Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Feature on tycoon Lui Che-woo

I've worked so long for the NYT, where everything goes online, that it now feels weird -- wasteful even -- to work for print-only publications.

The Peak, an SCMP glossy, doesn't post full stories online. That is their choice. If they want readers to pick up and pay for what they read, I don't want to deter that by posting everything on this free site.

However -- speaking personally  -- I have fun doing profiles, and am proud of my work. I want my articles to be out there in the public record, especially when I can flex my writing muscles in long-form features.

I've decided on a compromise: For magazines like The Peak, I will reprint my articles in full well after they've moved onto the next month's issue.

Here's my profile of Lui Che-woo, one of the richest men in Asia. I spent half the day following him around -- though a photo shoot, interview and lunch -- and found his rags-to-riches backstory fascinating.

The copyright remains with The Peak and the South China Morning Post Group. This came out in August.


Some tycoons build skyscrapers. Lui Che-woo helped build the very land on which the skyscrapers stand.

Lui, now 84, looks out the window of his penthouse office at North Point’s K Wah Centre – named after the K Wah group he founded in 1955– and gestures across the water at the vast sweep of East Kowloon that did not exist when he was a boy. Almost all of it, from the new cruise terminal up to the old airport, from Lam Tin to nearly Tsim Sha Tsui, was reclaimed from the ever-shrinking waters of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong’s bid to create more land.

In the distance, Lui can even see Tai Sheung Tok, the peak on the border of the New Territories that is home to the Anderson Road Quarry, where K Wah has spent decades extracting materials which have been used to make the concrete jungle of Hong Kong. “We opened up the very mountains,” he says. “It used to be done with picks, by hand, but we brought machines in.” On a clear day, you can see the deep indents marring the terraced hillside – though Lui concedes that, in today’s more environmentally aware times, there are now plans to replant and beautify the area.

While Lui has long been among Hong Kong’s rich, it was only quite late in life that he was catapulted into the realms of the world’s super wealthy. His business empire – which is now truly global, with 25,000 employees – has its roots in Hong Kong construction, property development and hospitality – and recently, Macau casinos.

According to Forbes' World Billionaires List on June 20 (the list is now updated daily), Lui's estimated personal net worth was US$17.3 billion, making him the third-richest person in Hong Kong. About three years ago, when the Galaxy Macau complex opened, he was ranked 14th in Forbes' annual Hong Kong rich list. He's since risen up the ranks – to No 8 in 2012 and No 5 in 2013 – largely because his family owns about 50 percent of Hong Kong-listed Galaxy Entertainment Group.

In many ways, Li Ka-shing – who remains the wealthiest man in Asia, known as “superman” in Hong Kong – and Lui, both well into their 80s, come from similar roots. Both fled as child refugees from mainland China in the 1930s and arrived in the then British colony of Hong Kong, where they made their fortunes by taking advantage of the city’s extraordinary boom in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. And both have given back to the community with extensive charity work, particularly in the field of education.


Lui’s philanthropy work began in the early 1980s, when he was the chairman of the Tung Wah hospital group.  Over the decades, his charitable causes have branched out from Hong Kong to mainland China and overseas – with a particular focus on higher education.

His name graces the law library at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), a historic complex at Fudan University in Shanghai, and a medical research lab at Stanford University in California. The Chinese University of Hong Kong named its Clinical Sciences Building after Lui Che-woo in 2012 following a HK$100 million donation. Lui was also one of the major donors who supported the building of the new University of Macau campus.

In addition to funding, Lui has used his experience to lend professional expertise to Hong Kong’s hotel and tourism schools, which barely existed a generation ago. Along with its stakes in Galaxy’s casinos and hotels in Macau, his family owns 13 hotels in the United States, including seven Hiltons.

