Patriarchs and The Pen

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 November, 2003, 12:00am

The Peninsula hotel will celebrate its 75th anniversary on December 11 - a landmark all the more remarkable when one considers the vagaries of history, and the commercial intent of shareholders, which the building has survived. In 1922, work was halted because the original plans were thought unsuitable. In 1925, even as it was lurching up from its foundations, a special board meeting was called to discuss cancelling the project. That the building went ahead is testimony more to a spirit of crossed-finger helplessness than sunny optimism: the board's minutes state: 'it is impossible to stop The Peninsula work now in progress without most seriously damaging the interests of the company and placing its credit in jeopardy'.

Thirteen years after the opening, Japanese troops moved in when the hotel became the temporary headquarters of the victorious imperial invaders. Apart from the Observatory, the hotel was the only building still standing and relatively intact in Kowloon when the Kadoorie family, majority shareholders in Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, the company that owned The Peninsula, returned to the colony from Shanghai in 1946.

In 1963, the hotel underwent substantial renovation work, but by the early 1970s it looked as though The Peninsula would be lucky to make its 45th anniversary. The owners of a new development across the road had approached the board with an offer to build a modern hotel on the site of the Peninsula. 'Irrespective of the history of the building which, might I say, not everyone on the board accepted was of value, this was certainly an opportunity that had to be looked at,' says the Honourable Michael Kadoorie - chairman of Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, and the 62-year-old son of Lord Kadoorie, Hong Kong's first homegrown peer - in his careful, fastidious manner. (He is a man most punctilious in matters of grammar and fact.) 'I, for one, didn't feel that.' Even then? 'Even then. I was one of only three, out of nine directors, who felt the history of this building was of such importance we should retain it.'

The crisis passed - decided, as such commercial forks-in-the-road often are, by world events. The 1973 oil crisis made the new venture financially unrealistic and so, 30 years later, The Peninsula has lived to have its gala 75th celebration. Not all the Kadoories wanted this outcome, however. Horace Kadoorie, Michael's uncle and chairman of the board at the time, was keen to save the hotel but as Michael continues: 'My father, who was not on the board, said, 'Pull it down! It was no damn good to begin with - I remember when it went up there were faults here and there. Far better to have a new building.'' (The Peninsula's manager of corporate affairs, who is sitting in on, and taping, the interview shifts in her seat.)

Lord Lawrence Kadoorie, one takes it, was not a sentimental man. His son robustly agrees: 'Not in the least. He'd have been quite happy to pull down our synagogue [Ohel Leah, built in 1901 on Robinson Road] too. He always looked to the future. He had no sentiment for historic buildings. He was a Victorian, born in 1899, and he could see that things could be much better. Fortunately, I didn't inherit those genes.' What did he inherit? 'Some degree of sentiment and a sense of history...maybe from Uncle Horace. I think my mother would have been more my ilk too.'

His mother, the former Muriel Gubbay, is still alive and living in Hong Kong, such is the family's enduring genes: Lord Kadoorie was 94 when he died in 1993, and Sir Horace - as he became in the 1989 Queen's birthday honours list - was 92 when he died in 1995. 'My father always attributed his success - when I say success, I mean what little he achieved, I'd rather you say it right - to the fact that he had my mother by his side,' says Michael. He pauses, wanting to make himself clear. 'I say 'what little he achieved' because I don't think anyone achieves very much. I think we all achieve a little. You can say, 'that's relative'. But when you think of world events, it really is very small.'

World events, as it happens, are now focused on the part of the world from which the Kadoories originated: Iraq. In 1880, Elly Kadoorie travelled from Baghdad to Shanghai, where he joined the Iraqi-Jewish firm of David Sassoon & Co, which worked the trade triangle of India, China and Britain.

In 1883, his brother Ellis arrived in Hong Kong. The brothers were not wealthy but they were thrifty, industrious and generous, a potent combination that meant by 1906 Ellis was able to buy a major holding of 20,000 shares in Hongkong Hotels, as the group was then called. Established in 1866, the group consisted of The Hong Kong hotel (opened in 1892), The Repulse Bay hotel (opened in 1920) and The Peak hotel (bought in 1922). In 1923 the company bought 85 per cent of Shanghai Hotels, thereby acquiring the Palace and Astor hotels in Shanghai. In 1924, the group also bought the Majestic Hotel in Shanghai. By 1914, Ellis was on the company's board and in 1917, in recognition of his charitable commitments and his support for an appeal to buy war planes from Britain, he was knighted. Elly likewise became a knight of the British realm in 1926. Two years later - the same year, by coincidence, that The Peninsula finally opened - Sir Elly was invited to become a member of The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels board. Sir Elly's appointment meant that the Shanghai branch of the family became more involved in Hong Kong affairs, dividing its time between the two cities, and eventually Lawrence - Elly's son and Michael's father - became chairman of the board of Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels in 1937.

