Hari Harilela

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2003, 12:00am

I have always lived by my father Naroomal's simple philosophy. He said make all the profit you want, but don't be greedy and don't cheat. Our mark-up was always 33 per cent, which really translated into 20 per cent profit after our overheads had been taken into account. My father hated bargaining, and this refusal to haggle and his honesty were what launched us into the world of business after World War II.

Before all this, we went through a period of extreme poverty in the early 30s. My mother came to Hong Kong from Canton in December 1929 with my older brother George, my younger brother Peter and myself. My father had had to close down his business both in Canton and here. He exported antique furniture and jade, and other luxury items, mostly to America.

My father, George and I used to do our hawking in Shamshuipo in 1933-34. We spent many days sitting in the hot sun outside the Shamshuipo barracks, selling things such as soap and singlets. One day, an officer took pity on us and suggested we go into the barracks and sit in the shade. That was how we became established. We were the very first allowed into the officers' mess and from that small beginning, we grew to become suppliers to the British Army.

During the war years we sold to the Japanese things such as old sewing machines, the foot-pedal ones. We painted and rebuilt the worktables and sold to them as new. Times were hard under the Japanese. There was starvation in Hong Kong. My father was beaten half to death for not opening the front door quickly enough when they came in the middle of the night. Japanese soldiers lurked in the shadows at dusk and then beat you up for not kowtowing to them. I was hit twice on the back of the head with rifle butts. I didn't bow because I didn't see them, but there was no arguing with them.

My mother Devi Bai was a very pious woman and no stranger who came to our door was ever turned away without a cup of tea and a biscuit, even when we had very little. We had this small shop at 733 Nathan Road in Mongkok. Bus drivers and other people always knew they could count on my mother for kindness. During the war, every shop in that area was looted, except for this little place. After the war, when we went back, we found a red band across the entrance and when we opened the shop, everything was there. We were able to keep going by selling the goods, which had remained untouched throughout the war years.

The British returned in 1945 and set up their headquarters in Mody Road. They knew us by name and asked us to become their food suppliers. They provided two lorries and we went to Tai Po to get food supplies. The army had no money, so for payment they opened their warehouse and told us to help ourselves. This was barter before the authorities decided what currency was going to be used. We took only two cases of whisky and 20 cartons of Japanese cigarettes each time. After three months, when their quartermasters went over the deals made, they discovered we did not take advantage of them and we were given contracts to do the laundry for the army and provide them with uniforms. From that came the contracts for the air force and when the US Army asked the British Army for suppliers for their stores, we were given the contracts for Okinawa and Guam. We are now the largest custom tailors in Hong Kong. Our 900 tailors produce 600 suits daily.

By the late 50s I decided it was time to diversify and began looking at real estate. My brothers did not agree, but I thought we had to have something else, for when the British forces pulled out. I became a hotelier by accident. I owned No 30 Nathan Road, and two friends owned 32-34. They wanted to build a hotel and asked to buy my property. I refused to sell, but said I wanted one-third equity in their venture. As the project went ahead, I bought out one partner and then the other. That was 1960. I was able to do it because the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank guaranteed me a personal loan of $7.8 million.

I didn't know anything about the hotel business when I began in 1963. I was a partner with Chinese friends. We called ourselves the Golden Group. It was my Chinese partners who taught me to look out for all the traders' tricks. For example, they made me weigh every delivery and that's how I learned that people only gave me 90 catties of meat when I was paying for 100 catties. They showed me how to recognise pork that had been injected with water to make it heavier . . . all these things, they taught me.

Hotels are most interesting because you meet people from different countries. It keeps you young and alive, always alive. From that first Imperial Hotel, we now have the Golden Mile Holiday Inn in Hong Kong and hotels in Singapore, Bangkok, Penang, Montreal, Sydney and London.

How did I do it? I learned a lot, by reading - everything I could lay my hands on, and I studied a lot. I learned most when I was appointed Justice of the Peace in 1963. I took the chance to visit reform schools and gained insight from the Tenancy Tribunal. I went to the New Territories, and did not allow landlords there to take advantage of their tenants. I knew what it was like to be one of the common folk and that helped me.

One of my proudest achievements was when the British government agreed to listen to my views about young offenders. I insisted that offences committed under the age of 18 were pranks and should not be considered part of a record of offences.

I don't believe in this business of ethnicity. I am not happy when people ask me to give scholarships to students because they are Indian. I believe in giving in the place that I made my money. This is where I made my money and this is where I give the most help. I am a Hong Kong person. Hong Kong is my home.

Contact vmaher@pacific.net.hk if you have interesting memories.