When Peter Woo Kwong-ching was a keen teenage swimmer, he would hurl himself with enthusiasm into Victoria Harbour. With thousands of others of all ages and races, he would swim from Queen's Pier to Kowloon. The annual cross-harbour race was an exuberant social festival. 'I wouldn't like to try it now,' he says. 'The water is toxic. You could almost walk across.' The demise of the popular splash-in figures in two of the major concerns of the man who wants to be the first Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He's worried about our environment and the impact dirty water, polluted air and rampant noise have on our lifestyle. And as chairman of the Hospital Authority, he has an abiding interest in communal health. When he announced his candidacy for the Chief Executive's job last week, the usual questions were asked, echoing a magazine article a couple of years ago which queried: 'Who's Woo?' It's always been a good question. Details of his family life have been sketchy. He's a private person with a private life. The teetotaler (apart from a rare glass of wine) tycoon is not a hail-fellow-well-met clubman, although he is a Jockey Club racing steward. His public image doesn't do him justice. In person, he's relaxed, easy-going with those he knows, with a good sense of humour and casual charm. But the stress for most of his adult life has been work, business and commerce. He's never been a star on the social scene; family is more important to him than flimflam. Now he has plunged into the political waters, he feels the public has a right to know a little more about Woo the family man rather than businessman Woo. He first met Bessie Pao when he was home on holiday, then again in America. They married in 1973 at a glittering ceremony topped by a reception for 1,500 people at the Hilton; father-in-law Sir Y.K. Pao wasn't one to do things quietly. Their three children are all active in sports. Earlier this year, elder daughter Jacqueline, 22, excelled in the Epson World Cup swimming event held in Hong Kong. She's graduated and got a job - 'by her own efforts' - in a television newsroom in America. Second daughter Jennifer, 20, is studying for a liberal arts degree and son Douglas, 18, has opted for architecture, a decision that gives Mr Woo enormous pride. 'He's following his grandfather, and he made the decision himself,' Mr Woo says. Mr Woo's father was an extraordinary man of vast ability. John Woo Shao-ling left Shanghai as a young man to study abroad. He spent 13 years in Germany, spoke the language perfectly, studied in Berlin and achieved outstanding passes in all nine papers he did for his engineering and architectural dissertation. The unprecedented result was startling. How could a Chinese go to Germany, learn the language and get results that no German had ever matched? The Head of State demanded an interview and the young Chinese presented himself for an audience with Adolf Hitler. John Woo's credentials were not initially so impressive to British colonial civil servants. He had returned to Shanghai in the early 1940s, and when he arrived in Hong Kong in 1950 amid the huge post-revolutionary wave of refugees from China, he came with a wife and his four-year-old son. But he couldn't get a job; his German qualifications were not recognised. It took personal intervention by Governor Sir Alexander Grantham to allow him to practise. 'My father was a great scholar, my mother a registered nurse,' says Mr Woo. 'Like many others, we came from China. When we arrived, we lived in Little Shanghai, in North Point. Then I grew up in Mid-Levels. There were just the three of us. We were a simple family.' He gets a little annoyed when people refer to him as a man of great wealth. He laughs wryly when I show him a British newspaper clipping which puts his personal worth at US$12 billion (HK$92.76 billion). That's nonsense, of course. That was the valuation, a few years ago, of the Wheelock-Wharf empire founded by his mighty father-in-law. 'I'm a professional manager,' he stresses. 'I manage the assets for shareholders.' The idea that he owns that immense portfolio of ferry fleets and shopping malls, commercial skyscrapers and residential blocks causes him to chuckle. But it's a point he considers as he readies himself to explain to Hong Kong and the Selection Committee how he has a feeling for the grassroots. He may insist he is just a normal person, but the perception is he comes from the richest strata. That's not so, although his own background was solidly middle class and he married into one of the fabled family fortunes of Asia. He was a puny boy, until his parents enrolled him at the old St Stephen's School at Stanley as a weekly boarder. Every morning, it was out of bed and on to the playground for no-nonsense PT exercises. That's when he developed his love of swimming, something that has stayed with him. He's also a golfer and a keen sportsman. That's something else he inherited from his father. John Woo was in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, and in later life he went to every Olympic Games until his death. He never took his son. But when Peter was 12, his father gave him an air ticket to Brussels (that was in 1958 when flying was still a novelty) and sent him away by himself to visit Europe. It was, Mr Woo recalls, a great adventure. He was also by himself when he graduated and got his first job in New York. There's a public perception, incorrect, that when he married, Mr Woo immediately moved into a secure, senior job in the Pao kingdom. Not so. He was a fast-rising executive with Chase Manhattan Bank, and it was only two years after the marriage, in 1975, that Sir Y.K. persuaded him to join the family firm. By 1986, he was chairman. Not long afterwards, he was invited to join the infant Provisional Hospital Authority. Last year, he became chairman of the Authority as it took over most major aspects of our public health system. At the same time, he distanced himself from business affairs, taking up the titular job of honorary chairman of the companies. 'I spend at least 50 per cent of my time on public affairs,' he says of his Hospital Authority work. He jokes that he would like to turn that public workload into a 100 per cent role, becoming SAR Chief Executive. Mr Woo gains pride and satisfaction from the Hospital Authority role. He visits hospitals, chats to doctors, nurses and patients. This helps him keep in touch with how people think. As selection time nears for our first Chief Executive, keeping a finger on the public pulse will become increasingly vital. Mr Woo remembers the first time he stood for an election. There were five candidates - 'just like now', he grins - and he won. That was at Cincinnati University in Ohio where he ran for election as senior class president, the only Chinese candidate, of course, appealing for votes from 3,500 fellow students. His sporting stature probably helped him reap votes. He had coached and captained a six-man touch football squad and was college champion at both table tennis and badminton. Life as an undergraduate was a lot of fun. It was during this period that, on a holiday visit back to hometown Hong Kong, he met Bessie Pao, who was also studying in the US. The fun stopped when he graduated (physics and maths) from Cincinnati and began his MBA studies at New York's Columbia Business School. It was a two-year course, but he crammed it into one. He hurried also through Chase Manhattan Bank's year-long management course, finishing in less than half the time. Why has he now opted to chase a job that promises to turn his well-brushed hair grey? 'I'm a Hong Kong family man,' he says. 'My family treasures being safe, feeling free. So do I. So do most Hong Kongers. We must have the courage to defend and fully implement the Basic Law.'