Profile: Ricky Wong, the media upstart making a splash

Ricky Wong's straight talk has struck a chord with the public since his application for a free-to-air licence for HKTV was denied

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 5:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 10:29am

Ricky Wong Wai-kay is, in his own words, the type of person who earns himself more enemies than friends due to his straightforwardness.

But in a matter of days, the popularity of the former HKTV chairman has surged with the public, due to the same characteristics. His fiery quotes about the government's rejection of his free-to-air TV-licence application have been far more entertaining than the repetitive statements of government ministers.

"Who rules Hong Kong: the law, the policies, or the chief executive?" asked the 51-year-old, right after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refused to spill the beans about how he and the Executive Council decide to oust HKTV.

Wong said that the public were angry - more than 80,000 of them took to the streets last Sunday - not because they were unhappy about the loss of HKTV in particular, but because of this government failure to explain itself.

"Let's put all the political theories behind us, and stop debates on whether citizens should have the right to elect the chief executive. But are you meddling with my choice of entertainment or TV station? Must we all buy the type of toilet paper designated by the government?"

In the eyes of his peers in the telecoms and media industries, Wong, who has two children, is a very smart man who loves challenging the status quo.

"He is full of confidence. As for whether he is arrogant, I would say: not really. He just says no to nonsense," IT lawmaker Charles Mok said.

Media veteran and political commentator Stephen Shiu Yeuk-yuen also has a high regard for the man, describing him as among the "top 10 business heroes of Hong Kong".

"He created two miracles - one in long-distance calls and another in broadband business."

The two successful licence applicants, PCCW's Hong Kong Television Entertainment Company and i-Cable's Fantastic TV, are both backed by top businesses. Wong built his billion-dollar empire from scratch.

Beijing loyalist Ng Hong-mun said Wong was an example of the "Lion Rock spirit": you work hard to succeed.

Wong finished Form Five at Munsang College in 1979, and then partnered with two classmates to open a tutorial school in Mong Kok. The three each contributed HK$1,000 in capital, and earned HK$40,000 by attracting 400 students to the school.

Entering the department of electronic engineering at Chinese University, he figured out another way to earn extra cash: selling textbooks to his classmates. The books were quite expensive in Hong Kong shops, so Wong flew to Taiwan to source them.

IBM gave him a job as a management trainee once he graduated. In 1989, Wong migrated to Canada and started a computer trading company with his cousin, specialising in offering long-distance calls on the cheap.

Noting the business potential in Hong Kong, Wong moved back home, and then founded City Telecom.

City Telecom (CTI) leased capacity from US telecoms companies to benefit from the lower rates on calls originating from that country. This introduction of callback technology broke the monopoly of Hongkong Telecom in long-distance calls.

"Before CTI's participation in the market, long-distance calls used to cost more than HK$10 a minute in the 1990s. Now a call to Canada can cost less than HK$1, and only a few dollars more for other countries," lawmaker Mok said.

A series of commercials promoting its IDD service earned Wong praise as a "marketing genius", but not without controversy. One ad that featured a sexy woman and a narrative saying "get as much as you want" became infamous.

CTI also started offering internet broadband services under Hong Kong Broadband Network in 2000.

But it was in 2008 that Wong became a household name.

He was with Asia Television for just 12 days, making him the shortest-lived CEO at the station. Wong's management style, and his contention that "ATV shouldn't be CCTV on channel 10" proved too much for the station to handle.

But his TV dream did not end there.

After filing an application for a licence in 2009, CTI sold all its telecommunications-related businesses in April. The company was renamed HKTV, signalling Wong's full devotion to the TV business.

"Doing telecommunications was no longer challenging for me," Wong told an audience of 3,000 at a Hong Kong public forum last week.

"I couldn't take it anymore. Several million dollars would fall into my pocket if I simply sat there and did nothing.

"I want to do something I like, a job that will make me want to go to work everyday."

Wong symbolises a green light for change. The respect for him did not waver after his decision to fire 320 staff members in the wake of the licence rejection.

HKTV actress Rain Lau Yuk-chui said: "A silly man dumping so much money into the TV business - such a chance is hard to come by. It is vital to have such a person to foster growth for the industry.

"Mr Wong loves challenges," she added.

The station's chief director of drama productions, So Man-chung, went further, comparing Wong to late Apple founder Steve Jobs and HKTV to Disney entertainment pioneer Pixar.

"Ricky is always humble when asking questions. He wants to learn every technique, and he respects the work of everyone, even drivers. He uses his actions to show his sincerity, and anyone can talk to him one on one."

Now Wong faces the biggest obstacle of his career. Some friends have suggested that he turn to local politics. But he has decided against taking that step for the moment.

Wong thinks he can do more good for Hong Kong doing business than by organising social movements.

"I'm not a democracy fighter. I'm a bit leftist," said the member of the Zhejiang committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.


Ricky Wong Wai-kay

Age: 51

Munsang College
BSc in electrical engineering, Chinese University

1985: Worked at IBM as management trainee
1989: Migrated to Canada where he started a computer trading company with his cousin Paul Cheung Chi-kin, focusing on long-distance calls
1992: Started City Telecom in Hong Kong
2000: Hong Kong Broadband Network, a subsidiary of City Telecom, obtained the local wireless Fixed Telecommunications Network Services licence
2003: Hong Kong Broadband Network launched pay-TV service
2009: Application lodged for free-to-air TV licence
2013: The government announces it has rejected HKTV's free-to-air licence bid