WALKING across a barren patch of weeds and litter, where a few lonely earth movers sit idly waiting for some action and the dull roar of the West Side highway vibrates overhead, it is hard to imagine that one is in the middle of a fat slice of New York's fertile history. But this unenticing 30-hectare site, where the Pennsylvania rail yards used to thrive, is also in the process of turning into a symbol of New York's future. If a group of Hong Kong's richest men have played their cards right - and if one of America's most flamboyant businessmen can deliver on his promises - it will soon metamorphose into the largest, most ambitious single Manhattan development in recent memory. The Riverside South project, a US$2 billion-plus former pipe dream of Donald Trump, has been pulled from the shelf where it lay for over a decade, gathering dust while angry residents, local politicians and Trump's late-80s flirtation with ruin conspired to delay it. Trump's rescue party includes, as one real estate broker recently put it, several Hong Kong men 'who are richer than he'll ever be': New World's Cheng Yu-tong and son Henry, in a consortium with Vincent Lo of Shui On, Deacon Chiu's Far-East Consortium and Edward Wong. When the consortium bought out Trump's US$300 million (HK$2.3 billion) mortgage (on which he had defaulted) from Chase Manhattan for a knockdown price of US$89 million in the summer of 1994, they bought more than a patch of land. These men, the epitome of low-key Hong Kong pragmatism, entered into an alliance with perhaps the biggest self-publicist in the business: the Trump of Trump Tower, Trump Palace, Marla and Ivana, the Plaza Hotel, even the Empire State Building. The East-meets-West cliche is more than merely the fung shui man currently going over the plans to make them fit for Chinese habitation; it is also a culture clash, a marriage of convenience in which the kind of profits usually taken for granted by the Chengs are by no means guaranteed. When the deal was struck last year, Henry Cheng said of Riverside South, almost dismissively: 'In Hong Kong, China, we've done bigger projects than this, much bigger'. One wonders how that comment sat with the famed Trump ego, especially when the man reportedly felt demeaned at being bought out by the Hong Kongers in the first place. In any case, even if the project is a pinprick in the New World master plan, it is one taking shape in the political jungle of New York. And what a project it is: 16 residential towers and one commercial tower, housing more than 10,000 people in 5,700 units, with 3,500 parking spaces and a possible TV and film studio complex. It is also a massive exercise in urban planning, Hong Kong-style: with the addition of a 25-acre park, new streets and transport extensions it will effectively re-map the West Side riverfront along 13 blocks. Or, in Trump's own words: 'Through pure willpower and force of ego, I was able to get the city's largest zoning change to allow the transformation of fallow acreage into a city within a city. And then, with new zoning, I have been able to attract some of the finest partners and investors I have ever had.' On an Indian Summer morning last week, Paul Davis, who as chief executive of the newly-formed company Hudson Waterfront Associates is the Hong Kong investors' main representative, pointed to where the first phase is due to get underway next summer. Four blocks in the central part of the project will be the first to rise, providing 1,675 luxury rental apartments which Mr Davis hopes will come on line by 1998. And with New World likely to market the units hard in the territory, expect the area to soon turn into 'a little Hong Kong', as Trump's broker in the deal, Susan Cara, put it. 'This is the largest privately owned parcel of real estate in Manhattan, and the largest infrastructure project for years,' said Mr Davis. 'Throughout the industry, everybody is talking about it.' It is also, as probably any newspaper-reading New Yorker will tell you, the most controversial development of the past 10 years, and that controversy did not die with the Hong Kong connection. The Trump-Hong Kong relationship got off to a dreadful start in January 1994, when executives from Polylinks, a New World investing arm in the US, were 45 minutes late for a power breakfast in Trump's Plaza Hotel. And although Trump was already in trouble with his Riverside South mortgage, he was negotiating to sell it to a Japanese group, and so spent most of the breakfast trying to interest the Hong Kongers in buying a partnership in the Plaza or his Atlantic City casinos. By the second meeting, the Japanese deal was falling through, and Trump brought up the subject of Riverside South with Polylinks' Daniel Yiu. The Hong Kong investors were not interested, and for a number of reasons. Polylinks is currently pioneering a surge of Hong Kong investment into Manhattan, but while the 80s' Japanese invasion was driven by ego and high-risk splurges on brand-name property, the territory's businessmen have been more astute, quietly snapping up small apartment towers, and even parcels of condos within buildings, with a longer-term view. Riverside South did not fit into this profile, because it was not only huge and potentially cash-draining, but had been dogged by opposition ever since Trump bought the site in 1984 and planned to call