On July 19, 1941, Michael was born in Hong Kong. But it was not an auspicious moment: on the family's return to Shanghai they became caught up in the war and Michael spent his early childhood in Cha Pei prison camp in the occupied city. Michael says he was too young to remember the camp - 'The walls, the external staircase, no more than that' - but he has greater recall of Marble Hall, Sir Elly's stupendous home, which is now the Children's Palace, in Shanghai. Like The Peninsula, it survived the war because the Japanese found it useful: it was intended to be the government house for their puppet governor, Wang Jingwei. In the end, it became the allied forces' headquarters. The young, liberated Michael recalls 'pedalling my motor car from one end of the verandah to the other, which was 220 feet [67 metres]'. The love of vehicles, the formal use of the word 'motor car', the exactitude of the distance - that sentence is very Michael Kadoorie. His speech is that form of upper-class English that sounds like that of a slightly quaint, singularly polite schoolboy. 'Sorry, shuffling from meeting to meeting,' he apologises, on arrival and, 'Let me wash my paws,' he says, after coffee and sandwiches and before having his photograph taken. To the photographer, he announces pleasantly: 'You'll have to have me the way I normally am.'

In 1945, Lawrence Kadoorie was the first civilian to return to Hong Kong from Shanghai after the war. He hitched a ride to Kunming with an RAF crew that was loitering in Marble Hall and had a spare Halifax bomber in need of occasional exercise. From Kunming, Lawrence flew to Kai Tak on a DC3 cargo plane. Because there were no seats, he was perched - the image is inescapably metaphoric for a man who would become the 56th richest in the world - on piles of banknotes that were being flown into the colony. 'Correct,' says his son, when asked if this seemingly fantastic tale is true. 'And he was in a GI uniform because his own clothes had been torn.'

A year later, the five-year-old Michael was being shown around The Peninsula, which was somewhat ravaged but at least had its utilities in order and was filled with guests biding time until they could reoccupy their ruined homes. Fixing one of those utilities - electricity - became a Kadoorie concern.

Lawrence, 19, had attended China Light & Power's first board meeting in 1918, when his father decided to set up power plants in Kowloon. By 1945, Sir Elly was dead - he had died in the prison camp in Shanghai - and China Light & Power's assets had been dismantled for use as firewood by the Japanese. Lawrence, the unsentimental Victorian who looked into the future, spent his life building the company up, a process that included entering into a joint venture in the 1980s to build the Daya Bay nuclear plant.

Lawrence's peerage in 1981 was partly attributed to his charitable interests but also to the fact that he had given Britain's General Electric its biggest single export order, worth #500 million, when he bought equipment for the Castle Peak B power station. His official designation was Baron Kadoorie of Kowloon in Hong Kong and of the City of Westminster, but to territory residents he was known as the Last Taipan.

'China Light was something with which my father spent most of the latter days of his business career,' says his son. 'I think it was China Light, charities and the family - in that order. He was a workaholic and the family, clearly as any family would, had to accept that. That's what kept him young. Like lack of sleep keeps me young.'

Michael Kadoorie, sitting in The Peninsula's China Clipper helipad lounge, on the 30th floor of the tower, opened in 1994, smiles. The location is, literally, his choice: every aeronautical gizmo on display, from the splendid Pratt & Whitney Douglas DC3 Radial Aircraft Engine to the humblest rivet, was chosen by him to honour the authentic spirit of aviation. 'I can tell you all the details in this room,' he says. 'The instruments you see on the wall which are screwed down, in fact, had the wrong screws. They didn't have the screws of the period but of a modern aircraft. Now I'm a perfectionist and those details annoy me. These rivets here were put in by a retired 73-year-old riveter from HAECO [Hong Kong Aircraft and Engineering Company].' Flying has been a passion since he learned to pilot a Cessna in 1965. 'Which I thoroughly enjoyed. Probably it was the freedom which flying gives.' From? 'The obligations we all have. When you fly, you concentrate on flying and do not allow yourself to be influenced by people, telephone calls, work, whatever.' In 1980, he learned to fly a helicopter and became the first private helicopter pilot, and the first private individual to own a helicopter, in Hong Kong.

'My father used to come up flying with me in the helicopter because he used to like to see the islands where China Light provided electricity. He'd say, 'Please go over there, we've just supplied part of Tap Mun.' We would land and chat to the village elder who'd generally be delighted. I don't know who understood more - my father spoke some Cantonese - they were pleased and he was delighted.'

