, while the brick wall behind it is made up of “fire bricks” (火磚; fo2 zyun1; bricks that can withstand high temperatures required for glass blowing) salvaged from the old glass kiln. Recovered, broken flasks are repurposed into lights, and each room in the hotel features paintings of Camel products, and patterns of old blacking plates can be found on carpets. The wheelchair-access corridor is lined with photographs of the abandoned factory before its facelift, and past collaborations are displayed in the lobby.
“We did not make it very Camel-themed, initially. It was a bit of a struggle because Camel was not exactly [an easy brand to work with for hotels]. It’s very hard to be so focused on [the brand], but at the same time, I wanted to give some real truth to the design. Because this was a factory, there was no point in making it into like an ultra-luxury hotel. There are the little knickknacks, you’ll have little bits and pieces [of Camel].”
As Camel’s signature large flasks became more and more redundant in local households, the brand sought to develop newer products to keep up with the demands of present-day consumers without letting go of its roots. That is how the portable 112 thermos came to life. Launched when Leung took over the reins of Camel, the 112 followed not only the original naming method where “1” represents the volume of the flask (one fluid pound) and “12” represents the year it was launched (in this case, 2012) but also reprising the archived design of a portable warm drinks cup. For similar purposes, recent products tend to be smaller and more convenient to carry around, as well as being easier to clean.
Apart from tweaking its manufacturing direction, Leung also realised that Camel needed to be more present in the local market to triumph over its competitors. Promotional initiatives feature crossover collaborations with other iconic Hong Kong brands, including Vitasoy and Pacific Coffee (which sported the signature red-white-blue bag pattern) or the “Remix” programme with local design collective Get the Pong, offering products catered to younger audiences.
“Although Camel is a heritage brand, we need to have young customers and a young audience to make [our operations] sustainable. We can’t always be making old and retro products. Whilst there is always a market for this, we need to look forward, look ahead,” commented Leung.
The same goes for the unique craftsmanship that goes into manufacturing Camel products. To keep history from repeating itself, the brand regularly hosts vocational courses and workshops that teach skills specific to their trade. “We need to pass on the technical know-how; it’s important to have some kind of succession,” Leung emphasised.
In its efforts to keep itself relevant and present in the consciousness of city dwellers today, Camel recently hosted an exhibition at Maskology Causeway Bay, showcasing the brand’s spray-painting archives. The exhibition displayed a selection of iconic vintage flasks from the 1950s and 1960s alongside recent products. Older items were contrasted against a line of reissued flasks as well as original oil pastel drawings and metal stencils. The new “2023 FL” series revamped the classic 222 and 116 models with new colours in four retro designs, featuring floral patterns and birds that symbolise good fortune and auspiciousness—a popular wedding and celebratory gift in the 1950s and 1960s, a tradition Camel hopes to revive.
“The technology has changed, and the resources changed. The four reissued patterns are all done with UV printing. You still get that intricacy, but obviously it’s different. You still get this layering effect, and a bit of a 3D feel to it. But it’s not the same because every [flask] is the same. The spray-painted ones, those had slight variations. The imperfection is what we love these days. But I don’t want to mimic the imperfection, that would be a bit crass, and probably not possible. The exhibition is to showcase how things have changed.”
With its current trajectory, it is likely that Camel’s products will live on as they always have: a present yet humble staple in households. But this doesn’t mean Leung’s sights are set on containing Camel’s reach in Hong Kong—or in vacuum containers, for that matter.
“You saw the map [above the entrance of the hotel]? We used to export pretty much worldwide. Because business has been so different in the past 20, 30 years, obviously our spread has shrunk. But in recent years, we are getting a lot more interest abroad, so I think the mid-term goal is to re-establish some of these [links]. It’s a Hong Kong brand, but there’s nothing stopping us from going further abroad. What we have is technical know-how, and some space to do things. We don’t have to just make flasks and vacuum jars. We can test out other territories. If you have the heart to do it, you can make it.”