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From New York to Detroit

Arriving New York, February 2, 1946

Early in the morning of February 2, 1946, all the passengers were on deck.  When the Statue of Liberty appeared from the dense fog, everyone become quite emotional.  Finally we had reached the land of freedom.

When the ship dropped anchor at the pier near lower Manhattan, all we could see were the legs of people standing at the pier waiting for our arrival.  We were unable to see their faces because of the structure above the pier, so there was no way for me to know if anybody would be there to meet me.

Only after we descended the gangplank, was I able to see Mr Coleman himself waiting for me.  He took me in a taxi to a hotel near 98th Street on Broadway.  I forgot the name of it but it was similar to the Greystone Hotel which later all the Chinese student used.  After he dropped me off, he simply told me to see him in the office to-morrow morning.  He never mentioned a word of how to get there.  All he said was you had to find your way sometime so might as well start from to-morrow.

After I checked in the hotel, the first thing to do was to throw everything I brought away.   I only had one soft carry-on bag full of dirty clothing worn over 21 days without washing but also they were all sprayed full of DDT.  The only useful possessions I had then were what’s on me at that time.

The next thing to do was to send a wire to my parents informing them of my safe arrival.  It had been six months since I left Chungking 重慶 and some of my letters sent on the way never reached them.  So you can see how worry my parents were.

Early Days in New York

Since Hsing Chang arrived US before I did, he had enrolled at the Bucknell University and I saw him only when he comes to New York.  He and Mabel Chow were engaged so as soon as Mabel arrived from Shanghai, they decided to get married and I was asked to be their best man.  At that time, there were many Chinese students coming to the US from Shanghai, among them were Y L Yang 楊元龍 and Yungfong Tsai 蔡詠芳 who also got married in New York in late 1946.

My cousin Winifred came to U S in 1948.  She got married to Dr Dong Di in New York City in August of that year.  Winifred was working for UN and they went back to China after the Communists took over the mainland with the believe a new China was being born.

Later I learned that both of them met with unexpected events.  Winifred was labeled as a foreign agent and Dr Dong Di was betrayed by his colleague under the “gang of four” period, which pushed them to commit suicide together.  It was really a very sad ending.   

Chinese students in the US at that time roughly could be divided into three broad groups. One was those were sent over by their families before or right after the beginning of Sino Japanese War.  They were usually from well to do prominent families. Since US was under draft system, foreign students were not exempted, so many of them were either drafted or volunteered and became US citizens by nature of their having served the country.

The second group was the one to which I belonged.  Ones went from interior China to US via Burma and India.  There were very few of them and could be counted by fingers because it was impossible to get a student visa during the war, you had to be connected with the government before getting permit to go abroad.

The third group was those leaving Shanghai by boat after the war.  They were mostly students staying in Shanghai all during the fighting.  Mabel, Lucy and many more were all among them.

There were four Chinese Fraternities in the US – FF, AL, PL and RoSi.  I was first approached by my old schoolmate from Shanghai Eddie 譚鼎和 and Bobby Tan 譚鼎新 to join FF but after I went to New England and met H T Liu 劉漢棟, Nelson Chang 張南琛 and N C Chang 張乃昌, I was rushed, pledged and initiated into the New England Chapter of the AL Fraternity.  Later I became quite active in it.

My Training as a Professional

I went to three schools in the US.  Because of the WWII and the fragmented education I received, I had never formerly graduated from high school in Hong Kong or finished the freshman year at Chao Tung University.  My desire was to look for a school in the US where I can learn how to design things.  I didn’t know what course to follow and what school to look for, so nowhere to begin.  My father’s wish was for me to follow his footstep, just like any other fathers, to study engineering at his alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass while mother had never indicated her desired of what field I am to enter except get a degree from the US.  So, with my father’s introduction, I entered as a freshman at Worcester Polytechnic but after one year found it very difficult to fit in except a drafting course which the teacher exempted me on the first day after he discovered my skill in drafting.

Although the war was over, the US draft system still required all foreign students to be registered.  I did and went through the physical exam which gave me F4 rating.  This meant I was exempted from draft because of flat foot.  

