The dictionary definition of the word 'tycoon', which reads 'a person who is successful in business and so has become rich and powerful', does not even begin to describe the control and influence Hong Kong's greatest taipans have wielded over the years. No one knows this better than Robert Wang Wei-han, whose years working with the city's most successful people put him on the road to riches, albeit with some bumps along the way. Wang was born in Ningbo and soon afterwards his parents moved to Shanghai. When he was five, his family fled Shanghai amid the Chinese civil war and started a new life in Hong Kong. They had nothing. As far back as he can remember, though, Wang was determined to be a success. In the early 1970s, as a qualified solicitor, he founded Robert W. H. Wang & Co, which grew into the city's fifth-largest law firm. As the handover of Hong Kong approached, and with no one quite sure what the end of British rule would bring, Wang came up with a plan to safeguard the fortunes of Hong Kong's richest tycoons by convincing Singapore to take them in so they could run their businesses from there. He spent his time dealing one on one with the most powerful businessmen and politicians in the region, including Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee, Cheng Yu-tung and Run Run Shaw. However, after Wang unwittingly offended certain power brokers, the tycoons cut him adrift. He has now written a book detailing his life, called Walking the Tycoons' Rope. It offers a rare look into the world of Hong Kong's property tycoons and how ruthless they can be. 'Let's just say you have to be extremely careful,' Wang said. 'You have to be mutually useful to each other or it won't work. They don't knock on your door for no reason, although I did become close with Cheng and Shaw. They taught me a lot.' He believes the power that Hong Kong tycoons have is now on the wane, and that the watershed was the last chief executive election. 'Henry Tang [Ying-yen] was their hope for continuity,' he said. 'That was the reason why the tycoons were so vehement in their support for him. However, the unexpected happened. Their hopes were dashed when C. Y. Leung was elected instead.' Wang is convinced the chief executive-elect has made it known, in no uncertain terms, that he is chief executive for all the seven million people of Hong Kong - not just the most powerful. 'From now on, the developers will still make money, just not on the same scale as before. Some semblance of normality will return to Hong Kong's property market,' he said. High-profile investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption seem to back this thinking, most notably the Sun Hung Kai Properties case, in which brothers Walter Kwok Ping-sheung, Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and Raymond Kwok Ping-luen were arrested along with former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan. No one has been charged. Wang's association with Hong Kong's tycoons continues today, and he would not comment on the Kwok brothers' case. 'We are well known to each other. Our joint-venture hotel - The Minden, in Tsim Sha Tsui - was sold just a month or so ago. I wish them well,' he said. To fully understand his relationship with these taipans one must go back to the early 1980s, when, though life was still good in Hong Kong and the economy booming, Wang's worries about the 1997 handover steadily grew. 'The world around us was changing. Factories here were moving north and China's economy was getting stronger by the day. Like everyone else in Hong Kong in those days, I was very fearful of the sovereignty change,' Wang said. 'All my friends and compatriots were leaving Hong Kong in droves and emigrating, mainly to Vancouver in Canada, which we called back then 'Hongcouver' as so many people were going to live there. 'I wasn't prepared to emigrate. I had a good thing going in Hong Kong as a solicitor and didn't want to start all over again. My firm was the fifth-largest in Hong Kong and it employed 220 people, including nearly 50 solicitors.' At that time, the British government introduced a scheme to confer British nationality on locals and offered British passports to 50,000 heads of households and their dependants. This was designed to reassure key businessmen and their families, while stabilising the economy in the run-up to the handover. But what Wang was looking for was a bolt-hole for himself, and for his partners, colleagues and clients, in case their worst fears were realised. It was then he turned his gaze towards Singapore. It was safe and an integral part of the West. From there he could set up another base before the handover and observe how it was affecting Hong Kong. What followed was a period of prolonged negotiations between Wang and the Singaporean government as he tried to set up a new firm there that would run in parallel with his firm in Hong Kong. Only after a gruelling cross-examination by Singapore's then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, lasting more than an hour, was a deal finally struck. The prime minister told him to go ahead and form a committee to 'propose, vet and recommend' Hong Kong solicitors to practise in his country. 'I was the first to set this up in Singapore and the firm is still going,' he said. 'Over 60 per cent of the solicitors working in Hong Kong benefitted from this move. Some were very powerful men in the judiciary.' After this Wang decided to make another proposal to Lee, telling him that Hong Kong entrepreneurs had the same worries and were also looking for a bolt-hole. Lee agreed to this and told him to recommend some entrepreneurs who would be interested in doing business in Singapore. This gave birth in 1984 to a scheme to allow entrepreneurs to move to the city state. However, the launch of the scheme led to such a huge influx of entrepreneurs to Singapore there were simply not enough investment opportunities. To get around this problem Wang helped create a company called Suntec, involving 21 powerful investors. Some of the most influential taipans in Hong Kong, such as Li, Lee, Cheng and Shaw got involved. Among them they accounted for more than 40 per cent of the market capitalisation of all Hong Kong companies. This later evolved into a scheme that in essence allowed an approved entrepreneur to nominate one person for permanent residence in Singapore for each S$1 million (HK$6.01 million) he invested. The nominees could come from approved categories that included immediate family members, relatives, senior members of staff and co-investors - essentially also looking after those who mattered most to the entrepreneur as well. The demand was so great that Singapore granted approval to 50,000 families from Hong Kong. Unfortunately, once the tycoons were firmly established in Singapore, they had no further need for Wang. Caught in the crossfire amid infighting among the tycoons, he became increasingly marginalised. The death knell for Wang came after a squabble with a Singaporean tycoon over who should hold the main positions of authority in a private club the group had just established. 'To me it was a trivial matter, but they said my choice of patron ran against Singaporean customs and conventions. I had no idea at all about this. It was just a way of getting rid of me once and for all,' he said. A chastened and wiser man, he focused instead on his law firm and his own entrepreneurial investments. As it turned out, none of the Hong Kong tycoons needed a plan B to fall back on, as the transition from British to Chinese rule proved to be a painless one for the business world. But Wang said having a fallback was the collective thinking among the tycoons at the time, and there was a mad scramble to jump on board. Wang said he and the tycoons he had been involved with over the years were the product of their environment - the tough upbringing they endured drove them on to greater things. Many were not educated, but they were determined to work hard and be a success. 'I've often been asked why we came to have this crop of outstanding entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, and it's because they're all products of the environment ... of Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1940s and 1950s,' Wang said. 'It was a very tough time. But they were able to transcend the class they belonged to. Not once or twice but many times. That's the thing about Hong Kong. Normally in Western society, if you are born into a certain class it's just not the done thing to transcend it. In Hong Kong you can,' he said. The 68-year-old is now enjoying his retirement and living happily off the money he made with his law firm and the city's most influential tycoons. 'I'm very content with the way things have turned out for me and that I branched out from my legal practice during the days I was in Singapore,' he said. 'Suntec was a major success and my involvement in a number of their properties proved very profitable. I guess that is what happens if you become intertwined successfully with tycoons for long enough.'