Sunday, December 23, 2001

Kwong Wah Chong Co. President Dennis Ho demonstrates the Confetti Celebration Tubes sold by his company. Confetti and streamers are propelled from the tubes by compressed gas.

Let it blow

A family business is launching a
different New Year's display

By Erika Engle

Dennis Ho is sure his new product is going to blow up.

It doesn't worry him. That's what its designed to do.

Ho, the third-generation president of Kalihi-based Kwong Wah Chong Co., is diversifying his 80-year-old business with the sales of a new confetti-launching tube in time for the New Year's holiday.

Founded by his immigrant grandfather in the 1920s, the company's core business is importing dried, canned and frozen food from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to distribute to hotels and restaurants.

Since Sept. 11, though, business is down some 40 percent, Ho said. "But before 9/11 it was rough, too," he said.

In an effort to evolve with the times the company introduced Confetti Celebration Tubes, as the sole U.S. distributor of the Chinese product.

Think of them as the 800-pound gorilla of the tiny party-poppers available at grocery stores, packaged in plastic bags and hanging from pegs near the champagne. In a clear plastic box, the purple tubes are about a foot long, roughly two inches in diameter and are fired by twisting the bottom of the tube.

"For us this is a new product," Ho said. "We're trying to stay afloat, too."

After a pop somewhere between a champagne cork and a bursting balloon in decibel range, the tubes launch showers of confetti and streamers. The devices use compressed gas as a propellant -- no gunpowder, fire or smoke.

Ho demonstrated the confetti- and streamer-launching tubes at the company's Democrat Street warehouse. The colorful, biodegradable, thinner-than-tissue paper shot about 20 feet into the air. Even with the breeze blowing into the open warehouse bay the confetti took its time -- more than 30 seconds -- to tumble to the ground.

The confetti and streamers are available in eight colors: white, green, blue, red, yellow, orange, purple and black.

University of Hawaii football and men's basketball fans are most familiar with the green and white showers of confetti and streamers from use at the games. The cheerleaders blast the colorful bits of paper skyward, or toward the rafters when indoors.

"I just thought they were a super-neat product that could add to the entertainment value of UH sporting events," said university Sports Marketing Director Jim Donovan.

UH bought four cases, 160 pieces, at wholesale.

"It's great for the teams' introduction or when they make a big score. It's a safe way to fire off a lot of streamers," Donovan said. "There's no gunpowder, they're really safe and pretty inexpensive."

Ho sees the launchers as part of a trend for safety and health reasons and in the face of efforts by some people and organizations to ban firecrackers.

The tubes are imported from China where they are used for parades, indoor concerts and weddings, Ho said.

"In China if you see some parades, the whole sky is filled," he said.

He believes they will be popular for other college and high school sporting events and graduations, among other celebrations.

Ho refuses to say where they can be purchased at retail and says he does not know their retail price.

This is not the first time Kwong Wah Chong has introduced a product to Hawaii. Ho claims it was the first Hawaii company to import frozen dim sum, the Royal Dragon brand.

"I started the U.S. distribution," Ho said.

However, the exclusivity was short-lived as Aji-no-Moto and other major companies developed and distributed their own lines, such as shu-mai and gyoza.

Dennis Ho's father, Ben and uncle, Clarence, ran the business until his uncle's death 15 years ago, and his father's death six years ago. Dennis had been on the management track at Liberty Bank, not planning a career in the family business.

The company has three employees; Dennis, his brother Rick and a worker that's been with the company some 20 years.

The generations-old business will likely end with him, Ho said, as he wants his son -- studying computer science in Washington state -- to be where the jobs are.

He expressed hope that his son, to graduate in May, will find a position during an upcoming job fair in Honolulu. However he does not expect his son to take over the reins of Kwong Wah Chong.

Ho shrugged his shoulders resignedly at idea the venerable family business would end with his generation.

He called it "reality," and added a truism from his grandfather.

"Sometimes dinner ends."

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