After one year at Worcester, I discovered that what I was looking for was called Industrial Design and one of  the schools which was known for the course was Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.  So I decided to switch.  Starting from freshman year once again and I spent four years there getting my BFA degrees in Industrial Design.

By chance before I graduated, I learned about a school called Cranbrook Academy of Art which offers post-graduate degree in art.  It was part of an educational community founded by the Booth family of newspaper fame which also includes the Cranbrook Institute of Science and middle and lower schools for boys and girls.

Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan is the country's top ranked school offering graduate-only program in architecture, design and fine art. Each year, just 75 students are invited to study and live on the landmark campus designed by Eliel Saarinen with outdoor sculptures by Carl Milles, which features private studios, state-of-the art workshops, a renowned Art Museum, and 315 acres of forests, lakes, and streams. The focus at Cranbrook is on studio practice in one of ten disciplines: Architecture, 2D and 3D Design, Ceramics, Fiber, Metalsmithing, Painting, Photography, Print Media, and Sculpture. The program is anchored by celebrated Artists and Designers, one for each discipline, all of whom live and practice on campus alongside the students.  Among the well known designers-in-residence were Eero Sarrinen, Charles and Ray Eames etc.

I submitted my application in the form of a portfolio of my work at RSID and was promptly accepted.  So from Providence, Rhode Island I moved to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  I spent two years at Cranbrook, receiving my MFA degree at the end of the first year.  I remember in my thesis on the Social Responsibility of a Designer, I defended the role of market research in the design of consumer products for mass production and mass consumption and also justified the automobile industry using styling, or appearance design as part of planned obsolescence to create continuing demand.  Later when I went through my thesis in the Cranbrook Library, I found quite a few margin notes “think it over” put there by my Department Head, Ted Ludalauski.

Golden Years in Detroit 1950 – 1955

The early 50s was the golden years of automotive industry.  The famous saying then was “I rather be the President of General Motors than be the President of the United States”  GM at that time had 51% of the domestic market.  I was offered a job along with several others from Cranbrook at its Styling Section which was started by the legendary Harley Earl.  I was assigned to the Exhibit Design Department which was busy working on the Motorama Road Show. The Styling Section – later renamed Design Section – was a staff function like an in-house design service company so each GM division had its own account and can request certain designer to work for it.  I was assigned to the Buick Division which was exactly what I wanted.  Like a dream came true.

Our studio was located in an old warehouse under the shadow of the GM building on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.  A briefing was given to me on the first day. Three important points I could never forget.  I was told that usually new recruits would refer their new employer as General Motors at first, than after a few weeks, as the Corporation and finally as WE.  That would be the true beginning of your career with GM.  The second point was that now you were with the Corporation, you must dress accordingly, speak accordingly, and VOTE accordingly, meaning Republican of course.  The third one was if you had stayed with GM for seven years, you could expect to spend the rest of you working years there because by that time, your social life and business life would become one and the same and you could not afford to give up the vested benefit (that was way before 401K).

After the briefing, our boss Roy Kiefer followed by saying that in his case, his life has so intertwine with his career, If his boss Harley Earl asked him to shoot himself tomorrow, he would have no choice but go ahead and do it!

There were about twenty designers in our Section including a team assigned to Frigidaire Division designing refrigerators and Delco Division to work on radio etc.  As one of the team working on Motorama responsible for the Buick Division exhibits, money was of no consequences at all.  Because an average of $12 to $15 was spent on advertising for each car sold and only $1 was spend on exhibit and promotional material, many times our design was rejected by our boss because the cost was too low.  We had to redo it so it would be more expensive to build so that our Section could ask for a higher budget next year.

Behind the studio space in the warehouse, there was a workshop used to make models or mock-ups.  Everyday someone would take a few pieces of material, or parts of automobile out after work.  One day a new comer seeing almost everyone was free to do that, he timidly found a piece of nice walnut and wrapped in brown paper to carry with him home.  He did not expect that the boss was right there when he reached the front door.  “What’s that?” the boss asked.  He told the truth and was asked to unwrap the package.  The boss looked serious and said “ If you want to make a coffee table, why don’t you pick a better piece!” 

Another little incidence was when one day the boss made his round, he noticed one designer was using a particular kind of drawing pencil and said that the Section used to use this pencil but he hadn’t seen it for some time now.  The designer’s reply was “Yes, you are right, I had been bringing them home from the studio and now I am running out of storage space, so I have to take them back and use them”!

