[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]


ASIAWEEK (28 November 1997)
They can party even if the region is in pain
By Alison Dakota Gee/Hong Kong

ASIA'S SWELLING RECESSION hasn't cramped Brenda and Kaibong Chau's style.
That becomes clear when they cruise up to their Hong Kong island mansion
Villa d'Oro (House of Gold) in their pink Rolls Royce. Cecil, the
Filipino chauffeur, emerges first in his smart pink uniform and politely
tips his matching pink cap. He opens the back door and the ebullient
Chaus arise from the Rolls's pink leather interior into the sunlight.
Once inside their home, they show off a stunning 180-degree view of Hong
Kong harbor and a collection of what must be among the priciest and --
yes, it should be said -- gaudiest bric-a-brac and works of art in the
world. Consider the portrait of Brenda constructed from hundreds of
cultured black Japanese pearls, a work that took the artist six months to
complete. "A Chinese Mona Lisa!" marvels an adoring Kaibong. 

For Asia's flagrantly rich, the currency and stock market crashes of the
last few months will have had little impact on their lifestyles -- even
if their paper wealth is substantially smaller. The Chaus, in fact, are
not big speculators. "Not since I got my fingers badly burnt in the
1970s," says Kaibong. They now keep their wealth, most of which comes
from their families -- Brenda's father founded one of Hong Kong's major
bus franchises; Kaibong's was a prominent doctor -- in conservative
mutual funds and real estate. Both Chaus are solicitors, though neither
practices any longer.


Kaibong says he knows many of his friends lost money in the slumping
Asian markets: "But they keep silent. They don't lament. They know they
will regain it at some point." Dr. Barry Connell, a Hong Kong-based
psychiatrist with many wealthy clients, has a theory about such stoicism:
"A lot of these guys who have made all this money are strong. Otherwise
they wouldn't have gotten to where they are." Perhaps Asian culture is
also responsible. "I've been very philosophical about the crash," says
Kavita Daswani, a South China Morning Post columnist whose family is
wealthy. She moves among Hong Kong's moneyed Sindhi Indian community.
Daswani suffered from the tumbling markets. However, coming from a Hindu
tradition, she has tried to "stay detached. I can't do anything about it.
Besides, God is great. He'll make a little deposit when my back is

Such an attitude contrasts with that of the nouveau riche, says Connell.
He fears the falling markets may send a few new and aspiring millionaires
into downward psychological spirals. "If a person has a life that is
solely contingent on money, then losing it is completely destabilizing,"
he says. Meanwhile, some see themselves as little different from those in
the middle or lower classes -- except that their bank accounts are
larger. Says one Asian tycoon: "I am not a rich man. I am a poor man with
money." The Nizam of Hyderabad, Southern India, was believed to be the
wealthiest man in the world in the middle of this century. Yet he walked
around in tattered clothing like a transient, rolling his own cigarettes.
It is common in Hong Kong to find lap sap loi yan (garbage ladies) who
continue cleaning office toilets even though they already own several

Such eccentricities are not unique to wealthy bag ladies. Asia is rife
with stories of personal spending habits run amuck. In Indonesia,
developer Ciputra is said to be such an avid collector of European
paintings that he now has to hang new acquisitions on the ceiling. Pansy
Ho Hui, daughter of Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho, says she started
collecting rubies, emeralds, diamonds and sapphires when she was 4 years
old and now spends an average HK$1 million ($129,000) on every piece of
jewelry. A British-born Chinese lighting designer reveals he is routinely
sent on globetrotting searches for "the wealthy look." What is that? "The
most expensive piece of bad taste I can find," he says.

Others are motivated by competitive impulses. Legend has it that as a
child, tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung was particularly sensitive about
British rule of Hong Kong. He vowed to work hard enough to buy a home in
what at one time was an almost exclusively colonial waterfront
neighborhood. Once he made it, he erected a huge stone wall so that, he
reportedly said, he could avoid looking at British people. Billionaire Li
Ka-shing's personal mission was to build a property company that would
surpass the British-owned Hongkong Land. He succeeded with Cheung Kong.

Indeed, Hong Kongers stand out for their near-universal drive -- and
ability -- to make money. It might stem from the fact that many of them
have felt, at least until recently, virtually stateless. "Money became
their passport, their membership into any elite club," says Flora
Cheong-Leen, a successful Hong Kong fashion designer. "Hong Kong Chinese
were the first Chinese to stand up to the world," she adds. "They did it
with their money." 

Singapore's wealthy are not as much into money for its own sake,
maintains Richard Eu Yee Ming, the 49-year-old manging director of
Singapore-based Eu Yan Sang Group, which has been selling traditional
Chinese medicine for more than a century. He reckons his and his wife's
combined income place them among the top 2% of Singaporeans. "Singapore
is pretty low-key. Hong Kong has the more flashy lifestyle. Here we're
very sober and egalitarian. You'll find millionaires eating in [food]
hawker centers."

One prominent Indonesian tycoon, who asked not to be identified, says he
regularly feels his wealth getting in the way of personal relationships.
"Being rich isn't as much fun as you might think," he laments. "People
seem to come in two types: those who are afraid of you, and those who
want something from you. About the only place I can be a normal human
being is overseas."

Not that all rich people want to be treated as equal to the masses. One
young woman in her late 20s, whose father was a veteran of the Long March
in China, admits she was pampered in her youth. Faced with the prospect
of a 500-meter walk to find a quiet place to sit for an interview, she
starts hailing a cab. Surely, that isn't what her father would have done?
"My father is my father," she says dismissively, "and I am I." She seems
unconcerned about her image. She says at one point that she made money
from China's fledgling stock markets in the early 1990s thanks to inside
information from friends. Later, by way of explaining her wealth, she
says: "Everybody is born with a certain ability, which should be
exploited. I was born with a lot of ability so I am rich." Connell, for
one, feels the rich should try to develop a balance -- appreciating money
for the freedom it can buy while being generous givers to those who are
less fortunate. 

Which brings us back to Brenda and Kaibong Chau. As excessive as they
might seem, the Chaus may well have found the elusive balance. They may
spend remorselessly on themselves, but they also give unselfishly to
causes and regularly attend Hong Kong's frequent black-tie charity balls.
"We were both born into affluent families," says Kaibong. "We never had
to worry about where food was coming from. We give generously, but if we
want something, we can buy it." In the case of the Chaus, whose opulence
has made them subjects of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, 60 Minutes
and a BBC documentary, the spending may not always seem refined. But
surely, in a region now facing a broad slump that threatens to discourage
consumption of any sort, taste may not seem such an important issue.

-- With reporting by Anne Naham/Beijing 

and Santha Oorjitham/Singapore