“We have benefited from Lui’s invaluable insights and advice in developing our hotel and tourism programmes,” says professor Kaye Chon, dean of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management. “Dr Lui has also played a pivotal role in facilitating our efforts in raising hotel management standards in mainland China. As academics, we constantly seek to explore new frontiers, new endeavours and to pursue research excellence.”

One of Lui’s most prominent philanthropic roles is as a long-time patron of HKU. Its law library – which holds Asia’s most complete record of United Nations materials – has been named after him since 1997, the tense year that Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese rule.

When the library was moved to the HKU’s new Centennial Campus in 2012, it was dedicated to Lui once again. “His name will be associated with one of the finest law libraries in the world,”  professor Johannes Chan, dean of HKU's law faculty, said at the 2012 ceremony. “The law library is the cradle of the guardians of our rule of law.”


Lui usually uses "Dr" before his name, in a nod to the honorary doctorates that universities have bestowed on him. But he is actually a high-school drop-out; and while he now engages in rarefied hobbies like writing Chinese calligraphy, he is basically self-taught.

Lui Che-woo was born on August 9, 1929 in Jiangmen, which is roughly between Macau and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province (still known at that time as Canton). Like many Cantonese of that generation, his family escaped the turmoil and poverty of the mainland and came to Hong Kong.

“I was four years old when we made the voyage by boat,” he says. “I was with my mother and father and grandmother. I remember seeing Hong Kong for the first time from that boat. There were so many lights. It was so beautiful.”

Lui was the eldest of six children – the sole big brother, with five younger sisters he helped to support.

“The Japanese came to Hong Kong when I was in Form One,” he says, referring to the military invasion on Christmas Day, 1941. “We were scared. We could hear the bombs whizzing and banging. We could see the Japanese soldiers outside with their long guns. First they took Kowloon, where we lived. Then they crossed the water and took Hong Kong Island.”

His father’s business suffered, as most local enterprises did. So the boy started working and eventually left school.

“I was 13 and I wanted to do business, too. It was really just child’s play – selling peanuts and candy on the street – but it was my start,” he says. The teen looked at the long queues of people waiting for permits to leave Hong Kong and saw a business opportunity in bringing food to those hungry lines. “If I sold them things to eat, then I would eat, too,” he said. “I just needed my two meals a day.”

By the time World War II ended in 1945, it seemed too late for him to return to full-time education. “I went to evening classes,” he says. “Thank God I learned a few words of English. But I never really finished school.” He attributes his own lack of formal schooling to his focus on educational philanthropy today.

His first real job was as the stock-keeper in a car parts shop.  Eventually, he bought his boss’s company – putting down half in cash and paying the rest in installments – and learned that the best way to make money was to import parts from overseas.

His first big business deal was the modern equivalent of turning swords into ploughshares – Lui found a way of turning surplus American military equipment into hardware for helping Hong Kong, which was struggling to construct enough decent housing for the quickly rising postwar population.

“There was a stroke of good luck – a Japanese connection took me to Okinawa, where the United States had lots of equipment leftover from the Korean War,” he says. “This was good equipment for digging quarries and filling in soil for reclamation. And the US Army sold it to me for cheap.”

His business broadened out to providing the vast amounts of construction materials Hong Kong needed, whether it was concrete for roads or water pipes for houses and businesses.

At about this time, he also married and had five children – three girls and two boys.

“I was quite strict with my kids from the beginning,” Lui says. “There are so many bad influences in Hong Kong. I spent much of their childhood working. But on Sundays, I’d try to take them swimming or hiking, so they wouldn’t be running around the streets.”

Lui made sure that his children had the education that he did not. His older son, Francis Lui, who is now a 58-year-old executive director of the Galaxy Entertainment Group, got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

However, he was not brought up like a typical boss’s son. According to a Forbes Asia special report, when Francis Lui finished his master’s in 1979, he returned to Hong Kong to work at his father’s company as a “low-level assistant engineer” who ate rice box lunches and took the bus like everyone else.