It was an unspoken law that the first car any new recruit got at employee’s discount would be a Chevorlet.  Only when you got promoted, you earned the right to trade up for a Pontaic, then Oldsmobile, Buick and ultimately a Cadillac. When I joined the group, I made the special request to have me assigned to the Buick division because that was not only my favorite car but also one of the most popular brands in China before the Japanese invasion.  Because the work I did for Buick during the first year was very much appreciated by the top management of Buick at Flint, Michigan, I was offered a Buick of my choice at a special discount.  I decided to get a new two door Century with a 200 HP power plant.  The Century was on a new platform introduced as a ‘sports’ sedan placed between La Sabre and Roadmaster.  It was the first time I ever felt the G-force when I ‘step’ on it.  You should see the surprise of my supervisor when he saw me driving in one day with that brand new Buick while he was in his Pontiac!

Racial Discrimination

The automobile industry was known for its discriminatory policy against the minorities.  There were no people of Jewish faith above the supervisory positions.  In the Midwest during the fifties, black was still separated from the mostly WASP communities.  Since Poles was the largest minority group in Detroit, many of the second-generation Polish descendents had to change their last name at the expense of being disowned by their own family in order to get ahead in the business world.

There was a black student in my class at Cranbrook and we could never eat in restaurants together. 

I ran into this personally when I first joined GM.  I was looking for a place to live and responded to a few for rent ad in the newspaper.  On one occasion, when I responded to a phone number, the first question asked by the lady on the other end was my last name.  After my reply, the lady told me that was a very strange name and there was no vacancy for me.  Later I found a room in a private home owned by two sisters, Helen Ellis and Irene Murphy at 444 Bonnie Brair in Birmingham.  Irene’s husband was the former U S Ambassador to the Philippines so there was no prejudice problem at all.  In fact Helen Ellis was so fond of me that I never forgave myself for not going back to visit her even once after I left Detroit especially for the fact that she and I shared the same birthday.

Another instance was when I and several others from our Studio including a Pole went looking at a new subdivision nearby Birmingham and decided each one of us was to purchase a house.  Price was agreed and preliminary contract signed and deposit made.  The next day, the broker who sold us the houses came to see me and the Pole and told us that he was ready to give us back the deposit and ask us to agree to cancel the purchase.  He makes no bones about telling us that if we as minorities bought into this subdivision, we would have lowered the value of the entire property.   He offered us another subdivision up north, which is being developed in exchange for our being barred from the one nearby Birmingham.  My Polish friend (later I learned that he changed his last name from Prezloywiz to Prelow before he got married and disowned by his own family) discussed the matter and decided we rather compiled with the broker’s request than fought the case further in order not to create an issue at GM.

Lessons in Marketing

The experience I gained at GM was not so much on design but rather in marketing.  The first project I was assigned to was the Motorama Show of 1955 which was like a traveling circus, the show opened at the Waldorf Astoria in New York then traveled to Chicago, Los Angeles and the last stop was Miami.  The entire ballroom floor of the Waldorf was literally made over even the massive chandelier was to be taken down.  The main Ballroom was used to show a full line of GM cars and trucks with surrounded ballrooms assigned to different divisions.  My assignment from the team leader was to develop a travel plan for the visitors so they would not have missed anything once they got in the entrance.  Naturally I started to work out a plan with the idea of getting the maximum number of people going through every corner without clogging the traffic.  When I presented the blueprint to my boss, I got not only a negative response but a lecture.  He told me that if I wish to keep my job, I better think it over and come up with the RIGHT solution.  He said because it was a free show, the purpose was to create as much publicity as possible.  The press would not be interested in the attendance record, but they would certainly report on how long the waiting line was outside the Waldorf.  So I had to come up with a traffic plan which would allow just enough people in through the side entrance of the hotel thus creating a long waiting line outside preferable stretching to the front of the Waldorf.  Lesson number one in marketing.

