Tycoon, philanthropist, lover: the many sides of late Hong Kong billionaire Eric Hotung, 91

After a colourful life in media headlines, the oldest grandson of legendary businessman Robert Hotung died in his sleep on Wednesday

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 October, 2017, 11:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 October, 2017, 11:04am

Eric Hotung, of Hong Kong’s prominent Hotung family, has died at age 91, concluding an eventful life that began with a tough childhood and was eventually pushed into the public eye thanks to business successes, humanitarian works and a messy love affair.

A private family mass will be held on Tuesday at St. Joseph’s Church, followed by a burial at Chiu Yuen Cemetery.

In an obituary published in the South China Morning Post last Friday, the tycoon’s family highlighted his philanthropic works, as well as his personal connection with some of the world’s most powerful leaders.

“Through his personal relationships with Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng, Jiang Zemin and many other world leaders ... Eric was driven to act for the betterment of mankind as a whole,” the obituary read.

When Sir Robert Hotung died, so did a piece of Hong Kong’s history

The oldest grandson of Robert Hotung – a legendary Hong Kong businessman in the colonial era who helped bankroll Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 revolution – died peacefully in his sleep last Wednesday, it said.

The billionaire philanthropist was born in the city in 1926 to a Eurasian family.

Though his father was a banker, Hotung suffered from poverty and the fear of the war in his early days.

The family was placed under house arrest in Shanghai by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War, and his father lost both his legs after a Japanese bombing attack on Hong Kong. To make things worse, Robert Hotung cut Eric Hotung’s parents off from the family fortune because he disapproved of their relationship, according to the latter’s interview with Forbes.

After the war, Hotung went to the United States for university and stayed for work upon graduation in 1951. The Georgetown graduate returned to Hong Kong to inherit the family business following the death of his grandfather in 1956 and father in 1957.

Hotung continued to expand the business empire – with interests ranging from import and export trade and real estate to securities – across the globe.

Financial prowess aside, the Hong Kong-born British national was also known for his ability to connect state leaders from the East and West during his diplomatic work in the 1980s.

Former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng had all met him personally, Hotung’s official website states. The Hotung Institute for International Studies, a research organisation he founded, even helped arrange a trip for then rising Chinese leader Zhu Rongji to Washington in 1990, according media reports. He was also said to have known former US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton personally.

Better to have loved and lost? Court rejects billionaire Eric Hotung’s bid to recoup 55-year-old debt from ex-lover

Hotung’s painful experience during the war prompted the tycoon to use his resources for philanthropic works – and he did not just contribute money.

During Indonesia's East Timor crisis in 1999, Hotung bought a former Australian navy ship to transport 12,800 East Timorese refugees back to their home. He was named ambassador-at-large when the nation became independent in 2002.

But to the Hong Kong public, Hotung was better known for his colourful personal life – including a decades-long love affair with his cousin Winnie Ho Yuen-kin – often grabbing the headlines of local entertainment news outlets.

The romance did not end well. Hotung was embroiled in legal tussles for the past few years, including one that saw him suing his lover over the HK$2 million he had handed to her in 1960s on trust to invest on his firm’s behalf.

The tycoon told the High Court last year that he was more occupied with lovemaking than telling Ho about his intentions for the trust at that time. Hotung eventually failed to claim the sum.

In 2012, the philanthropist was ordered by a court to pay his secret child with Ho US$1.2 million for making defamatory comments on local news outlets, such as “he is not my son” and “these kinds of people cannot be members of the Hotung family”, The Washington Post reported.