Wong Kwan, head of Pearl Oriental Holdings, was born in Shenzhen but came to Hong Kong in 1967. He started as a labourer before training to become a chef, working at the Lisboa Hotel in Macau and the Nautilus Club in Hong Kong. He formed Pearl River Hotel and Catering in 1983 and Pearl International Hotels in 1985, each time with financial aid from friends or business contacts, including Wang Guangying of China Everbright. Pearl Oriental went public in 1994 and at its peak was capitalised at about $13 billion. The rise and rise of Wong Kwan has been halted and he is far from happy about it. Furious would be a better word. Spitting fire would be better still. On May 5, the stock exchange council took a vote. Of the 31 members, 28 were in attendance. Each held in his hand one black ball and one white ball - white for yes, black for no. At the end of the vote there were 24 white balls in the ballot box and four black. The four black balls were under stock exchange rules sufficient to veto the application. For the first time in its history, the stock exchange had rejected an application for a securities trading licence. The implication was clear - certain members of the council did not believe Mr Wong's company, Pearl Oriental Holdings, was sufficiently fit and proper to qualify. Translated, the council was saying there was something not quite right about Pearl. Mr Wong was in Shanghai at the time. He was confident his new operation - Pearl Securities - would soon be up and running and had left town expecting to receive a call confirming the news. When he heard what had happened he exploded, returned to Hong Kong, consulted his lawyers and is now poised to take the council to court. All my previous attempts to interview Mr Wong - six of them - had been rejected, and yet this time I made one phone call and he was returning my call and agreeing to meet me at my bidding. The change of attitude was due entirely to the fact that for the first time he needed something from the press rather than the other way around. What he needed was an outlet for his anger - and he spent no time getting down to it. An agitated Mr Wong walked into his boardroom. He is wiry and intense. There are some people whose eyes smile while their face remains impassive and some whose eyes are fierce while their face smiles. Mr Wong is the latter. There were no preliminaries. He launched straight into his attack on the council's decision. I was told it was 'grossly unfair for the council to make such a decision in such a primitive and inequitable manner'. There may have been a conspiracy against him, that people had got the wrong idea about him, that they were jealous, that certain unnamed people had been manipulating his share price and undermining his reputation. The voting system was a farce and that the articles of association of the stock exchange were a joke. Mr Wong presented himself as whiter than white, caring only for his shareholders and completely conservative by nature. I cast my mind back to one of Mr Wong's first jobs on a train that carried livestock from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, where one of his responsibilities was - to put it politely - shovelling the resultant excrement. Was he, I wondered, shovelling some of it in my direction? Pearl's blackballing is the first hiccup in a glorious period of growth for Mr Wong. Just last year, he was riding high as the owner of the most expensive piece of real estate in the world, Skyhigh on The Peak. He had spent nearly $1 billion in just three weeks buying up luxury properties. Shares in Pearl went stratospheric and one of Hong Kong's great success stories appeared to be in the process of being written. The story begins with the aforementioned shovel and pigs, but come the Cultural Revolution Mr Wong hot-footed it out of China and into Hong Kong, where, after a series of menial jobs, he ended up working as a chef earning HK$70 a month. Mr Wong was then made head chef at the Lisboa Hotel in Macau before moving on to the exclusive Nautilus Club in Hong Kong. In 1983, with the backing of a then relatively unknown company called China Everbright, he set up a hotel management company called Pearl River Hotel and Catering. Two years later, he again turned to friends to help him acquire an hotel for $55 million. This deal set the pace for Mr Wong's future transactions. He sold the hotel the afternoon he bought it, making $10 million in the process. The die was cast and there followed a series of property transactions that culminated in the billion-dollar punt on the luxury property market at the end of 1996. Call it rags to riches, call it making a silk purse out of a sow's ear - where once he earned $70 a month he is now worth about $8.5 billion. It was all going so well until the council sat down to vote. What went wrong? 'We do not know the reason why the four voted against us. We do not know who voted against us. Whether this is a conspiracy between council members we cannot speculate. There have been rumours some SFC members used their influence over council members - but I don't think so.' Quite obviously, Mr Wong is wise enough to keep the Securities and Futures Commission sweet, and so he should. One of the stronger indications all was not as it seemed came with news last year that trading in Pearl's shares was being investigated by the commission. Having listed in 1994, Pearl's shares have experienced huge swings, trading up 50 per cent one day and down 60 per cent the next. In a market that was being driven by rumour, Pearl was one of the main targets. Perhaps this played a role in the council's decision, I asked? 