Most of the world knows the fulsome, pompadour-bearing developer Donald Trump as the king of New York property. But the city's No1 man nowadays might just be an unassuming, 45-year-old immigrant from Taipei. In just over 10 years, 'Sam' Chang Shan-leong has built his company, the McSam Hotel Group, from an obscure start-up with a US$500,000 plot of land into a juggernaut with more than US$2.3 billion worth of property in development and under construction. 'Nobody has more sites and has gone after underdeveloped areas as aggressively,' says John Fox, senior vice-president of PKF Consulting, an international hotel advisory firm in New York City. It is a classic immigrant story: a young man fresh from Asia gazes at New York City for the first time at the age of 19. It's love at first sight. He has big dreams and vows to return. Fifteen years later, he scrapes together enough cash to make that initial foray and buy a small unwanted piece of land. The old money looks on with suspicion, but he succeeds. A few years later, he's a millionaire. Today, at a time when New York City's hotel industry is raking in record profits and most hotels are operating at or near capacity, Mr Chang is positioned to cash in. He is planning to build an estimated 3,000 of the 5,000 hotel rooms in the pipeline. Those numbers - along with the 35 or so hotels he has already built - make Mr Chang's group possibly the largest hotel-development concern in the nation. In recent years, Mr Chang has expanded out of state, opening hotels in California, Arizona and Connecticut, among other states. Now he's got his eyes set on the biggest prize of all: Asia. 'Everybody says it's where the future is,' Mr Chang says. On October 1 he opened a 270-room, four-star hotel in Shenyang . He is proposing a 250-room Holiday Inn in Taiwan, and returned last week from Macau, where he was negotiating to build a hotel. It doesn't make for much time off. 'Right now, business is my hobby and my vacation time is when I sit on the aircraft,' he says. 'In first class, nobody bothers me. I read the newspaper and take care of paper work.' Travelling is nothing new to Mr Chang. Born in Taiwan, he spent his teens as a student in Japan. His American odyssey began when he emigrated to the United States in 1977 to help his parents operate a hotel in Los Angeles. Two years later, at 19, he bought a new Trans Am car and drove it across the country with a friend. The pair took eight months, stopping in towns like Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Dallas, Texas, and working jobs to fund their adventures. When they emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel and first gazed upon the New York City skyline, Mr Chang knew he was home. 'I said to my friend Peter, 'If I could own one of those buildings, I would be a happy man',' he recalls. 'Now I am a really happy man.' Mr Chang returned to the city years later with investment money from a group of Indian hoteliers, another immigrant ethnic group that is prolific in the hospitality industry. Mr Chang says his special background opened his eyes to opportunities other New Yorkers did not see. 'When people ask me where I am from, I like to tell them I am 50 per cent Chinese, 25 per cent Japanese and 25 per cent American,' Mr Chang says. 'I learned a lot when I was in Japan - I learned how to pack everything into a small space, and that is my niche. I learned to work hard from the Chinese. And from the Americans, I learned how to get a deal done efficiently.' All those skills were in play when Mr Chang plunked down that first US$500,000 for a plot of land in a part of the city nobody wanted. At the time, most developers were focused on building high-end luxury boutique hotels on large plots of land. Because residential values were so high, most believed you needed a huge profit margin to survive. Few were interested in that 2,500 sq ft piece of dirt on the edge of Manhattan. But on that tiny plot of land near a convention centre, Mr Chang envisioned the kind of compact, no-frills urban dwelling he had seen so often in Japan, where space is at a premium. 'Nobody wanted to touch it,' Mr Chang says. And that's how I started.' He built a small, moderately priced hotel and leveraged his investment. Then he acquired more land in fringe areas around Manhattan, squeezing budget hotels into vacant lots and forgoing the amenities and glamour of New York's downtown establishments. At the time the approach raised eyebrows, and it caused some controversy. In order to keep construction costs down, Mr Chang sometimes used non-union labour, which got him into trouble with local protesters. He says the union trouble is a thing of the past: he cut a deal to use union workers on his larger sites in exchange for some leeway on smaller ones. In the end, the strategy put him in a position to cash in when the hospitality boom hit last year. 'He had the market to himself for awhile,' says Sean Hennessey, the chief executive of Lodging Investment Advisors. 'The consensus was that it was not economical to build low-priced hotels because of the high land costs. Now others are starting to follow him.' After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, New York City began a long, slow rebound that continues to this day. With the dollar weak, a record 44 million tourists converged on New York City last year. Meanwhile, the cost of staying at a New York hotel rose 11 per cent, from US$217 a night in 2005 to US$241 last year. Most hotels were operating at 85 per cent occupancy, meaning they are pretty much all booked every night except Sunday. That has driven up the value of New York hotels. In October, Istithmar, an investment firm owned by the ruling family of Dubai, bought the W Union Square Hotel for a record US$285 million, or about US$1 million a room. 'You could build a hotel anywhere in Manhattan right now and do well,' Mr Fox says. 'Business is so strong, we're driving business out of Manhattan because we can't accommodate them.' The success is allowing Mr Chang to expand, diversify and take new risks. He has sold about 20 of the hotels he has built, and kept 15. And many of his new projects are special. Mr Chang is planning to open New York's first full-service hotel in Chinatown, a 370-room Sheraton on Canal Street that will probably be the biggest development there. He is building six hotels on a single city block south of Times Square, something that has not been done in New York City before. But it is his Asian properties that are perhaps his biggest departure. The Shenyang Hotel is four-star and most of his other projects there will also have three or four stars. 'It's a totally different strategy,' Mr Chang says. 'The return rate is not as good in China. The return rate in New York City is better because I'm used to it and I know all the regulations. In China, I have to rely on somebody else and pay a premium. 'But everyone says that's where the future is.'