Gordon Wu Ying-sheung comes across as an acerbic character, but friends of the chairman of Hopewell Holdings will readily confess to his spirit of bonhomie and love for fine food.
Those with long memories will recall how Wu successfully bid for the largest white truffle in Europe. For the pleasure of eating the 1.51 kilogram Alba, Wu is said to have paid HK$1.25 million at the 2006 charity auction in Europe.
Today at 76, Wus gait is as sprightly as ever and there are no signs that the construction magnate is slowing down.
Even though I have passed the torch to my son, Thomas, I will never retire, Wu is quoted as saying when Hopewell Holdings celebrated its 40th anniversary last year.
If anything, the pioneering spirit of the Wus can be traced back to Gordons father, Wu Chung. In the mid-1960s, the elder Wu was known as King of Taxis as he owned about half of all the taxis in Hong Kong. Wu Chung also started to invest in the property market around the same period.
Just as a baker turns flour into bread, we, as developers, turn land plots into homes, shopping malls and offices and sell them to others, quipped Gordon.
Today, Hopewell Holdings ranks among the big five developers in the territory Cheung Kong Holdings, Sun Hung Kai Properties, New World Development and Hang Lung Group and go by the moniker of the five tigers of Chinese investment companies.
The Princeton graduate is also the most educated among all the five developers. His Bachelor of Science degree in engineering became the bedrock for the young Wu when he co-founded the Hopewell group in 1964 and listed it on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1972.
Wu served as Hopewells managing director from 1972 to 2002 before assuming the position of chairman.
Im not afraid of boasting, Wu says, adding, who in Hong Kong who works in the property industry is as all-rounded as me? I have done everything from drawing building plans, design, engineering, laying foundations, site constructions, raising funds and selling flats.
Testimony to Wus involvement in the design and construction of many building projects is his slipform method of construction, which enabled one high-rise floor to be erected every three days.
His 2x350MW coal-fired Shajiao B Power Station in Guangdong set a world record of providing the first electricity in month 22 after ground-breaking a feat that earned the company the British Construction Award in 1988.
During its nascent stages, Hopewell was primarily involved in selling flats, just like its peers. But Wus entrepreneurial instincts soon took root and he began to champion the importance of building infrastructure and improving the lives of those in the mainland just as the country was emerging from the throes of a cataclysmic Cultural Revolution.
During much of the 80s, Wu was instrumental in building major infrastructural projects in the mainland. While many questioned the necessity of constructing highways in China, when people could not even afford to buy bicycles, Wu answered critics by saying: If there arent highways, how can China develop?
The highway network that Hopewell Highway Infrastructure built in the mainland encompasses more than the total length of all the roads in Hong Kong.
Wu also espoused the building of power stations in the country. If there are no power stations, there will be no power, and factories wont be able to function. All we do relates to peoples livelihood.
In all fairness, Wus prescience about building infrastructure could be tied to the surge in prosperity in the Pearl River Delta. Today HIH has a slew of toll properties in the PRD. These include the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway and the West Delta expressway between Guangzhou and Zhongshan via Shunde.
According to HIHs website, the total investment in the West Deltas 38 kilometer expressway was 5.6 billion yuan (HK$6.97 billion).
In fact yuan has been the major currency for HIHs business. Since the beginning of our highway investment, when we began building the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway 20 years ago, all the bills were paid in yuan, though we had to convert that from US and Hong Kong dollars, Wu said.
His eldest son, Thomas Jefferson Wu, who was named in honor of American democracy, said: By issuing bonds, we sent a signal to construction teams that they need not worry about paying contractors. Certainly, we had concrete benefits from these yuan bonds.
Today, HIH directly injects equity and loans in yuan by issuing bonds and shares in yuan for its mainland projects.
HIHs other gigantic projects include the much delayed Hong Kong-Zhuhai- Macau Bridge and the Mega Tower in Wan Chai.
Interestingly, the building of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge was delayed for years until former premier Zhu Rongji visited Hong Kong in 2002 and expressed his support for the plan. The SAR government then decided to go for it the next year and construction has just recently begun.
Currently, HIH is engaged in the development of properties, hotels, power stations and superhighways across Hong Kong, mainland China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
Having grown up in Wan Chai, Wu has deep feelings for the area. In the 1960s and 70s, he gradually started buying up old buildings near Queens Road East, and redeveloped them into Hopewell Centre and Wu Chung House.
Hopewell Centre, which was completed in 1980, was the first circular skyscraper in the city, and the iconic tower remained the tallest building until 1989, when the Bank of China tower was completed.
