Walking the Tycoons' Rope

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am


Walking the Tycoons' Rope
by Robert Wang
Blacksmith Books

Memoirs of Hong Kong life add much to our understanding of both time and place. Walking The Tycoons' Rope by solicitor Robert Wang offers a series of eye-widening, impressionistic portraits of local life from the 1950s to the 1990s seen through Chinese eyes, and written in English.

Part of the enormous refugee influx into the British colony following the end of the Chinese civil war, Wang was born in Ningbo, studied law in England and eventually opened his own successful practice in Hong Kong.

As a youth Wang was uncritical in his adulation of American culture, something he acknowledges when he writes: 'At heart these people [his contemporaries], from the parents down to the children, all wanted to be Americans, just like every Indian in those years [the 1950s] wanted to be an Englishman.'

Refugee edginess was seared into his generation's consciousness, and a lingering sense of uncertainty never left Wang - and thousands of others. As the ink dried on the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration Wang - like many others - made plans for eventual departure before 1997.

He branched out into Singapore, and, with some tycoon clients, helped establish the city state's Suntec conglomerate. Originally intended to provide a safe haven for Hong Kong capital should things go wrong after 1997, Suntec - and the complicated tycoon relationships he forged to get that enterprise under way - almost destroyed Wang. While he still maintains a home in Singapore, Wang - like many other jittery pre-1997 emigres - eventually returned to Hong Kong.

Walking The Tycoons' Rope offers a Peeping Tom-like view of Hong Kong's most well-known tycoons and their unlovely world. Shudder-inducing glimpses into familiar personalities, business dealings, family relationships and value systems turn this book - like all well-documented train wrecks - into truly compulsive reading. Li Ka-shing, Cheng Yu-tung and other leading Hong Kong figures come in for far-from-flattering pen portraits; Wang identifies (if not completely shames) almost all of them.

Along with Cantonese and Chiu Chow tycoons, the Ningbo-Shanghainese business clique are well-documented; centenarian entertainment mogul Run Run Shaw, intriguingly, is one of the few tycoons affectionately described. Lurid, well-crafted descriptions of high-society parties provide hours of voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall delights. Wives and mistresses are uniformly horrendous; rapacious, bored and deeply unappealing.

Wang unsparingly details the crassness, cynicism, vulgarity and superficial glamour prevalent both within his own community, and the broader Hong Kong scene. What passes for personal friendship in the tycoon world is little more than passing convenience, and cold-bloodedly accepted as such.

Despite an unfortunate 'vanity press' editorial style this excellent memoir has enduring social history value.