The entire Motorama show was carried in ten to twelve trucks, a crew was traveling separately to wait for the arrival of the caravan at each stop.  The design team only went to the premier to supervise the first set up, I was one of the team traveling on the 20th Century train from Chicago to New York.  Naturally I raised the question to my boss why the show had to go to West Coast then back to the East.  Why not covering the two cities on the East Coast and then go West.

The reply was the second lesson.  Because with ten or twelve trucks traveling on the highway, it became a stream of traveling billboard across the whole country.  Crossing the country twice, the advertising value was almost immeasurable.  As matter of fact, I was the one who design the graphics on the outside of the trucks and never realized the effect of it.

After the set-up of the Buick Exhibit at the Ballroom was completed, the top brass of Buick from Flint came down for the preview.  After I took them for a walk-through, one thanked me for a job well done and asked me why they felt that the Buick exhibit seemed to be the best among all.   I told them it was because I added more spot light in the room to highlight the items in exhibit especially the experiment car Firebird that I put on a turntable with a highly reflective brush stainless steel background panel.  So the Buick top man immediately said to me “ please double the lighting in the room so to make it even more outstanding” That was the lesson from Detroit on approach to better design.                      

So much for the Motorama.  Another team project I was assigned to was to design the interior of the Styling Section building at the new GM Tech Center at Warren, Michigan.  The architect of the Center was Erro Sarrinan, son of Eliel Sarrinan.  When we got to design the office of Harly Earl, we made a special note to make the door leading from his office to the adjacent conference room a few inches higher than all the other doors.  This was because it was a Detroit tradition that people grew up with the automotive industry with gasoline in their blood always kept their hats on even while indoor.  Harley Earl without hat already stood more than six feet tall.  With hat on it could be easily six and half feet.  So we thought that this would solve the height problem.  When we made our presentation and pointed out this fact, we were given a lecture by Harley Earl.  He said that we should regard his height as an assets and make this door a few inches lower instead higher so that he had to bend down to enter the room and when he straighten up he would use his imposing height to intimidate all the other persons already in the room.  Lesson three on design.  To hell with “form follow function”.   

The Civil War in China

After I left China, my parents went back to Shanghai from Chungking 重慶 and settled down at our old home on Yu Yuan Road.  T V Soong was made premier and he first asked my father to run the China Tobacco Company which was handed over by the Japanese and then to become the head of the commission to take over all the Germany properties in China.  In the meantime he also served on the textile commission under Tsu-yee Pei.  All this changed when T V resigned as premier and was appointed as governor of Guangdong 廣東.

The civil war in China was raging and in 1949 the Communist had taken over all of the mainland and the KMT government retreated to Taiwan.

The Displaced Persons Act

After the Chinese Communists declared the forming of People’s Republic of China, under President Harry Truman, US Congress passed a Displaced Person Act to allow those Chinese who were in the US and selected not to return to China because of the political change to apply for US citizenship.  I was in that category.  This was in line with the legislation that all foreign students in US during the WWII were subject to draft.

When I went to the Detroit District Court to apply in 1952, since I was born in November 1923 I gave my age as 30 as it is customary in the Orient that you count as age ONE the day you were born.  So the officer, counting backward 30 years, filled out my birthday as November 19 1922 which became official ever since while my actual birthday was November 19 1923.  The good part of this was that I would be eligible for all Federal Benefits one year sooner.

After I was sworn in as an US citizenship, I was given a “citizenship card” which very few people had ever heard of it let alone got hold of one.  Later I found out the reason was because there were so many workers living in Windsor, Canada and working in Detroit who had to commute every day, the Detroit District Court decided to issue its own ID card  the for convenient sake.  I regretted that later I lost it on a driving trip to Mexico on the West Coast.

In the meantime, my father moved our family to Hong Kong to continue running the CPTC before the fall of the Chinese mainland. 

After Communist took over, CPTC as a subsidiary of Bank of China also changed hands.  Half of its staff decided to stay with it but my father decided to join the KMT government and move our family once again to Taiwan in 1953.  Before that, with two of the senior staff from CPTC, he incorporated the G R Coleman Company in Hong Kong to continue his private business in textile machinery.

In 1954, he contacted with Mr W M Hunt and the G R Coleman, Inc  in New York and made a trip to the US to reestablish his former business association.

