The greedy, giddy days of HK tycoons

Now, barriers to elite circle is higher, says author who offers an insider look at taipans

ST Feb 03, 2013

A 1995 picture of the Suntec City board in a book by Mr Robert Wang (back row, third from left). The board included tycoons (front, from left) Chou Wen Hsien, Lee Shau Kee, Run Run Shaw, Frank Tsao, Li Ka Shing and Cheng Yu Tung. — PHOTO: ROBERT WANG

By Li Xueying, Hong Kong Correspondent In Hong Kong

Along-held belief in Asia’s bastion of capitalism – that “greed is good” – is fast crumbling, says a man who for much of his life abided by this axiom as he strove to get rich.

“Hong Kongers are resenting that attitude now,” says lawyer-turned-businessman Robert Wang, not least because they feel they no longer have the opportunities to become rich the way the present elite did.

He should know. After all, in the giddy, greedy days of the 1980s and 1990s, the 68-year-old rubbed shoulders with Hong Kong’s richest men.

“It’s more difficult to become a tycoon today,” observes Mr Wang, referring to the “clannish” networks, cartels and other formidable entry barriers in high-yield industries like property.

And as the income gap widens further, this sense of impotence is fuelling “greater dissatisfaction and social unrest”.

“The opportunities are not there any more,” Mr Wang said in a recent interview. “I feel sorry for my children, let alone my grandchildren.”

The golden era of the past is captured colourfully in Mr Wang’s autobiography published last year. As he wrote: “Nothing is impossible in capitalistic Hong Kong. The important thing is to get on track. Anyone can then be launched into the orbit of tycoons, me included.”

Mr Wang was five when his family fled Shanghai after the communist takeover and headed to Hong Kong, a British colony at the time. Decades later, he was part of the gilded circle – only to be kicked out unceremoniously later.

His book in English, Walking The Tycoons’ Rope, is an insider look at the cut-throat world of Hong Kong tycoons – known here as taipans – and Mr Wang’s interactions with them. It also describes his meetings with some Singapore leaders – Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and then president Ong Teng Cheong.

There are colourful details of so-called Shanghai parties, where tycoons hook up with starlets, the mood swings of Asia’s richest man, the mercurial Li Ka Shing, snarky remarks feuding tycoons made about each other, as well as intimacies that powerful men shared.

For instance, Mr Wang recounts Mr Ong’s lament about the cancer that plagued both him and his wife – “we both live so simply and healthily it boggles my mind even to think about how we can both end up with cancer”.

Mr Wang also describes how he got on the inside track into elite circles in Hong Kong and Singapore.

In the run-up to Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, he petitioned MrLee to allow Hong Kong lawyers and entrepreneurs – all jittery about the city’s prospects under China’s rule – to have residential rights in Singapore.

Mr Wang recalls Mr Lee, who was not convinced that their fears would materialise, asking: “Why are you worried? What can be the consternation?”

But after a “gruelling” cross-examination lasting over an hour, MrLee agreed to the plan, telling MrWang: “I am willing to offer them (Hong Kongers) a bolt-hole. An unstable Hong Kong is not in our interests.”

In the end, Mr Lee was proven right – the handover went smoothly and most of those who signed up for the Singapore schemes remained in Hong Kong.

But having this option at the time, says Mr Wang, helped allay the fears of many who would have fled to faraway countries like Canada.

It also had the longer-term effect of “helping create an awareness of opportunities in Singapore among the Hong Kong tycoons”, many of whom thought that government-linked companies had a strong grip on the economy, making competition tough.

One immediate result was the creation of the Suntec group in 1985, whose 21 shareholders – among them property tycoons Li, Lee Shau Kee and Cheng Yu Tung, and entertainment mogul Run Run Shaw – invested in the building of Suntec City and its convention centre. Together, the shareholders held 40 per cent of Hong Kong’s market capitalisation.

Suntec City grew to a size not seen among Singapore malls at that point, attracting choice remarks from people such as Singapore businessman Ong Beng Seng, Mr Wang recalls in the book.

“When you have so much money, you just want to erect the biggest and tallest monument to immortalise yourself, as if it is going to be your last erection,” Mr Ong reportedly said.

As the spokesman and a director for Suntec, Mr Wang had a ringside seat to the rivalry between Mr Li Ka Shing and Mr Lee Shau Kee, both vying to be Hong Kong’s richest man.

“At times they were at each other’s throats,” Mr Wang wrote. “However, in business as in politics, there are no permanent enemies or friends. It depends on what serves the interest of the party at any given point.”

Mr Wang admitted he also sought to get rich by taking “the route all tycoons take to become who they are – you use OPM (other people’s money) to grow MOM (my own money)”.

But he overreached and got caught in the crossfire between the feuding tycoons, who would dispense with his services.

In Singapore, he offended banker Wee Cho Yaw over the sale of shares in a joint venture and also Old Guard leader Lim Kim San whose name was listed as a governor for a new club without his permission. The Singapore Hong Kong Club, Mr Wang had hoped, would be a platform for the two cities’ elites to meet, exchange ideas and perhaps invest together. Its launch was cancelled and Mr Wang left Singapore “in disgrace” for Hong Kong, where he continues today to tap his connections for business opportunities.

Looking back, Mr Wang muses over what was “a rich and exciting life” looking for and seizing opportunities, which he has captured in a book “for posterity”. The book, which has sold out its first print run of 3,000 copies, is now in its second edition.

But Mr Wang is worried that stagnating mobility and the widening income gap will make it difficult “to produce another Li Ka Shing”, who started out as a salesman.

In today’s Hong Kong, the rich can consolidate their wealth by simply “sitting back and collecting rent”. This sparks “great anger” from the masses, which then forces the government to distribute resources more fairly. Meanwhile, tycoons “fight to protect what they have”.

“It’s not a rosy picture,” says MrWang of the road ahead.

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