Outfoxing Henry

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Dec 12, 2008
*Special to asia!

By all accounts, Henry Fok was a hard act to follow.

The Chinese like to say that the best time to assess a man is when you are closing the lid of his coffin. But for Henry Fok Ying-tung, opinions are still mixed after the 83-year-old tycoon was laid to rest in Hong Kong following a state burial of the highest order.

Was Fok merely a smuggler of medicine who bet on the right horse by backing China over the British as early as the 1950s? Or was he truly the "patriotic businessman", as hailed by China after his death through cancer, who shipped much-needed goods to the mainland with British gunboats nipping at his heels?

Was he the gangster boss who provided the muscles that controlled Macau's shady gambling business, where he had long been the behind-the-scenes partner of "casino king" Stanley Ho? Or was he the philanthropist who injected his entire holdings in Macau casinos into his foundation, which has distributed huge sums to charity?

Was he the unscrupulous manipulator who used everyone to his own gain? (He is reputed to have made his eldest son marry a teenage beauty queen to lend glamour to his business.) Or was he the soft-hearted man who openly wept at the death of students killed in the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, one of the very few tycoons who had dared to do so?

Was he the true friend of China, a close confidant of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (who entertained Fok’s entire extended family during a visit to Beijing)? Or did he use insider knowledge gleaned from his connections to grow his already sizeable wealth? Was he the man who controlled Hong Kong’s sports scene and made money out of it, or was he the dedicated sportsman who was instrumental in securing China’s rights to host the 2008 Olympics?

The answer, perhaps, is that Henry Fok was all of the above. A man who was literally born on water — he belonged to the poor minority who lived on boats trawling the Hong Kong waters — Fok made his money, dollar by dollar, the hard way, by labouring long hours, by taking increasingly big risks, and by not sparing either himself or anyone around him. In the end, this made him a man to respect, but difficult to like, even among his close family.

Certainly, his business acumen and his preference for keeping a low profile have not made their way down the line. His sons now run the billion-dollar empire built by the patriarch but none seems to have inherited his touch. His grandchildren are famous, not for their achievements but for their abilities to date glamorous women — one was seen spending nights in a hotel room with actress Zhang Ziyi, of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame; while the other was an on-again, off-again lover of Chinese Olympic diving gold medallist, Guo Jinjin.

What concerns the people in Hong Kong now is the vacuum left by Henry Fok’s passing. Fok, for his contributions, was vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an extremely important post. More than former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (whom Fok bailed out when Tung’s business floundered in the ’80s), more than Li Ka-shing, Fok was highly respected in Beijing, and his voice was taken seriously. With his death, Hong Kong has lost its most important spokesman, and there does not seem to be anyone capable of stepping into his shoes.

 

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

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