My First visit to Taiwan 1954

Since I had been away from home for nine years – from right after VJ day in 1945 to 1954 -- and I had gotten my US citizenship, I decided to take a trip by going back to Taiwan with my father.

Coincidentally, one of my Cranbrook Schoolmate, Niels Diffrient was working for Walter Buhl Ford II, Wally for short in his design consulting office.  Wally used to work for Harley Earl at GM as a designer but because his wife Josephine was the sister of Henry Ford, his future in GM was obviously limited.  So he decided to set up his own office and took four top designers from GM with him.  Niels talked to me about joining Wally’s firm and I thought it was a good opportunity to learn to be an independent consultant, so I accepted and the best time was after I returned from Taiwan.

I joined my father on West Coast for the flight to Taiwan.  We took the PanAm Airline flying in a Boeing Stratocruiser, which was derived from the wartime Flying Fortress B-25.  The flight made to stops at Wake Island and Midway Island before arriving at Tokyo. 

We spent two days in Tokyo staying at a hotel called Kawasaki, which was the best after the famous Imperial Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and was not damaged during the war.  When we were in Tokyo, my father first took me to visit the people at Bank of China which had not been taken over by the Communists.  The General Manager was Mr Chang 張武.  The next visit was to Fukuhara Precision Machine Company to meet Mr S Fukuhara.  That company was making lathing machines during the war and was prepared to concentrate on manufacturing circular knitting machines after Japan surrendered.  My father was a friend of the founder Mr T Fukuhara and was ready to help them to export the machines.

I at the same time visited the Product Testing Laboratory of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and was very impressed by the facilities to test the packaging of products for export.  They had machines simulating the cargo hold of trucks, trains, planes and ships so to ensure export packaging were properly packaged to withstand the transportation and arrived in good condition. 

In the early morning on the third day, we took the Northwest flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Taipei.  It took most part of the day to arrive at the Soon Shan Airport in Taipei.  Those were the propeller days.

My mother was at the airport with the company car and the driver waiting for me.  I knew she had been looking forward to this moment for a long time and was very happy that I finally coming home.

The House CPTC bought for my father was a typical traditional Japanese house with a garden at the back.  All four sisters of mine, Victoria, Rose, Jane and Helen together with my Aunt Cordelia were there to greet me.  It was a rare family reunion

My stay at home was about two weeks, then I flew to Hong Kong to meet the people at the G R Coleman Company, namely Mr T Y Chu 朱德輿 and Mr C T Yuk 郁照庭 the later was CPTC’s man at 廣州灣 when we went through there after escaping from Hong Kong.  Also I met my cousin Evan, his wife Irene Chou 周綠雲 who later became a famous artist and their son Michael and daughters Julia and Katherine.

From Hong Kong, I flew to Manila.  There I was welcomed by Virginia Yaptingchay who was a family friend.  She was at that time with the Central Bank and in charge of foreign exchange so was regarded as one of the powerful persons in the Philippines.
From Manila I took the PanAm Clipper back to the States.

Working for the Two Fords

I joined Wally Ford at his office at the Guardian House in Detroit on my return.  It was like facing the reality after days at GM.  Since Wally is the brother-in-law of Henry Ford, he got his job of designing the interior of the new Ford headquarter at Dearborn, Michigan.  I was assigned to do the interior of Henry Ford office on the top floor of the building.  Henry was the Chairman of Ford and he brought in one of the so-called whiz kids during the war Ernest R Breech as the CEO and the two of them shared one end of the top floor of the building.  Since Henry was the Chairman, his office is a few square feet more than the CEO’s.  He has one large office with conference area, a small bedroom and a private bath.  Before he was to move in, he decided to promote his second in command to the Chairmanship without giving him his office.  So at the very last minute, I had to come up with a way to give Ernest R Breech the extra square feet of space Henry had.  The only way to do that is to move the wall between the two back to back bathrooms. This solved the problem and everyone was happy with it but nobody noticed the difference.

By 1956, I believed I had enough experience to strike out on my own and New York was natural place to start.  Jim Ward, my classmate in design at Cranbrook was willing to take the chance with me, so the two of us went to New York and shared a rented apartment in a town house near the old EL – elevated train – on Third Avenue.  That was the beginning of my twenty years of professional practice as an industry design consultant.




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