Smooth Sailing in Southern China
Given that his family has been building boats since his great-grandfather started Cheoy Lee Shipyards in 1870, Hong Kong-based alumnus Martin Lo BID 84 knew he wouldn’t be looking for a job after graduation.
“My brothers and I had been contracted to be part of the company since we were born,” Lo explains. “We grew up at the yard, making things and playing around. We are trained in different disciplines, but we’re all hands-on people, working down on the shop floor with the foreman and the workers.”
Unlike his seven brothers, who are civil, marine and mechanical engineers, Lo approaches the business with an eye toward design. “At RISD professors taught me how to solve problems regardless of the project,” he says. “They taught me how to think critically and creatively – to look at all the angles.”
War destroyed the business twice – first the Sino-Japanese War and later WWII – but the family rebuilt Cheoy Lee and today it is stronger than ever. Its 1,000 employees currently build approximately 30 boats per year at the main production facility on the Pearl River at Doumen in southern China. The focus is on motorized yachts less than 60 meters in length.
Although Lo’s father was one of the leading industry proponents of fiberglass in the late 1950s, the company also uses steel and aluminum, in addition to modern resin-infused, foam-cored composites. “We use a combination of materials to achieve the best results,” Lo says, “and we hire designers from all over the world.”
The company’s customers hail from all over the world as well – Colombia, Argentina, Europe, the US, the Middle East. Cheoy Lee recently finished building 25 high-power tugboats for the Panama Canal that traveled the 10,000 miles to Panama – a journey that takes approximately 50 days, with a single refueling stop in Hawaii.
Back at the shipyard, Lo welcomed the RISD/Hong Kong alumni club for a tour of the facility in early May. It’s about a two-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, where Lo makes his home, but a number of alumni were pleased to participate in the outing.
“I am surprised by how big the group in Hong Kong has become,” Lo says. “In the 1980s when I was at RISD, there weren’t that many students from this part of the world. It’s nice that that’s changing and that alumni want to stay in touch.”
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