Michael Chugani says the Teresa Cheng scandal has led him to question why Hong Kong’s ultra rich prefer to keep their wealth, unlike their counterparts in the West. A conversation with the city’s third-wealthiest man shows there are exceptions
Who would have thought that embattled justice secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s illegal structures would reawaken public anger at how Hong Kong’s rich live?
We know from Cheng’s upscale homes that she is wealthy but nowhere near our tycoons who belong to a class of their own. Once admired for their rags-to-riches stories, they are now mocked by many Hongkongers.
Our tycoons have amassed immense wealth but what always strikes me is how they cling on to it, passing it down to their children instead of giving it back to society. America’s super rich have amassed even greater wealth. The difference is that most have pledged to give it away. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, even asked Twitter followers for philanthropy ideas.
Why are the top donors in The Giving Pledge, started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, all Westerners? Surely that should shame Asians. I have long wanted to ask an actual Hong Kong tycoon upfront why Asians pocket their wealth while Westerners give much of it back to society.
When property and casino magnate Lui Che-woo of K Wah Group obliged, I wondered if I would get straight answers. But that’s exactly what I got over a lunch of takeaway fishball noodles with Hong Kong’s third-richest man.
A huge cultural difference steeped in politics and tradition is why Gates can give away his billions with his children’s blessing while Hong Kong’s tycoons keep their fortunes in the family. Western parents ask their children to make their own way when they come of age but Chinese parents don’t ever want their children to leave home.
That reminded me of how accustomed ordinary Hongkongers are to seeing the offspring of the rich fight over the family fortune. I don’t know if cultural differences will dissipate enough for our tycoons to become like Gates or Buffett but my sit-down with the 88-year-old Lui was like a breath of fresh air.
He pressed the point that he started with little, made a lot, and now wants to give back to the world that enriched him, quoting the Chinese saying that you gain more by giving than receiving. He reminded me of my time in Seattle seeing Gates speak so passionately about easing world hunger and disease.
Instead of dividing his vast fortune among his children, Lui has his own version of a giving pledge – the nearly HK$20 billion Lui Che Woo Foundation through which he does his philanthropy work. His offspring run different businesses and channel profits to top up the foundation.
The HK$4 billion LUI Che Woo Prize has a different mission – handing out HK$60 million a year to winners who have helped advance world civilisation in different ways. It’s relatively new compared to the Nobel Prize or Shaw Prize but is the most generous in prize money.
When you have nearly two hours with a property tycoon who likes to talk about giving, it’s not easy to switch subjects.
But I needed to hear from a property tycoon if home prices in Hong Kong – the world’s highest – will ever ease. He gave me a straight answer. With the mainland’s 1.4 billion population and the growth of the Greater Bay Area, there’s so much money coming in that it’s hard for prices to drop.
I never thought I would hear a property tycoon say the rush to build nano flats is unhealthy but Lui did. Homes have to be at least 300-400 square feet for healthy living. And he was brutally frank about Hong Kong’s disillusioned youth. They already have a lot compared to his own past when a dim sum meal was like a banquet.
Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host