It’s conventional wisdom that billionaires in Hong Kong derive much of their fortune from the property sector. But Lui Che Woo is different. The 89 year-old rose rapidly on the rich list after founding his casino and hospitality company Galaxy Entertainment Group in the early 2000s. The gaming boom in Macau even helped Lui briefly dethrone CK Hutchison’s Li Ka-shing as Asia’s wealthiest man in 2014. Last week he ranked third in Hong Kong and 50th in the world with a net worth of $18 billion, according to Forbes.
Lui’s success was achieved over decades. Born in Jiangmen in the southern province of Guangdong, he became an entrepreneur at the age of 13 as the Second World War broke out – a period of turmoil that put an abrupt end to his schooling and forced him to focus on feeding the family. He began by selling snacks during Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong and moved on to dealing in car parts. He made his first fortune by importing machinery for digging quarries and reclaiming land – a cleverly timed move in anticipation of Hong Kong’s huge demand for construction in the post-war era (see WiC223 for more background on Lui’s business strategy).
That experience laid the foundation for Lui to move into supplying construction materials under the brand of K. Wah Group, and then diversify into hotels in Asia and the US, as well as commercial property (according to Lui’s autobiography his first hotel in Hong Kong was financed by HSBC in the early 1980s). Outbidding dozens of competitors for a gaming licence in Macau in 2001 he helped transform the gambling territory’s Cotai Strip, an erstwhile swampland, in a feat that helped Lui’s business empire reach new heights.
Three years ago the tycoon endowed his foundation with $1.2 billion and established the Lui Che Woo Prize, which honours contributions to sustainability, promoting positive energy, and the betterment of human welfare.
This year’s recipients are India’s Pratham Education Foundation, the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation, and Hans-Josef Fell (a German activist and a member of the Green Party) respectively for their contributions to eliminating illiteracy, reducing the impact of natural disasters, and developing renewable energy. Each will receive a certificate, a trophy, and a cash award of HK$20 million ($2.56 million).
The laureates are chosen through a three-stage adjudication process. First, the Selection Panel assesses the nominations received in each prize category, and shortlists the nominees. The Prize Recommendation Committee, chaired by Professor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, then considers the nominations and makes recommendations to the Prize Council for final judgment.
The Prize Council currently comprises five members including Sir James D Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, and Lui himself.
WiC sat down with Lui to discuss the prizes, the decision to have his granddaughter Jessica Cheng manage the prize’s foundation and why he first started wearing his trademark flat cap.
What prompted you to devise and fund this annual prize and what is its purpose?
I hope the earth can remain habitable millions of years from now. To do so we need to promote sustainable development, the welfare of mankind, and world peace. There are a lot of prizes focusing on scientific discovery or medical research, but not so much about the above. My wish is to see those who are capable and intelligent helping the wretched and underprivileged.
The first two awards are for sustainable development and welfare of humanity. What is the thinking behind the third one for “positive life energy”?
When I was young, I experienced the Sino-Japanese war. I saw a lot of people butchered or starved to death. I hope people can live peacefully, instead of fighting against one another. So people talk about the trade war and currency war now. It would be great if we can be more forgiving and have more compassion for others.
I am also inspired by how things are run in Europe. People there are not as money-minded, yet they are joyful and grateful for what they have. They don’t lose their composure easily.
That’s positive energy – something that I’d like to promote and is yet to be recognised by other prizes.
Some of your past laureates had earlier won prestigious prizes like the Nobel. What’s the rationale of rewarding these people again?
If you got a prize before, does it mean that you can never get a prize anymore? Not really. If you have contributed something, then you have contributed something. It’s not fair to discriminate against someone simply because he or she has been recognised already. The Lui Che Woo Prize is meant to encourage people to continue his or her good initiatives. And we do so by giving out a cash award of HK$20 million ($2.56 million) – bigger than other international awards in monetary terms.
For example, Professor Yuan Longping, who won our Sustainability Prize in 2016, had donated the entire cash reward to Tsinghua University. He set up other funds to support research related to hybrid rice. The former US president Jimmy Carter, who won our Positive Energy Prize in 2016, also donated the cash award to Africa for curing river blindness [a parasitic eye and skin disease carried by worms] and supporting those who caught the disease.
There are many social issues at home in Hong Kong and in mainland China, such as huge wealth inequality. Do you see the need to first focus on solving or alleviating local problems before setting your sight on global issues?
China had been set back for a few hundred years because of a closed-door policy, foreign invasion and civil wars. But it is catching up fast.
Let me tell you a story. I went to Kunming 30 years ago and saw a woman transporting heavy goods in a rickshaw while carrying a baby on the front. It was incredibly dangerous. At the time there were a lot of migrants. Many of them lacked education and were destitute.
The sight prompted me to build 150 primary and high schools in poor places in China such as those close to Xinjiang and Yunnan. But I stopped at the 130th because the welfare and education system in China was advancing at an impressive speed.
China is on the right track and it has improved a lot – from a place of little technology, transportation and hygiene facilities to today where one can settle bills with mobile phones. I have a lot of confidence in the country.
We might not be getting full marks, but we’re definitely a lot better than before.
What are your views on more and more businessmen in mainland China turning their focus to philanthropy?
The trend suggests there are more people understanding the virtue of giving back to society. And that can be achieved through helping the underprivileged. I am glad. I believe it has to do with traditional Chinese values that emphasise morality. Confucianism and Laozi [the founder of Taoism] are inspiring.
Who do you look up to or view as a role model in the realm of philanthropy?
There are many philanthropists. I dare not say who’s doing well and who’s not. No matter what they achieve [in this respect] you can’t deny their kindness. We can’t judge their kindness. They do what they can do. Like me, I’m just sowing a small seed at the moment. I hope people can water it, help grow it into a plant. I leave the rest to the future. It’s not about expecting a return. It’s not about courting fame and publicity. It’s about taking responsibility as a member of the universe or the earth.
How has your attitude towards money and business success changed over the years? Do you pay more attention to issues such as legacy now?
Money is significant. It’s something that everybody chases after. If you don’t have it, your life will be tough or it won’t improve. Yet money can also be sinful, especially when it drives people to commit heinous crimes. Don’t take money too seriously. There are two sides to the same coin. Go by the moral compass and have good faith.
You have involved the younger generation of your family in running the prize. What is your thinking in this regard?
I hope that this award could continue generation after generation, and you need someone trustworthy to oversee its development. I am just sowing the seed and I hope that it will germinate and grow into a plant, a forest. My granddaughter Jessica is young, but mature. She has a fair amount of work experience. I am glad that she shares the same vision with me. She’s a good girl.
On a more light-hearted note, your flat cap has become your style trademark. When did you first start wearing a cap and why?
My hair thinned as I got older. Full-on air conditioning in Hong Kong always gave me a headache.
So one day my eldest daughter Paddy bought me a flat cap, which looked surprisingly good on me. Above all, it saved me from common colds. That’s how I started wearing a cap everywhere I go. I own over a hundred caps now!
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