Despite Wus extraordinary accomplishments as a top builder, he did have his fair share of run-ins with environmental groups and residents of Wan Chai when he proposed his Mega Tower Hotel now known as Hopewell Centre II.
Environmentalists and citizens objected to the massive scale of the project, a building that would be 93 stories and 355 meters high. After much lobbying and endless delays, lasting more than a decade, the building has been scaled down to 55 stories. It is expected to house 1,024 rooms and be completed by 2018.
Indeed, environmental groups have always come in for some scathing criticism from Wu. He says, for instance, that one of the reasons why the government has been slow in granting land is because environmental groups object to everything.
Whats the main aim for environmental protection? he thunders. It is to protect human beings. Those environmental groups are crazy. You cant force everyone to like birds even though you like them, he said.
He cited the protection of the Chinese White Dolphins by environmental groups, as an example, and said it is a joke.
Back in the 1990s, these groups said that dolphins are an endangered species and they require protection. So the groups used over HK$100 million from taxpayers for a research project when the Chek Lap Kok airport was being built. But after construction, the number of Chinese White Dolphins actually increased, Wu said.
They [Chinese White Dolphins] will become extinct only if they are yummy, because the whole world will start catching them. How will something be endangered if it is not tasty? Will mice become endangered?
Wu also said that the governments proposals to reclaim land faced objection by environmental groups every time.
Where does land come from if Hong Kong doesnt reclaim? he queries. In the past, Hopewell Centre at Queens Road East was the seaside, and there was a shoal outside. Now Gloucester Road and Victoria Park sit on reclaimed land. Yau Ma Tei, Kwun Chung and West Kowloon are also reclaimed land. So how come we dont see Hong Kong becoming a place of disaster because of all the reclamation?
As a developer and one of the vice presidents of The Real Estate Developers Association, Wu is pugnacious when it comes to speaking out on the governments policies on land development for housing.
Crazy property prices
He said that crazy property prices are the reason teenagers live in subdivided flats, and the government must significantly boost housing supply to solve the problem.
There is too little land supply, so property prices are hiked, leaving youngsters with only two choices one, to live in cage homes and, two, to live in subdivided units, Wu says.
When asked if he was afraid that the government would come up with a plan for 85,000 flats, just like the one proposed by the first chief executive Tung Chee-wah in his first policy address in 1997, Wu retorted angrily: A successful society cannot have only a small portion of people to prosper. The land policy after 1997 has failed completely. Its extremely polemical. Wu, who is an avid follower of history, quoted a traditional Chinese saying: People will only develop a sense of belonging if there are fixed assets like property. As in the 1970s and 80s, many people had public housing and they were more law abiding and hardworking, he added.
Wu thinks the government should build plenty of cheap housing to let the poor live peacefully. The government can use the large amount of fiscal surplus each year to build lots of cheap housing, so Hongkongers dont have to live in subdivided flats, he said.
On the subject of mainlanders buying flats in Hong Kong, Wu said that it may not be something totally bad as this could help boost the governments coffers. The Americans werent afraid when the Japanese scrambled for property in New York, Wu said.
Why is Hong Kong so afraid? We should explore why mainlanders are coming here to buy flats. Hong Kong has so much land. We could sell a few HK$100 million every week. The government will have abundant revenue and Hongkongers can be free from paying tax, he said.
The government is vulnerable and only listens to four kinds of voices, Wu said.
First, the judges the authorities have to implement judgements passed by the them. Second, the Legislative Council no funds will be allocated if the motion is not passed. Third, consultants the government finds consultants to research on anything and everything. And, fourth, street protesters the government is afraid once there is a demonstration.
But it seldom listens to opinions voiced by silent citizens, so how can it administrate effectively?
Wu believes in giving back to society and his munificence to various causes is well known. He donated US$100 million (HK$780 million) to his alma mater Princeton University for a Chair in Chinese to promote better understanding between East and West. He donated HK$6 million to Lingnam University to match a government grant scheme to promote liberal arts education. He also gave another HK$6 million through the same matching grant scheme to City University.
Wu is renowned for his public service work and they include being a member of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference among other august bodies.
For his indefatigable contributions to society, Wu was made Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, Chevalier de lOrdre de la Couronne, and bestowed many other titles.
Sir Gordon, as Wu does not mind being addressed, has been there and done that. When asked if hes afraid of danger, he said drolly: The coffin is for the dead, not the elderly.