it Trump City, incorporating the world's tallest building. Civic protests, led by Westpride, a coalition of well-to-do Upper West Side residents, helped stall the development, and then came the late-80s slump which nearly crippled Trump. At one point, his debts exceeded US$5 billion. With many city and state councillors against the plan, and knowing he would need local support to get zoning approval, Trump pulled a master stroke. He persuaded opposition groups - the 'civics', as he sarcastically dubs them - to join him in devising the new plan. The new-look scaled-down Riverside South project was agreed in its present form, the city gave it zoning approval in 1992 and has since backed it to the hilt. Bizarrely, the civics then came on to Trump's payroll, helping form the Riverside South Planning Corporation, which today acts largely as a spokesman for the plan - and ironically serves to try to drown out the screams of other angry residents. Despite this background of notoriety, Trump finally persuaded the Chengs to get involved, and they invited him over to Hong Kong for a golf-playing, deal-striking few days. According to New York magazine, Trump baulked at the last minute, his ego damaged at having to kowtow to foreigners, and it was not until his frustrated broker, Ms Cara, slammed the phone down in disgust that he relented. But even as the deal was being struck, giving the Hong Kong consortium an 80-per-cent stake and Trump a leading management role, one major hurdle escaped the notice of the media. The surviving protest group, the Coalition for a Liveable West Side, was fighting in court to have the zoning scrapped on a technicality. The case passed through two state courts before it was thrown out on appeal three months ago. According to a much-relieved Mr Davis: 'The investors knew that if you lose the zoning, all you end up with is an expensive railyard. They gambled, and they won.' Still, the Coalition fights on. The attorney who led the case, local resident Philip Pierce, said Riverside South would be an environmental disaster, towering over existing homes and placing an impossible burden on existing infrastructure. 'If you live in the area and try to leave home or come home during the rush hour, the streets are already practically impassable. This [project] is going to make it a horror'. He added: 'It's not just a question of blocking our view. These buildings will create a Berlin Wall in front of us.' According to the Coalition, a jubilant Trump sent its chairman Madeleine Polayes a copy of a law journal report on his legal victory, with the playfully sarcastic note attached : 'Dear Madeleine, you lost again.' But the Coalition has not gone without a few laughs of its own. It claims victory on another major irritant to the project, which came during the summer when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a sympathetic Congressman helped block federal funds from being used to pull down the West Side highway, which runs along the project site, and relocate it under the future park. The reason? The paint is only just dry on a US$70 million renovation of the road, and too many people objected to spending more tax dollars to provide a nice vista for 'The Donald'. When Trump went into partnership with the civic groups in 1992, they both agreed on a plan to bury the highway and get federal help to do it. For Trump, having the highway moved, instead of letting it ruin the Hudson River views from the luxury apartments, was a clear financial priority. His partner, Riverside South Corporation chairman Richard Kahan, said as recently as nine months ago: 'We would get a terrible park and a terrible bunch of apartments if the highway isn't moved. The project would be in serious jeopardy.' But when news broke in July that the highway plan was indeed blocked, Mr Kahan went into damage-limitation mode, claiming: 'Donald Trump couldn't care less whether the highway is moved.' Whatever their spin, the developers will just have to lump it. In addition, another lawsuit has been filed, claiming that the nearest sewage plant, located in Harlem, will not be able to handle the outflow from 10,000 new people in the area. Meanwhile, while there is no legal reason why the bulldozers cannot move in, the developers have to clear a major financial hurdle. Trump has applied for New York state to issue US$350 million in bonds to finance the first phase. But to qualify for special tax-exempt status, and have the federal government guarantee the issue, he has to set aside 20 per cent of the apartments for 'low income housing'. Under the rules, such residents cannot be housed in a separate area, but mixed-in with the well-to-do renters paying top prices for their homes. How that will affect the marketing of the product remains to be seen. As for the federal approval of the bond issue, a decision is pending, but despite the Coalition's hopes that it will fail, the Hong Kong team are counting on Trump's name to shoo it through. Indeed, it was the Trump persona which attracted the Chengs in the first place. Despite his roller-coaster flirtations with bankruptcy, no one is as feted as Trump for getting things done. There is no mistaking that Hong Kong is calling the shots, and that Trump's ego is having to readjust to playing second fiddle in his own backyard. But the players believe the odd mix can work.