Ties between Chui family and Macau's business elite grow stronger
As Fernando Chui is poised for a second term as chief executive, the connection between his powerful family and the business elite is deep
When Macau chief executive Dr Fernando Chui Sai-on's father, Chui Tak-seng, died in 1984, the former Portuguese enclave was a very different place than it is today. A monthly salary for most was about 3,000 patacas, there were fewer than 10 casinos, and just one bridge connected the main peninsula to Taipa Island.
Fast forward to 2014, and the average salary is almost five times more, the city boasts 35 casinos, and three bridges span the Pearl River Delta.
But some things have not changed. The Chui family is one of three that retain a significant influence that stretches back generations in one of Asia's most enigmatic and densely populated cities.
Despite its transformation from sleepy backwater to the neon-lit kingpin of global gaming, the family's influence - along with that of the Ma and Ho dynasties - endures through a network of political and business links that are coming under increasing public scrutiny.
The Chui family - originally from Xinhui in Guangdong with roots going back six generations in Macau - has achieved a status that gives its members respect and deference in equal measure in a society where traditional hierarchies matter.
"They [families like the Chuis] are seen as a very strong and stabilising force in the community. So there won't be any type of political struggle," said veteran Macau political commentator Larry So Man-yum.
Emblematic of the Chui family's long and deep roots in Macau is the chief executive's late uncle Chui Tak-kei, who was a key political figure and an influential mediator between China and the colonial Portuguese administration throughout the second half of the 20th century.
As well as the family's status, Fernando Chui, 57, and his only sibling, lawmaker Chui Sai-cheong, 60, inherited a property and business portfolio from their father, which helped them develop relationships that reach into the top echelons of business and civil society.
Company information in Macau is significantly limited, making the task of establishing the worth of any business impossible. However, an extensive search of publicly available land and company records shows that over the past three decades the Chui family's entrepreneurial imperative has not diminished.
Its business interests have included construction, real estate, pharmaceuticals, oil and import-export trading.
Against this backdrop, Fernando Chui is today expected to be elected to a second term as chief executive unopposed. He gave up stakes in at least eight companies either before he entered government as secretary for social affairs and culture in 1999 or prior to his nomination for the city's top job in 2009.
His campaign office says he has followed the rules on declaring interest and business involvement scrupulously.
In response to questions about two firms in which he retained a stake until 2009, a statement from his campaign office said: "Dr Chui Sai-on has never engaged in the business activity of these two companies.''
A review of documents lodged in the Macau company registry shows that most of Chui Sai-on's share holdings were transferred to his brother, his brother's wife or firms that were originally owned by the family.
Before he joined the government in 1999, Fernando Chui co-also owned a "production and trading'' company with his wife, Winnie Fok Wai-fun, the niece of the late tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung.
In a recent declaration of their financial interests, the couple said they own six properties, including an apartment on the mainland. Its value and exact location - like the worth of the companies Chui's family owns - need not be disclosed publicly under the Macau system.
Insiders say from his early days as a school principal at Kiang Peng School, Fernando Chui was being groomed for political office, while his brother was being set on the path to business success. But as the brothers' careers indicate, the ties between business, politics and government can be tight in Macau.
Over the last three decades, Chui Sai-cheong has held stakes or played a role in at least 30 companies. Today, he remains active either directly or indirectly in 10, mostly in the real estate and construction sectors.
In his declaration of interests on June 16 this year, the elder Chui said he held shares, worth 320,000 patacas, in only five companies, and that he owned 15 properties, including flats, houses and parking lots.
"There's no doubt that his brother is an extremely influential person, who has investments in a variety of commercial fields," said José Pereira Coutinho, a lawmaker and president of the Macau Civil Servants Association.
Those interests have not been untouched by controversy.
In 2006, a company owned by Chui Sai-cheong was granted - without public tender - a 106,000 square metre plot of land on the Cotai Strip to develop a theme park. The deal was signed off on by then secretary for transport and public works Ao Man-long, who is now serving a 29-year prison term for corruption.
The project never got off the ground, and the plot of land is now owned by a company of which lawmaker Angela Leong On-kei - the fourth wife of gambling magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun - is a director.
Official documents show that Chui Sai-cheong's firm audits that company's books.
Earlier this year pro-democracy activists accused him of conflict of interest over another land deal in Taipa. He and fellow lawmaker Chan Meng-kam were accused of using inside government knowledge. The row died down after Fernando Chui strenuously denied any impropriety.
Documents reviewed by the Post also show longstanding links between the Chui family and other members of the government's ruling Executive Council. Among them is Liu Chak-wan, one of the most influential tycoons in Macau and boss of the city's major bus company, Transmac.
In 1988, he and the Chui brothers set up C&O Investment Company which was involved in construction, public works, real estate and travel agencies.
Normally a behind-the-scenes operator, Liu hit the headlines last year over a 2008 land deal on the Macau peninsula. After being granted the land through a public tender, allegations of improper influence surfaced when the government extended the period of time Liu's Tin Wai Investment Company was given to develop it. Tin Wai still retains the right to develop the land and no impropriety was ever established.
Publicly available documents also show how in Macau - population 600,000 - the same political and business figures turn up on an array of public bodies, boards of charitable organisations and community associations.
For instance Fernando Chui was a shareholder in Pou Lin (Group) Pharmaceutical Products when it was formed in 1998. His fellow stakeholders included appointed lawmaker Fong Chi-keong, construction industry figure Ho Weng-pio and Executive Council member Alexandre Ma Iao-lai.
In October 1999, Fernando Chui's shares in the pharmaceutical company were transferred to the charitable association of the city's only private hospital, Kiang Wu. Fong is the current president of the association.
The health sector has been one of the most sensitive policy areas during Fernando Chui's tenure after he promised to build a new public hospital on Cotai. The architect, who was granted a 235 million patacas contract to design the hospital - which has been plagued by delays - is Eddie Wong Yue-kai, a member of the Executive Council.
The close-knit nature of Macau society is further illustrated by the fact that a cousin of the Chui brothers, Chui Sai-peng - son of Chui Tak-kei - is also an indirectly elected lawmaker and a Macau delegate to the National People's Congress. His company CAA City Planning and Engineering Consultants has been awarded a number of public projects.
In a response to the Post's queries, Fernando Chui's campaign office said that "he never had any businesses" with Wong, Chan Meng-kam and Liu Chak-wan. Both Chui Sai-cheong and his cousin Chui Sai-peng declined to respond to questions from the Post. When pressed, the chief executive's brother would only say: "According to the law, we do whatever we do."
Macau laws allows high-ranking officials, including the city's chief executive and secretaries, to hold shares, although they are forbidden from playing any executive roles in companies. Lawmakers, on the other hand, are allowed to develop private activities without restraint. According to political commentator So, there has been a "crystallisation of power". As in Hong Kong and the mainland, "status, wealth and political power tend to merge together,'' he said.