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    Greater China
     Jul 14, 2012

Living large in Hong Kong
Walking the Tycoons' Rope by Robert Wang
Reviewed by Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - In Robert Wang's rags-to-riches-to-ruins autobiography Walking the Tycoons' Rope, a poor boy from the Chinese seaport city of Ningbo becomes a successful Hong Kong solicitor and entrepreneur who rubs shoulders (and lots of cash) with some of the richest men in Asia, only to be stabbed in the back by this same cold-hearted group of billionaires.

It is a cautionary tale of greed and ambition and also a fascinating look back at a Hong Kong that no longer exists - that tantalizing, Westernized city of dreams for mainland immigrants who managed to escape the Spartan world of communism under Mao Zedong.

But the best line in the book belongs not to the author but to Li


Ka-shing, aka "Superman", whose personal wealth of around US$25.5 billion currently makes him the ninth-richest person in the world and the wealthiest Chinese person on the planet.

The relationship between the two men begins in the early 1980s, when Li, already a multibillionaire, engages Wang's increasingly successful law firm, Robert W H Wang & Co. Explaining his wealth to the solicitor, Li says: "Robert, there is so much money on the ground that I simply don't have the time to bend down and pick it all up."

Echoing the legendary tycoon, Wang somewhat alters the metaphor in describing his own good fortune in Hong Kong to a senior partner in his firm: "You only have to open the window and money flies in."

There's oodles of money flying all over the pages of this book, which reads in parts like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But Wang's story certainly doesn't start out that way.

It begins with brief and tragic narratives - gathered by Wang over the years at family reunions in Shanghai - of his family history in China.

In the first, Wang's fisherman great-grandfather from Ningbo goes to sea and never returns, leaving his family so destitute that his daughter feels compelled to "sell her stomach" (that is, become a child-bearing mistress) to a rich merchant when the family runs out of food.

In another, his wealthy maternal grandfather, known in Shanghai as the "King of Building Materials", loses his fortune in the Communist Revolution of 1949 and then his life 18 years later in the Cultural Revolution. In a third account, an aunt's mother sells her into servitude to pay off a gambling debt.

These are difficult and humbling family origins for a man who is destined to join the movers and shakers of Hong Kong. And things don't get much better after Wang's father, worried about the Communist takeover of China, manages to move his family to the British colony in 1949.

Five-year-old Robert, his three-year-old sister and his parents find themselves sharing a subdivided apartment with other disadvantaged families as his father ekes out a living as a poorly remunerated accountant.

The young boy is a witness to the street-side immolation of a European woman in the 1956 riots. A little older, he and a school chum find themselves tempted by prostitutes and exploring the gambling and opium dens in the lawless Walled City.

Then there is his first date (a disaster because he doesn't have enough money to cover the bill) and his ambivalent relationship with future famous martial-arts master and film star Bruce Lee (they attend the same school until the bullying Lee gets expelled for misbehavior).

Wang also recalls a "lost generation" of relatives displaced by triumph of communism on the mainland. One of them, the beautiful Aunt Mary, lifts herself and her husband out of poverty by agreeing to be the mistress of a British police superintendent. Her reward: The couple are invited to move out of their small, dingy apartment and into the superintendent's mansion on Kadoorie Hill - and they do.

In these chapters, Wang evokes the sacrifices and compromises - not to mention the rank corruption - that were part and parcel of life in Hong Kong during 1950s and 1960s. The young Wang soaks it all in, constantly embarrassed by his indigence and lowly status in Hong Kong.

Taking solace in signs offered by the Chinese zodiac that seem to promise him good fortune, he vows to himself that one day his shabby life will change and he will land on top of the heap.

Wang's first big break comes when his father is promoted to chief accountant. The accompanying rise in salary allows his son to fulfill his dream of going to university in England, although the meager allowance he is provided means that Wang's life as a student in London (first at Kensington College, then at the University of London) will be even more impecunious than it was in Hong Kong.

Indeed, weeks can pass for the author without a proper meal or bath. As members of his extended family in England by turns offer helping and hurting hands, however, Wang's dream of success never dies, and he returns to Hong Kong packing a law degree as well as an overweening desire to make money.

Meanwhile, he has married the beautiful Elaine, who will stand by his side (sometimes in bitter tears and disappointment) through thick and thin in the years ahead.

"Young man," a doctor friend of Elaine's family tells him soon after his return home in 1970, "you are in the right place at the right time. The timing couldn't be better. The streets of Hong Kong are paved with gold."

And the doctor turns out to be right. Soon enough, following the sage advice of his mentor, T O Liu, Wang has started his own law practice, which grows into the biggest in the city while he does business and wines and dines with Hong Kong's richest men and most beautiful women.

Life is sweet and Wang is living his dream, but he wants more.

In 1983, as the British and Chinese governments undertake negotiations for Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1997, he sees his chance. Recognizing the growing fears about the city's future felt by his fellow lawyers and their tycoon clients, Wang hatches the grand plan that he hopes will propel him into the billionaire ranks occupied by Li and other giants of the Hong Kong business world.

In the looming uncertainty, Hong Kong's elite are looking for a safe haven in case things go wrong under Chinese sovereignty. Wang proposes politically stable, prosperous Singapore as that bolt-hole.

Initially, Singaporean officials shoot down his proposal, but eventually - because of Wang's hard work and persistence in addition to the promise of billions of dollars in investment - first his scheme for Hong Kong lawyers to practice in Singapore is approved, and then a similar scheme for the city's "eminent entrepreneurs" is also accepted.

Hong Kong's biggest tycoons - Li, Chung Yu-tung, Lee Shau-kee, Run Run Shaw and others - jump at the opportunity Wang has provided for them; soon a company, Suntec, is born in Singapore, and its board of directors consists of Hong Kong's richest men - plus Wang.

Ironically, Suntec, Wang's biggest accomplishment, leads to his humiliating downfall as he is outmaneuvered by the board's chairman, Frank Tsao, in his quest for more power, and then manages to offend one of Singapore's richest men; at the same time, his marrtext/html; charset=windows-1250RECTiage to Elaine is falling apart.

Ultimately disgraced in Singapore, Wang winds up retreating to Hong Kong, where he receives a phone call from Li one morning informing him that he has been removed from the Suntec board, making him persona non grata in the same high-flying business circles that formerly had embraced him.

To make matters worse, it's 1997 and, though none of the nightmares about Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty have come true, the Asian financial crisis is threatening to sink Wang's law firm.

But he manages, barely, to keep the firm afloat and, subsequently, to make a dramatic comeback - in both his professional and personal lives - having learned a lot of hard lessons along the way.

While Wang's story is marked by some pointless digressions and the re-created dialogue - especially the extended debates/arguments between him and his wife - too often seems forced and false, there is no denying its narrative pull and the fascinating cast of characters it presents.

Also, its publication could not be more timely, coinciding as it does with a growing resentment among ordinary people toward the tycoon class in Hong Kong, which now has the largest wealth gap in the developed world.

Wang's admiration for Hong Kong's billionaires' club is at odds with the values of a younger generation, many of whom have begun to question whether his rags-to-riches life story is even possible in this city anymore.

There is no question, however, that Wang believes the Hong Kong dream is alive and well.

"Whenever a grandchild is born," he writes in his final chapter, "I get a new sense of hope as if a new tree has taken root; one day that tree will grow strong with many leaves, providing shade and cover for the family. I always think: 'Who knows? One of them may grow up to be another Li Ka-shing.'"

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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