New book pays homage to Cheng Yu-tung, Hong Kong tycoon who enjoyed helping friends, goldsmith apprentice who once upstaged Donald Trump

By Lam Ka-sing kasing.lam@scmp.com / https://www.scmp.com/business/article/3089910/new-book-pays-homage-cheng-yu-tung-hong-kong-tycoon-who-enjoyed-helping?utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=contentexchange&utm_source=EdgeProp&utm_content=3089910 | June 23, 2020 2:41 PM SGT
Cheng Yu-tung left behind a US$16 billion gold and property fortune when he passed away in September 2016, spending the last four of his 91 years bedridden after a brain haemorrhage.
Much has been written about the boy who fled his mainland Chinese hometown in Guangdong province to Macau ahead of the advancing Japanese army in the 1940s, or the tycoon who once bested his business partner Donald Trump in a US property deal.
Yet, little is known about the personal traits of the man who built the Chow Tai Fook and New World Development fortune in Hong Kong. Friends and staff this week pay homage to the man who was not only focused on growing his family business but also took time to help those in need, who enjoyed golfing, a benevolent employer who played occasional pranks on friends.
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Cheng Yu Tung: A lifetime of diligence, integrity and dedication, a biography commissioned by the family in 2016, arrived this weekend. It sheds light into some parts of his personal life, business philosophy and friendship through Hong Kong's arguably most prosperous era at the turn of the century when property prices skyrocketed and the economy boomed on China's economic tailwind.
Cheng Yu-tung, chairman of New World Development, announced his retirement to the media September 2012. Photo: SCMP alt=Cheng Yu-tung, chairman of New World Development, announced his retirement to the media September 2012. Photo: SCMP
The rare nuggets are recounted by the city's two richest men " Li Ka-shing and Lee Shau-kee " in the preface to the book. Notes from 58 other interviewees, including New World's Employee #1, present the book as an unmistakable if belated eulogy.
Li writes in the preface that even though they had different personalities, they never had any conflict throughout their 40 years of friendship. Cheng enjoyed chatting with his peers, and was famous for dragging those conversations well past midnight.
Other recollections are bittersweet. Cheng readily changed his schedule to discuss business with Li on Saturday afternoons, allowing him to enjoy his golf at the break of dawn. Li was once "pranked," rushing to Cheng's residence upon words that he was very ill, only to find him playing poker instead of taking a rest.
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Cheng was tenacious in pursuing his business plan. Once Li persuaded him not to overpay for a hotel land at an auction, as he thought the price was no longer reasonable. Cheng stood firm, having already found a party to co-invest in the project for the long term.
Lee Shau-kee, founder of Henderson Land in this 2015 file picture, remembers in the preface to a new biography. Photo: SCMP alt=Lee Shau-kee, founder of Henderson Land in this 2015 file picture, remembers in the preface to a new biography. Photo: SCMP
Lee Shau-kee, the founder of Henderson Land Development, echoes Li's view. Cheng had an extensive network of friends and never hesitated to help others in need. Many of his unforgettable memories come from several business trips with Cheng, doing charity works together and years as golfing buddy, before the latter's health conditions deteriorated.
Stewart Leung Chi-kin, the first employee hired by Cheng at New World Development, followed the tycoon for 40 years, rising through the ranks to become its group general manager and executive director, before leaving the group in 2011.
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"He was frugal as a self-made businessman and very much trusted me, letting me work on major projects on my own," Leung said in the book. Leung said Cheng always vouched for him, telling business partners: "For what Leung Chi-kin promised you, I'll definitely be responsible for that."
Stewart Leung Chi-kin, who was Employee #1 at New World Development, followed Cheng for four decades. Photo: Dickson Lee alt=Stewart Leung Chi-kin, who was Employee #1 at New World Development, followed Cheng for four decades. Photo: Dickson Lee
Outside the book pages, Cheng came across as a skilful mediator and a 'prankster' of sorts according to the recollection of Li Ka-shing, said co-author Wong Wai-ling, a Hong Kong University researcher who interviewed Li in late 2019 as part of her research for the book.
"Li said [Cheng] was bold, emphasised integrity and had a spirit of brotherhood. When friends were in trouble, he willingly offered help," she said. "When doing business, there are usually a number of people involved," Wong said, citing Li. "Cheng always tried to relieve tensions around business conflicts, giving his best to make everyone a winner."
Patrick Mok Kin-wai, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science at Hong Kong University, was impressed by Cheng's trust in his staff and his deep friendship in the business world that enabled his group to prosper.
Other interviewees in the book recalled a "naughty and lively" person during his early years, and painted a youngster who liked to tease his father-in-law, the goldsmith who took him in as an apprentice.
"My father's experience is actually a good reference for our younger generation," said Peter Cheng Kar-shing, chairman of the Chow Tai Fook Charity Foundation and one of the four siblings who penned some views on their father.
"He never complained even when he was tired," he said, adding that the siblings regretted not spending enough quality time or having "in-depth conversations" with their father.
The book, in Chinese, went on sale on Saturday.
With additional reporting by Olga Wong
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.