Michael speaks only a little Cantonese. 'Only what I've picked up from staff in the house. I've never learned it which is rather sad.' He does, however, speak French: he attended Le Rosey school in Switzerland and his comings and goings at the beginning and end of term were occasionally noted by this newspaper. (Those were curiously innocent, forelock-tugging days for the English-speaking community here. In the otherwise anarchic summer of 1968, the South China Morning Post could run as legitimate a news item beginning: 'Mr and Mrs Lawrence Kadoorie will leave for London on Sunday... After approximately two weeks in England they plan to motor through Europe to Santa Margherita on the Italian Riviera... They will be away from the colony for about two months.')

He also learned a little Spanish at Le Rosey, courtesy of a Mexican room mate who used to play mariachi records. 'All the great mariachi singers, like Jorge Negrete... Those would be played and, of course, absorbed. I love Mexican music.' His wife, the former Betty Tamayo, is from a Cuban family in Florida so the Hispanic influence in his life has continued. In a previous interview, it was said he would have liked to have been a mariachi singer. 'Someone attributed that to me but what I said, in fact, was that I thoroughly enjoyed mariachi music and perhaps, in another life, I might have been a mariachi singer.'

Instead, he's a businessman with a hectic schedule - even as we speak someone is hovering to remind him that the Sichuan Provincial Committee is waiting in another room to discuss a possible China Light & Power project. When his Ferrari crashed outside Oxford in summer 1999 Keith Willett, the trauma specialist at John Radcliffe Hospital who treated him, was quoted in The Times as saying: 'Mr Kadoorie is tremendously energetic and was running his international business from his hospital bed within days of his surgery.'

'I'm a great believer in destiny,' Kadoorie says of that accident. 'Suffice it to say some good has come out of it.' Although he doesn't spell out the details, he donated #1.2 million (HK$16 million) to the Radcliffe's Centre for Critical Care and #1.4 million to facilitate an exchange programme between the Radcliffe and Hong Kong's Prince of Wales Hospital.

That low-key generosity has been a Kadoorie characteristic from the early days. In 1951, the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association (KAAA) was set up. Initially, it helped 14 refugee families build pigsties in Cheung Sheung, then it pioneered vegetable and livestock farms in the New Territories; eventually the KAAA helped more than 300,000 refugees from China. As Hong Kong trekkers can testify, Sir Horace's friendship with the Gurkhas in Sek Kong means unexpected corners of Nepal have bridges and roads that bear the Kadoorie name, and that the charitable reach of the Kadoorie Foundation stretches right across the region.

The John Radcliffe Hospital donation was unusual only in its geographical location. 'The family has been blessed in Asia,' says Michael simply. 'And there are so many needs in this part of the world to keep everyone busy.'

The family motto, which was actually the motto of Sir Elly's wife, Laura Mocatta, is Adhere and Prosper. He is adhering, but he's frank enough not to pretend it's been easy - rather like being interviewed, a process he views with distaste but through which he soldiers on ('All right, keep going!') because it is for the greater good of promoting The Peninsula's anniversary.

'There have been many difficult periods,' he begins, then corrects himself. 'That's not actually true. I think as you grow up, you have the adjustment to responsibilities. Now you could say that's easy or not easy... but that's a difficult period of your life. You have the loss of loved ones which then means you have more responsibilities. Periods in business when things don't run evenly. But I think you should weigh them up by the fact - why should you always have the privilege? I mean, there are obligations but I've been very fortunate.'

Two weeks before the interview, and for the first time since 1947, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels became, once again, a company with a hotel in Shanghai - or at least a company with a contract for a proposed hotel on a site near the Bund that used to house the former British consulate. The original building will be preserved.

Those who remember with fury the loss of the Repulse Bay hotel in the 1980s may like to know that it was Michael Kadoorie who saved the verandah. 'I claim credit for that - I had every piece stored in the garage, photographed and inspected once a month,' he says. Did his father want to pull it all down? 'I'm sure he did but destiny was the deciding factor, although you've got to help it along... like retaining all the bits.'

The Shanghai project completes a family circle of endeavour, loss, re-endeavour that Kadoorie, who used to spend his school holidays with uncle Horace visiting The Peninsula's back-of-house and its staff, has known all his life.

'I don't think there was ever a time when the hotel wasn't important to me,' he says. 'It's like a piece of cloth - it is part of my weave. It's something I love, something I feel privileged to have to work with. Basically, it's my extended family, and I say that very genuinely.'