“Francis is a good boy,” Lui Che-woo said. “He knew it was hard on me, so he came back right away after school – he didn’t even attend graduation. He had his certificates sent to Hong Kong.”


Lui’s offices are what one would expect of a top businessman  – there are gleaming wood panels, a carpeted spiral staircase, a vast conference table and an oil portrait of a younger Lui in a tux. In a corner sits a stack of materials: Chinese-language Forbes magazines with Lui on the cover and a 400-page self-published bilingual biography called “Che-woo Lui: Philosophy of an Ordinary Life.”

He had been in meetings, photo shoots and interviews all day – and now he was hungry.  He and his staff filed down to K Wah’s car park, where he took his choice of Rolls-Royce, Bentley or Mercedes-Benz. (Today, he chose the Benz). He invited his staff, who followed in a white mini-van.

A man with Lui's net worth could take a helicopter to his vast casino empire in Macau for an opulent lunch every day without making a dent in his budget.  But Lui says he only goes to Macau nowadays if he has reason to be there.

Personally, he prefers the Hong Kong Old Restaurant in the basement of the mid-priced Newton Hotel in the Fortress Hill area. He’s clearly a regular and the staff don’t seem particularly fussed about serving a billionaire – in fact, Lui was happy to hobble over to a corner table before the waiter pointed out they had a private room free.

He and his staff ate family-style, sharing vegetarian rolls, chilled pigeon in Chinese wine, fried fish and a big bowl of homemade chicken soup – Chinese comfort food. With his personal assistant, he had the sort of in-depth discussion that only Hongkongers can have over the state of the city’s wonton shops (verdict: high rents have doomed them).

He skipped wine and dessert – and he hesitated with his chopsticks before taking a piece of stewed pork layered with fat. “I’ve gained weight,” he joked with his assistant.

“You should play more golf,” she shot back.

She showed him photos on her cellphone, and he talked about his
12 grandchildren.  

Lui, who's still chairman of Galaxy Entertainment Group, says he had no intention of slowing down, even though he turns 85 in August. However, as Francis Lui takes over the day-to-day running of the business, Lui Che-woo is turning more of his focus on philanthropy.

When asked about his support of education, Lui seems more interested in talking about his grass-roots charity work than his high-profile university donations.

“Of course, you have to give to universities,” he says. “But the root of the issue lies before that. If you don’t have good primary and middle schools, what’s the point of universities?

Lui announced earlier this year that, through Galaxy, he hopes to donate more to local schools on the mainland.

“In Kunming, I saw a woman carrying her son on the edge of a dangerous road,” he says. “They were so poor ... they didn’t even have enough clothes. This area was so backward – and, with no education, they would never get out of their rut. They didn’t ask me for money, and I won’t get much credit for giving it. I gave it from my heart.”

When Lui came to Hong Kong in the 1930s there was only one university – the elite, English-medium University of Hong Kong. Now, there seven universities and a much more literate public. However, there are upsides and downsides with every development – and Lui has spoken openly to the media before about what he sees as a major gap in the city’s labour force.

“Hongkongers have high expectations in terms of education,” Lui says. “Hongkongers don’t want to do lower-level work, say, in construction or hospitality. So the Hong Kong government has a challenge – because every society needs high-, middle-, and lower-level workers. There is a reason there are so many Philippine, Indonesian and Indian workers here – because we need the workers.”

He is also critical of both Hong Kong’s exam-focused education system, as well as what he calls “new ways of teaching.”

“The government spends so much money on education; they should give some money to moral education,” he says. “So parents know that their kids will be on the right path.”

Friday, October 10, 2014

My freelance stories: When it rains, it pours

Such is the life of a freelancer. I wrote and wrote and wrote all summer. I wrote all September. Barely anything came out -- and, as a consequence, barely any money came in either.

Then suddenly today, October 9, six of my articles were published at the same time. So here they are.

