Behind Brandon Chau's big name lies big ambition

Brandon Chau, the heir of one of Hong Kong's tycoon families, is set on juggling family, career and business - all while giving back to society

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:16pm

Brandon Chau Kwok-fung isn't an easy man to get hold of. In between the endless high-society jamborees he attends, he manages to find time for fencing, running a luxury bedding business, and working his day job at the chambers of Cheng Huan SC, one of the city's most well-known defence lawyers.

As Chau strolls - fashionably late - into his "British-themed" office in Central, the distinctive Chau family charm begins to work its magic.

"This is the good thing about being a barrister; you get to work on your own schedule," the 27-year-old says as he brushes raindrops off his tailored Savile Row-style suit jacket. Asked what he prefers to be called, he says: "I wouldn't mind Brandon the barrister-slash-entrepreneur."

If Chau sounds like he is from a well-to-do, moneyed background, it's because he is from a well-to-do, moneyed background - old money, that is. His parents are the late Chau Kai-bong and Brenda Chau - a couple better known in the city for their flamboyant matching outfits, pink Rolls-Royces, golden toilet and mink-clad dogs than for their illustrious family legacy, now entering its fifth generation.

But despite his background, the younger Chau is adamant he wants to create his own legacy - hence his entrepreneurial ventures. He appears to be a man of diverse ambitions. Moneymaking aside, he plans to co-author a book about his family's long history. He also runs a foundation for underprivileged youth.

"As a child, I had always heard my parents talk about conditions in society. I feel I have a responsibility to give back," he says. "Times are changing. Young people struggling with poverty and injustice cannot go ignored any more."

SCMP video by Hedy Bok

Against the backdrop of a yawning wealth gap and declining social mobility, the reputation of the city's wealthy elite has come under increasing public scrutiny, especially among the young. Chau acknowledges this, but he skirts questions on whether his family belongs in the "Li Ka-shing category" of being perceived as indifferent and out of touch with real life.

Chau's father famously threw a fit at a CNN reporter in a 2002 interview after he was chided for being "too rich" amid the economic downturn. "Do you expect me to sell all my outfits and come out in tattered clothes to save Hong Kong?" the solicitor said, returning the rebuke.

"I love Hong Kong … I told the reporter every cloud has a silver lining and Hong Kong would emerge from hardship soon. I can't stand it when people victimise my place," the senior Chau later told the South China Morning Post.

With their family legacy dating back to the mid-19th century, the Chaus rose at a time of other prominent local aristocrats: Lee Hysan, Li Shek-peng and Sir Robert Hotung. Under patriarch Chau Wing-tai, the family struck it rich trading gold and silver.

The Chaus are widely considered to be one of the "Big Four" tycoon families of Hong Kong's colonial age that made their fortune alongside the British "hongs", or trade houses - names including Jardine, Russell, Butterfield & Swire and Wheelock. This was at a time when few ethnic Chinese were allowed to live near the British, let alone do business with them.

Chau Wing-tai's son, Sir Chau Sik-nin, later steered the family from the 19th-century "grab-and-go" capitalism to a more holistic role in the colony. The British-educated eye doctor turned bureaucrat in the colonial government also served as Senior Unofficial Member in the Legislative Council from 1946 to 1959.

Chau Kai-bong carried on the family tradition, but he studied law at Cambridge and became a career solicitor known for his sharp tongue. His English friends called him "Bruce", but he dropped the name when he returned to Hong Kong. "My father thought his Chinese name suited him better. He's a very traditional Chinese," Brandon Chau says. Chau Kai-bong died in 2010 at 75.

The younger Chau is a mix of the old and new worlds. Despite the striking resemblance between father and son, the two are poles apart in most areas.

Chau is married with two young sons; at 27, he is young to be a father by Hong Kong standards. His father was in his 50s when he was born. "I wouldn't have started a family at such a young age if it weren't for my father … He wanted to be alive to see his grandchildren," he says.

Chau's office is a small, understated room - shared with another colleague at the firm. It's devoid of anything gold, pink or sparkly. Instead, it is decked out in Winston Churchill photos and "Keep Calm and Carry On" memorabilia. He admits to being a passionate Anglophile.

A Gothic leather armchair that looks like it could belong in Parliament is the centrepiece of the room. "I love everything about the United Kingdom - it's like my spiritual home," he says. A Union Jack cushion on the chair illustrates his fervour.

Chau left Hong Kong for school in Britain at the age of 12. He studied law at University College London and passed the Hong Kong bar in 2009.

Absent in his wardrobe are the flashy pink suits his father loved. He prefers darker, more sophisticated tones of dress and says he is converting the family's iconic Rolls-Royces into something more "suited to his style". "Although [my grandfather] passed away before I could meet him, I've always felt I was more similar to him than to my father," he says. "I've always been a very homey person compared to my father, who was much more sociable."

Chau says he does not like to be on television and rarely has paparazzi tailing him. He is also a quieter man than his father in terms of personality and dress. The senior Chau, he remembers, was larger than life with a unique personality. He was affable and lacked "enemies". "If anybody didn't like him, it's because they didn't know him," he says.

But both his father and grandfather apparently shared a fondness for lecturing. "My father always told me to do the right thing and to be true. These are values that have been kept in the family throughout the generations," he says.

As a society fixture, Chau is looking to change the image of the typical Hong Kong tycoon family. In 2011, despite his dislike of cameras, he agreed to take part in RTHK's Rich Mate, Poor Mate reality show. The programme invited high-net-worth individuals to "experience" first-hand the lives of the poor.

"My classmates used to … label me a 'spoilt brat' and 'rich boy'. I think, to a certain extent, [taking part in this] will allow me to seek redress," Chau said in the show. During the programme, he held multiple "tough" jobs, including lugging bags of mail through the MTR as a courier and cleaning floors in a bubble-tea shop.

As a post-1980s youth, Chau says he is determined to help his generation, and he is not one to just sit around and talk.

Two years ago, he launched the A-Life Academy in collaboration with the YMCA. The academy - which aims to help underprivileged youth escape the "challenging and sometimes hopeless situations" they face - runs a mentorship programme offering youth concrete advice and tools to give them a better chance in life.

"We also offer scholarships for youth ... for university, vocational education and training, too," he says. "Some don't want to go to university, so we offer them alternatives."

If Chau succeeds in lending an image of social consciousness to tycoon families, he could help reverse the city's growing apathy towards the rich and connect with restless youth. But behind his glamorous suit, tie and blue-blood name, it's difficult to determine whether the man means business.

As sole heir to the family fortune, he faces the heavy burden of carrying the family legacy. But if he knows it, he appears to bear it lightly.

In between running his Noblesse Group bedding business, which is now in its fourth year of operation, he is balancing a burgeoning legal career with being a family man. It has yet to be seen whether his social ventures will pay off in the long term.