The Hongcouver
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Former duck farmer from China revealed as buyer of US$40 million Vancouver mansion

Low-profile tycoon Chen Mailin, a member of the CPPCC, may have made the biggest home purchase in Canadian real estate history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 March, 2015, 1:06am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:49am

Who is Chen Mailin? He’s gone from being a duck farmer, to a hotelier, to the head of a skyscraper-building conglomerate and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

The 45-year-old Jiangsu-province businessman is now also the owner of one of Vancouver’s grandest homes, a 17,000 sq ft Italianate mansion on 1.1ha in Point Grey, sales documents revealed last week. The C$51.8 million (HK$315 million, US$40 million) price makes it one of the city’s most expensive homes; it also may represent the single biggest residential transaction ever conducted in Canada, although the nature of private sales make this difficult to prove.

The home at 4787 Drummond Drive was built on what was once three separate lots  by the computer games mogul Don Mattrick - formerly of Entertainment Arts (EA) and Microsoft, and now CEO of Zynga – and his wife, telecoms heiress Nanon de Gaspe Beaubien-Mattrick.

Mattrick is a known quantity – a born-and-bred Vancouverite who reputedly lives “like a Saudi prince” and counts Steven Spielberg and Wayne Gretzky among his friends. He found fame and fortune at EA, a major Vancouver employer.

Chen is an altogether different matter. He’s a rather low-key figure among the flashy ranks of Chinese tycoons.

He was born into a poor family in 1969 in Nanjing city’s Pukou district, according to a profile by the Nanjing Daily. Chen started out as a labourer and factory worker before making his first foray into business in 1992. With savings of 18,000 yuan, he started a duck farm. The investment apparently flopped.

It was in 1996 that Chen borrowed money and started a successful hotel. He was on his way. In 2000, he got into construction, then it was a short hop to the booming world of Chinese real estate development.

In November 2001, his company website says, Chen founded Jiangpu Dingye Real Estate Development, and the overarching Nanjing Dingye Investment Group, of which he is chairman. Among its projects was the 180 million yuan Dingye International Building, a 26-storey tower in Nanjing boasting a five-star hotel. Nanjing Dingye’s four business arms are devoted to property development, pharmaceuticals, hotel management and garment manufacturing.

“In leading the company, Chen has insisted on pursuing the goal of achieving economic, social and environmental efficiency and giving back to communities,” says the Nanjing Dingye site. With his “high sense of social responsibilities”, Chen has received a slew of municipal awards:  “Advanced Individual in Contributing to the Construction of Pukou”, “Outstanding Private Entrepreneur of Nanjing”, “Star of a Honoured Enterprise,” and “Model Worker of Nanjing City”.

Chen has also found time to take part in Chinese policy-making as a CPPCC member representing Nanjing city (the CPPCC is a huge body, with more than 2,000 delegates. Its role is advisory, not legislative). He participated as recently as August 22, 2014, when he was listed as attending a Nanjing meeting of delegates. But his actual contributions are unclear; the only reference to be found was a proposal he lodged in 2010, suggesting a “policy to introduce high-end talent” to a couple of Nanjing municipal bodies.

Despite maintaining strong mainland ties, he has also forged links to Vancouver, although these mostly appear related to residential real estate. His local company, Chunghwa Investments (Canada) Co Ltd, is based downtown, but also has a listed phone number that apparently directs to another mansion at 6080 Steveston Highway in Richmond. Chen also owned a home in posh Shaughnessy, at 1559 Laurier Avenue, which he offloaded last year for C$10.5million according to the Vancouver Sun’s Joanne Lee-Young, who first reported the Drummond Drive sale.

The Point Grey estate was not listed through the public Multiple Listing Service (MLS), and instead was being offered last year by Malcolm Hasman, the city’s top-selling luxury realtor.

 

I spoke to Hasman last May about the home. He said he had received three written offers over C$40 million, all from mainland Chinese buyers. They included an offer of C$52 million in the first month (apparently not from Chen), which was rejected, because “it came too soon, and they [the would-be buyer] wanted everything with it”, meaning the antiques, art and furniture that decorated the Mattricks’ home. At the time, Hasman would not identify the sellers or any potential buyers.

When I spoke to the ebullient Hasman again on Monday, he refused to offer many details about the transaction, but did confirm involvement in the sale. Despite the eye-watering price, Hasman contended the home represented “tremendous value”. “It may seem like a lot of money,” he said. “But I think it’s one of the best-value deals I’ve done in years because it is so far below the replacement cost.”

Hasman said the home itself – featuring an indoor pool, two-level library and a 10-car garage - represented C$25million to C$30million in improvement value, and the lot alone was worth more than C$40 million. “The dirt value alone, I’d put at C$42 million, C$43 million,” he said, adding that putting together an equivalent parcel of three lots in an equivalent location would be near impossible.

A voicemail left at Chunghwa’s downtown office was not returned; calls to the Drummond Drive and Steveston Highway homes went unanswered.

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The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.