Photograph by Jerome Favre, courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries

For The International New York Times, I interviewed Gonkar Gyatso, a Tibetan artist now showing at Pearl Lam Galleries. His stuff is pretty interesting - he uses pop culture materials (for example, kids' stickers) to render Buddhist images. The story is online here. It's also in this morning's paper.


I have three lengthy features for The Peak, a glossy run by The SCMP. They don't post their stories online, so if you want to read them, you have to buy the magazine. I got my own copies from Dymocks this morning.

One is on venture philanthropy, a cross between venture capitalism and charity work. I didn't know much about this until I started researching the story a couple of months ago, but there are teams of charity-workers at private banks whose job it is to hook up rich clients with needy causes. I spoke to global giants like HSBC and UBS, as well as more boutique companies like Lombard Odier and LGT Venture Philanthropy, (loosely tied to the firm formerly known as The Liechtenstein Global Trust)

Also in The Peak is an interview with Michelle Ong, the head of the First Initiative Foundation, who works with stars like the pianist Lang Lang and the soprano Renee Fleming to fund cultural and education projects in Hong Kong. Her latest event was the Hong Kong premiere of Ann Hui's new film "The Golden Era."

Finally there's a profile of the local artist Tsang Kin-wah, whom I've been following for years. 

 Courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

All writers have their favorite stories -- and I found this one the most fun to do. Magazines like The Peak usually focus on the rich, so visiting Tsang in his humble one-room studio/home in Fotan was a breath of fresh air. He's the guy who will be representing Hong Kong at the next Venice Biennale. 

Writers don't generally get to write our own headlines, so it's nice when a good one comes along. The Peak's headline for the Tsang story was "The Sacred and The Profane," which I love. Plus, they let me know use the f-word, which the Times does not!


I've begun a fledging culture column for Harbour Times, a niche publication that mostly runs policy news for government / diplomatic / consular types, plus certain segments of the business commnity concerned with local politics. Their stuff is usually pretty heavy. So I met with their editor in August about inserting something lighter and more cultural.  After all, government types must do something for fun. (Or, at the very least, even the most philistine must go out for dinner). And both local and foreign governments fund interesting events in town.

The latest Harbour Times issue -- out today, probably available at the Bookazine newsstand tomorrow -- is strong, due to all the Occupy Central coverage. 

This issue, I wrote about Hong Kong's love of K-pop and the  Festive Korea, which runs through November. Expats mostly hear about festivals like Le French May, but Festive Korea draws in hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers a year. 

 Photo: Rowley Leigh outside the new resaturant. Swire Hotels.

Then there's a short article (I usually call these  "briefs") on the number of British chefs opening restaurants in town. Rowley Leigh, the Financial Times food writer, is helping out at The Continental, opening soon in Pacific Place. And, as everyone already knows, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have recently opened.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What now for Hong Kong? A week of protests in pictures

We've seen extraordinary things happen in Hong Kong this week, as mass democracy protests took over downtown.

We saw incredible crowds...   
(Second photo down: Steve Lo. Lighting photo: Bloomberg)

...an unlikely 17-year-old stand up to the Chinese government,
(Joshua Wong photo by Alex Hofford/European Pressphoto Agency)

.. some pretty great protest fashion, 
(Mister America photo by Alex Ogle. Ninja robot photo by Channel News Asia)


... extremely polite protesters,

.. and unexpected side-effects from having no cars downtown, like clean air and clear pedestrian walkways.
(Chart from the Clean Air Network)

Our hearts broke as we watched volleys of tear-gas thrown on non-violent, unarmed protesters - many of them students.  And then we saw an angered crowd come back even stronger. 
(Below photo: Bloomberg)

We watched as thugs were sent in and things turned ugly... 
(Top photo: NOW TV screen grab. Bottom photo: Sam Tsang/South China Morning Post)


... and once-idealistic students broke down, terrified and disappointed, in both their police and government.

In mainland China, they presumably saw very little at all. 

