Chinese Character

Icy reception

Meet the property tycoon who wants to buy up Iceland’s wilderness

Icy reception

Huang: “I’m just a businessman – I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat”

Fancy a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame? Probably not. But more than four million fans have already visited the museum in Nashville, doffing their ten-gallon hats in homage to luminaries like Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams.

Perhaps the hillbilly boogie was what first brought Huang Nubo to the city in Tennessee, where he has invested in a high-end resort.

At least it makes a little more sense than his latest tourism target: Grimsstadir a Fjollum, a desolate patch of northeast Iceland.

Huang, 55, spent $9 million on 300 square kilometres of the Icelandic wilderness and says he will spend another $150 million to build a luxury hotel and golf course. The new resort will join a list of more than 40 tourism properties that Huang’s company is said to own around the world.

But the South China Morning Post summed up much of the media commentary on the latest acquisition, saying the deal seemed “foolhardy and eccentric at best”.

Hence the rumours that the project is a cover for darker motives.

Some suspect that the purchase from the former official in the Communist Party’s propaganda department is part of a “Trojan horse” strategy, in a broader move by Beijing to get access to trans-Arctic shipping lanes.

These could soon open up as polar ice caps melt, says the Financial Times.

Icelanders aren’t too sure what to make of it either.

One of them, Uffe Ellemann, wrote on his blog: “It reminds me of the plot of a James Bond movie – a mysterious Chinese tycoon suddenly pops up and buys a huge piece of land in the middle of nowhere.”

Huang insists he’s no Blofeld, even though he’s listed by Forbes as China’s 161st richest man with a fortune estimated at $890 million.

But he is annoyed by the fuss being made around the deal.

“The government may say: ‘Please do not go, do not make trouble’,” he told Reuters in an interview, referring to his application to the Chinese government to approve the purchase.

“Maybe they will think: ‘Do not arouse any unhappiness for Sino-Iceland relations.’ Then I will just give it up.”

Zhang Bo, a Chinese military expert, also says that the conspiracy theories are unfounded. “It is too much effort and cost to develop a strategic base thousands of miles away in Iceland. This does not meet the reality of China’s current development, as well as the interests of the Chinese people.”

Huang says his motivations are rather simpler, and that he fell in love with Iceland after sharing a room with an Icelandic student during his time at Peking University. His attachment was confirmed last year when he travelled to Iceland for the first time to sponsor a poetry festival (Huang is an avid poet). So much so that he pledged to invest $1 million to establish a ‘China-Iceland Cultural Fund’ for cultural exchange over the next 10 years, says the 21CN Business Herald.

Huang says he is only interested in Iceland’s tourism potential, and that its natural landscape will attract tourists.

“I’m just a businessman – why does everyone think I have the government at my back? It’s true that I have a government background but I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat,” he told the Beijing News.

Indeed, Huang spent the early part of his life on the wrong side of politics. When he was only two years old, his father committed suicide after being branded “a rightist”. To counter the stigma, Huang changed his name from yuping, which means “jade-peaceful” to nubo, which means “angry wave,” so he could join the Communist Party when he was 16.

His fortunes turned in 1977, when he was enrolled in Peking University. After he graduated, Huang found a job in the propaganda department and became department director at the age of 29. Like many other entrepreneurs, Huang left his government position to set up on his own, in his case the property company, Zhongkun.

His big break came in 1997, when he signed a deal with the government of Hongcun in Anhui to turn the impoverished village into a tourist attraction. Huang invested Rmb5 million to repair roads and upgrade nearby hotels. In 2000, the United Nations named Hongcun a World Heritage Site, for its “outstanding example of traditional human settlement”. But the real break came when the village was featured in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Visitors began turning up by the busload.

After success in Hongcun, Huang turned to other tourism projects around the country: stone villages and tombs along the old Silk Road in Xinjiang; hunting and skiing resorts in Inner Mongolia; and temples in Mentougou in western Beijing.

Huang’s critics say he got first dibs on these deals because of his government connections. Another gripe is that local people themselves haven’t made much from Zhongkun’s investment. Take Hongcun: it welcomed more than 530,000 visitors in 2005, collecting ticket sales of $2.3 million. But of that amount, two-thirds went to Zhongkun.

Huang refutes the allegations, telling the Los Angeles Times that he reinvested all profits from Hongcun in developing local hotels and other attractions.

He also denied receiving special favours from government officials: “I was just an ordinary civil servant at the time and did not want to work at the government anymore so I started my own business, which is not unreasonable. If somebody says that I still have government background, this is a completely false speculation,” he complained.

Like many other tycoons, Huang then started to turn his attention overseas.

In 2003, Zhongkun spent $4 million building a 20,000 square metre commercial centre in Los Angeles. Huang also owns a holiday resort in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. And the firm purchased a 1,000-hectare land parcel in Nashville with the goal of constructing a resort. The project was suspended after the onset of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Still, Huang hasn’t given up in Nashville, with Zhongkun resuming construction of the resort in last year. It hopes to add it as an attraction for members of the Hawthorn Vacation Club, a club that it operates. This gives China’s wealthy access to it resorts and helps them to buy properties in the vicinity.

When he’s not talking about property, the tycoon prefers to discuss poetry. As vice president of the Contemporary Chinese Poetry Research Institute of Beijing University, Huang’s verse is composed under the pen name Luo Ying, and has been published in English, Japanese and French. Huang says he is now working on a new poetry collection, as well as studying for a doctoral degree.

Perhaps he is also hoping for a little inspiration from the Icelandic landscape. “I am always craving new horizons and new challenges. Like any poet, I am imaginative and not very practical,” Huang told Shenzhen Daily.

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