REVIEW Living large in Hong
Kong Walking the Tycoons'
Rope by Robert Wang Reviewed by
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
is sweet and Wang is living his dream, but he
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Kent Ewing is a Hong
Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached
at email@example.com. Follow him on
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