The question is: Now what?
Tonight was undoubtably a high - Admiralty was home to an anti-violence, pro-peace rally filled with song and light.

But, inevitably, there will be more lows to come. The government has set Monday as a final deadline -- and I think it's serious this time.

More riot gear is being moved into place. The police are exhausted, nervous, and pushed to their limits.

And it's not like there aren't more thugs left on the sidelines. 

Worse of all, the length of the protests is beginning to alienate the average folk it they were supposed to defend.  The goal was to convince not only the government, but also the public.

And if you lose the shopkeeper, taxi driver, construction worker, housewife - who has gone a week without work or school for the kids  -- then you have squandered your good work.

Several weeks before Occupy Central, I met Professor Benny Tai in his offices at the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Law, as I was helping a U.S. documentary film crew set up an interview. I asked if he really thought Beijing was going to back down on the initial issue - whether they could vet candidates for the 2017 vote.

He gave me a wry smile and basically said no. He was a realist. He knew Beijing wasn't going to say "Oh, O.K. You can have democracy tomorrow."

So what was the point?

He said it was for the long term. If we did nothing, nobody would even realize that 2017 was an issue. He wanted to drum up attention, and let China know that Hong Kong didn't take things quietly.

If those were his original goals - to stand up for ourselves, to increase public awareness and support - then they have been achieved. Joshua Wong, the teenage student leader, said early on that they had already achieved more than they could imagine.

Whether you are for or against the protests, we are all pretty clear that the government is not going to give in immediately. The fact that the city was overtaken for a week was already more than anyone could have expected.

Hong Kong now has to weigh how to deal with a partner, Beijing, that is not going to play fair or play nice. How far do you go, especially with protesters as young as 15, before being brave becomes needlessly dangerous and counter-productive?
It's time to clear the streets - for university students to go back to studying, for struggling shops to see customers again. It's time for the police and courts to charge those who instigated violence. It's time to sit down with the many different sides in this complex case. And they should do it before either a harsher crackdown is used, or when the city's breaks down from protest fatigue.

I am not saying that these movements - Occupy Central, Scholarism or any others - should give up. On the contrary. But they have to be tactical and intelligent if Hong Kong is going to achieve its goals. 

I wish it were as easy as sitting on the streets day and day, but it will need more than that.


Caveat: This blog is entirely my personal opinion. I am not writing here for the New York Times or anyone else I work for. I also don't have the copyrights of all the above images, which I mostly got from social media. If you see a photo that is yours and needs to be credited (or is mis-credited, or needs to be removed) please let me know.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Q&A with Christie's photography expert

This Q&A with Philippe Garner, Christie's expert in photography, also appears in the September "Landmark" magazine. (Photo: "Glass Tears" by Man Ray. Article copyright: Hongkong Land.)

Sometimes (rarely in Hong Kong), you get a subject so eloquent, concise and witty that even a brief "phoner" interview is a pleasure. Philippe spoke to me from London.


Q. How did you begin?

A. My first photography auction was also the first of the modern era, in 1971. I was 22 years old.

Q. How has the market evolved over all those years?

A. If you look over several decades, there are shifting patterns of availability. When I started in the business, we focused on 19th-century works, which became ever rarer. Then we shifted to avant-garde works of the ‘20s and ‘30s which are now scarce – so many collections have gone into museums.

In the last decade, the strength has been in works from the post-war years. There has been a dramatic increase in the appreciation of photographs by Robert Frank, William Eggelston, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn.

Q. Can you talk about some of Christie’s headline-making sales, like the Man Ray that sold for $1.2 million in 2013? Or the Richard Avedon portrait of Dovima modeling Dior and posing with elephants, which sold for 841,000 euros in 2010 in Paris?
A. Those exceptional pieces might catch the public attention, but they reflect a wider interest. We see a strengthening, a broadening of the market.

