A song well sung, Wing Sung
I remember the year distinctly – 1982, for it was the year that Michel Jackson’s Thriller was released. It was also the year when I had got my first Wing Sung fountain pen. Mind you, there was nothing great about Wing Sung pens even then, I already had the Parker’s and the Pilot’s of the world (mostly pinched from the elders), but the Wing Sung was like the moonwalk – everyone else in school was doing it – writing with one, that is. For Chinese pens, by some quirk of fate (however warped it may sound now) were known for their quality vis-à-vis the price!
It had a black (occasionally green or maroon) barrel, a golden hued cap (nothing fancy, just tinsel) and a hooded nib that generally wrote extremely fine. It came with a built-in squeeze filling system that was capable of carrying decent ink load. The “Made in China” tag where the cap met the barrel and the Chinese characters next to it (as well as in the ink filler) that provided the proud owner with a strange twang of using a “foreign” implement, for those were the days of rationing and import restrictions with strictly managed foreign exchange that forced Indians to desist from importing non-essential items. The pens must have been priced modestly as they were near ubiquitous with most of us having spare ones to carry us through the examinations. As a matter of fact, there were also the more expensive ones with their Triumph style wrap around conical nibs (known as “Crown Nibs” as the Wing Sung was crowned as the King of pens in China, we were told). Some even had a Ink Window around the barrel. Pity didn’t bother to find out anything else about the pen, before it faded out of our consciousness even as fountain pens themselves became obsolete.
Surprise it was, when I stumbled over a handful that had remained forgotten in the back of a drawer for close to four decades now. They were held by a rubber band that had withered away, but the pens were all there – dented, faded caps; dislocated nibs and even a cracked barrel notwithstanding. On an impulse, I flushed them, and the washbasin turned blue-black with the then de rigueur Sulekha (or at the best Chelpark) ink – replete with fond memories of another day.
Now that I see them minutely, I realise they were not even from the same maker, forget about being the same model and this is where the story takes an unexpected turn.
For, I still do not know who makes the Wing Sung Pens. The net leads me as far as a company in Sanghai which was later taken over by the makers of the Hero brand pens (The Sanghai Hero Pen Company). The Hero website is in Chinese and their contact email is dysfunctional. End of road. The local pen sellers too are in the dark and it seems Chinese pen manufacturers are mostly located in the Forbidden City of yore. The fact that no-one in the know wants to share information in the fear that their trade secrets will spill out and their competitive advantages will be compromised may be another big reason.
One plausible explanation behind this seemingly impregnable Chinese Wall of silence is extremely exotic, even. It suggests that there is no one manufacturer in China who can be matched to any particular brand and it is a kind of a free for all, which somehow explains the different quality points at which similar models from the same so-called brands are made available. Take a quick look around the net and the explanation gains credence. The innumerable permutations and combinations in which Chinese brand names are spelled in English too, may be due to this reason alone. A people who are extremely unconcerned about intellectual property rights apparently, are lax in their attitude to trade and brand names all the way, freely stamping any name that helps them peddle wares that were in the first place, “tributes” to the popular models of the day.
The pens however, write beautifully. Yes, there is a draw. Yes, the nibs are scratchy on the surface of the paper. Yes, there is that occasional blotching. Yes, some sacks have developed a leak. Yes, the hand that is used to wielding the Montblanc and the Sailors of the world, finds the feel and the balance of the Wing Sung’s a huge dampener. Yes, the plastic barrel and the tinsel caps are not what one would ideally find appealing, to the point of being pukka in understating things. But, why do I carry it so fondly in my shirt pocket?
Because it is a part of me. Because it was there when I was writing my first love letter. Because of the ink strain on my shirt pocket and on my fingers that I have missed these last forty years. Because it was as much a part of my formative years as was anything else. Because it was with them that I had given my Board Examinations. Because it had given my imagination Wings and had been there when my heart Sung, and there you are, Wing Sung! (Wing Sung literally means “Living Forever”?)
And that is exactly why I must know about the small nameless and faceless, commercially driven fountain pen makers of Communist China. How they created and sustained their brands? How these brands had done the Thriller in our hearts in India? What is the current status of these companies and the people behind them? More importantly, why did they not create their own pens when they were, and still are, so good with their “copy-cat” offerings? Wing Sung talk to me?