Born in 1941, Chen Lihua is perhaps unique among tycoons in that she claims to be related to the last Emperor of China, Puyi. Born to a royal clan of the Manchu ethnic minority that ruled China between 1644 and 1912, Chen also spent a few years of her childhood in Beijing’s Summer Palace. On marrying, her dowry consisted of rare antique sandalwood furniture.
Chen’s noble status was never going to be a big plus for joining Mao Zedong’s new ruling class. During the Cultural Revolution she feared her beloved antique sandalwood would be destroyed; so she buried it all. A decade later, when Mao died, she dug it up to discover it undamaged. Then she set up a shop to repair old furniture herself. Business blossomed and she built a factory.
In 1981 she moved to Hong Kong and set up Fu Wah International. With money from furniture sales, and from selling family property left to her, she put together enough capital for some successful speculation in Hong Kong’s real estate market. Over the coming years she would diversify into trading and investment. In 1989 she returned to Beijing.
Need to know
Chen became one of China’s early property tycoons, her first major project being the Chang’an Club – combining an exclusive members-only business club for the elite and an apartment complex. She then continued building in prime sites around Beijing’s Wangfujing area. She has so far developed 1.3 million square metres of property in the Chinese capital, and invested more than Rmb10 billion ($1.5 billion). Such grand redevelopment has not been without controversy, since existing residents had to be relocated. A whole chapter is dedicated to this subject in Philip Pan’s book Out of Mao’s Shadow.
And to relax
Chen has become as well known for her sandalwood as her properties. Soon after making her first fortune, she decided to open the country’s first ‘private’ museum to showcase her growing collection. It contains around 2,000 antique items, as well as pieces she has designed herself and made in her factories (sourcing expensive and rare sandalwood from places like Burma). Chen has spent Rmb200 million on the museum, and describes it as a “cultural investment” not designed to make money. However, the value of her antiques continues to rise, reports the local media.
Chen’s long business career has awarded her a fortune worth Rmb27 billion ($4.1 billion), putting her in sixteenth place on the 2010 Hurun Rich List
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