Q. What is popular now?

A. The highest prices for photographic works have been in the contemporary art context. When a Man Ray sells for a million plus, that is a record for Man Ray – but contemporary artists can sell for several million. However, there is a relatively small cast of these artists: notably [Andreas] Gursky,  [Cindy] Sherman and [Richard] Prince.

Q. Do you have major Asian collectors?
A. We’ve had some significant Asian buyers, most specifically Japanese, Hong Kong, and Korean buyers. The strongest interest is from Japan, where photography is a major part of the culture. Mainland Chinese buyers are statistically negligible at this point. 

Q. Aren’t collectors worried that they may not be buying an original work, like a painting?

A. One concern newcomers have is questions of relative rarity – the idea that photographs can be produced ad infinitum.

To create beautiful prints is a high craft. Production is more limited than they imagine. Take Man Ray, for instance. In the ‘20s, he would make a tiny number of prints per negative. You can count them on your fingers.

Q. What advice would you give new collectors?
A. The subject is very wide – it is one-and-three-quarters centuries old. It’s like saying ‘I want to collect paintings. Where do I begin?’
They should hone in on a particular period, subject or artist. And they need to be familiar with what is in the marketplace. 
Q. What’s special about photography?
A. It’s a window into the world and into history. I’m living evidence that photography is an engaging subject. Once you’re hooked, there’s no known cure.
Christie’s next major photography auction will be on Sept. 29 in New York.

More writing: Old shoemaking guys

After nearly a decade in the bubble that is the International Herald Tribune / The New York Times, I am dipping my toe into other publications.
There's lots to get used to -- for example, the fact that many local magazines don't automatically put everything online, like the Times does. 

Here's a short, sweet profile of a Hong Kong family keeping a generations-old shoe-making tradition alive.  The article appears (print only) in the September issue of "Landmark," a glossy magazine you can pick up free in -- you guessed it -- the Landmark mall. Photo credit: Gareth Brown. Copyright: Hongkong Land.

"If the Shoe Fits: Kow Hoo continues to keeps Hong Kong’s shoe-making traditions alive, as Joyce Lau discovers

Hanging in the doorway of the Kow Hoo Shoe Company’s small Prince’s Building shop is an entire crocodile hide. If a customer were interested in turning it into a pair of shoes, it would be sent to a Quarry Bay workshop  to four sifu, or craftsmen, so elderly that they can only work three or four hours a day meticulously punching tiny stitches through the leather.

Kow Hoo is the last business in Hong Kong to make entirely custom-made, hand-made shoes. There is no menu from which to choose designs, just a pile of leather and the customer’s imagination. 

“Many of our clients draw the designs themselves,” says John Lau, Kow Hoo’s director.

Kow Hoo was founded in Shanghai in 1928 by Lau’s great-uncle, who moved to the then-British colony of  Hong Kong in 1946. The business was then passed to Lau’s father, and finally to Lau himself. “I watched them work as long as I can remember,” Lau says. “As children, we’d play in the workshop. I started working there when I was 20.”

The process of perfectly fitting a shoe to an individual takes several months and costs about $11,000.

First, Lau measures the feet – not only the length, but also the width, shape and circumference of the instep. He then creates a “last” or unique 3-D model; originally, “lasts” were sawed from wood, though modern ones are cast in plastic.

A sample shoe is made with a cork and cardboard sole and a cheaper leather top. The customer comes for a second fitting, and Lau adjusts for idiosyncrasies like a high arch, flat feet, uneven legs or a desire for a “secret” internal heel to boost one’s height. “Because they are hand-made, we can make minute adjustments,” he says.

According to Lau, “English-styled soft formal shoes with European leather” are the most popular. 

“Most of our leather comes from Italy, some from France,” explains Kitty Wong, the store’s manager. “Some people want a very soft shoe, so we use the leather that’s usually used for clothing, like leather jackets.”

A good shoe can last for decades, says Lau, so long as the owner is diligent in replacing the sole and bringing it in for repairs.