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.
THE SELF-MADE SCHOLAR
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
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.”