'Of course, there are rumours. There is such strong competition between newspapers they make untrue reports.' He cited as an example a Chinese-language paper that reported he had died on a trip to Beijing. The firm's share price collapsed the next morning but recovered the same afternoon after a very much alive Mr Wong called his lawyers and issued proceedings. 'The SFC investigated trading and they are entitled to do so. We gave them strong support. We have played no role in the speculation on our shares.' It is one of Mr Wong's main claims that his company's reputation has been undermined by speculators and it is his belief that it is this false reputation that is creating his present troubles. He believes certain parties have been leaking false information to primarily Chinese newspapers that undermine Pearl's share price, with the aim of buying it cheap ahead of its recovery once the rumours are proved false. Who does he think these people are, I wondered. At this point a curious dialogue took place. 'You are saying people deliberately leaked negative information? Who are they?' I asked. 'We really don't know,' said Mr Wong. 'But one interesting thing is that our share price went down 12 per cent the afternoon before the council vote.' 'So what are you saying?' I said. 'That the decision of the council was already known and leaked out before the vote?' 'We are not saying anything.' 'But that's what it sounds like you are saying?' 'The balloting was done after the market closed,' Mr Wong pointed out. 'So why did the share price move?' 'I don't know.' So why bring it up, I wondered? Mr Wong - who has traded his way to a multibillion-dollar fortune - was extremely keen to demonstrate how conservative he is. 'I am very conservative,' he said. 'Since we listed I have not borrowed much money from the bank to speculate on shares - I never do those stupid things. 'Even when we bought Skyhigh and Genesis we used our own financial resources as well as borrowed from the bank. But for the whole group our gearing is now 25 to 30 per cent. 'Why do people keep talking? Because we have made a lot of property deals. I came from zero - I was a chef - everyone knows that. My initial capital was US$20,000. We have made a lot of fantastic deals. 'We became a focus of attention so that people think 'How can Wong Kwan easily make money?' For the lower, lower lower income people they maybe think I'm superman. Maybe some people are jealous.' The chef issue is an interesting one. Mr Wong features prominently in Chinese-language newspapers and constant reference is made to his old job. It is a strange coincidence that the Chinese word for 'fry' is the same as the word for 'speculate', and most local-language reports make a big play out of saying Mr Wong used to fry food and now he fries shares. 'I have become a focus for the media - frying food and frying property and frying shares. I have become a hot topic. That was fun originally but now it has degenerated into something very un-useful,' he said. 'They have got the wrong impression from newspaper reports. They have made a wrong judgment. In the past four years, we have not made any connected transactions. We do not take advantage of minority shareholders.' The argument here is that members of the stock exchange council have been believing too much of what they read in the newspapers. Does this hold water? It seems unlikely. It is fair to assume they were acting on something slightly more concrete than newspaper reports to make a historic decision to reject a licence application for the first time. Or were they? We'll never know because the council does not - according to its articles of association - have to justify its decisions to anyone. Nevertheless, Mr Wong is now trying to change both his image and the image of his company. Conservatism is king these days at Pearl Oriental - at least outwardly. 'We are going to do our best to let society and shareholders realise this. In the past four years, we have been very conservative. We have placed close attention to company development. But I think it will take time. 'I do not gamble. I only make HK$20 bets on cards compared with friends who place $3,000 to $4,000 per card. I do not go to casinos - I worked in the Lisboa in 1970 to 1972 as the chef and day after day I passed the casino - and did not gamble one cent. Now I am a horse-owner. But I do not gamble. When I go horse racing it is only when my horse - First Class Superteam - is running. I enjoy the fighting spirit and getting together with my friends.' By this point I was being given a guided tour around what would have been Pearl Securities. It has a logo, computer terminals and phones. It even has two registered dealer's representatives to run it. It will now remain deserted for at least another six months until Pearl can apply once again for a licence. Rumours, allegations and speculation aside, Mr Wong's reputation has taken a blow. The market has always been suspicious of his success and now the exchange council has given some backing to their suspicions. Does he take it as a personal insult? 'The judgment is wrong. I do not treat it as an insult. I look at it like a father or a mother looks at a child who does something wrong. You cannot be angry with them. 'The decision by the council has affected our image with our shareholders. But this case only affects the reputation of the stock exchange.' And what does the exchange think of Pearl? Judging by its decision, it is ruminating on the fact that every pearl has at its source a grain of dirt.