Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review - YK Pao, My Father

I was thrilled to get this book fresh from HK University Press.  I've heard about YK Pao for many
years and always had a favourable impression of him and the business empire he built.  But actually I knew very little about him, and his two largest companies - World Wide Shipping and Wharf/Wheelock  - as he was retiring about the same time I was starting as an analyst in Asia.

For those who don't know, YK Pao built the world's largest shipping company in twenty years from a single used ship he purchased in 1955.  By the mid-70s he was on the cover of Time magazine.  He later went on to acquire the Wharf/Wheelock group which was the first ethnic Chinese takeover of a British owned 'hong', or trading house.  His net worth when he passed away in 1990 was estimated at some US$11b.  Along the way he met and built relations with some of the world's most influential people including Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, and Li Ka-shing, amongst many others.

My perception of him was that of an old-school, Ningbo-to-Shanghai-to-post-liberation-Hong Kong transplant doing do the right thing for himself, his family, as well as the greater community.   With the book being written by his daughter I suspect this image would be reinforced.

And it was.  His daughter is certainly filial and after putting the book down, it was hard to remember any faults, bad habits or annoying traits that her father possessed.  But then I doubt I would be very objective when writing about my own flesh-and-blood.  Despite the lack of objectivity, the book provides good insight into the history of a self-made man who through hard work, connections and good fortune made a lot of money - and did a lot of good.

Perhaps the most insightful section was about YK Pao and his family's relationship with Deng Xiaoping and his family.  Deng Xiaoping is a personal hero of of mine and this is insight I had not been aware of.

The book notes that YK Pao appears to have been one of the closest non-Mainland confidants to Deng Xiaoping.  This closeness and YK Pao's international experience, contacts and stature helped on several fronts.  This included building the first foreign funded hotel in China, setting up one of the first private-government joint-ventures (for the hotel), and smoothing China-British relations in negotiating Hong Kong's return to Mainland China.

There is also good insight into HK business circles of the 60s and 70s. Particularly how YK Pao's good relationship with senior HSBC bankers and Li Ka-shing  helped him to outbid Jardines in taking  control of Wharf/Wheelock.

The book also provides good insight into the Pao family and his four daughters.  They all married people from different backgrounds.  The author and oldest marrying an ethnic European, the second a Hong Kong raised Shanghainese, the third to an American of Japanese ancestry, and the youngest to a successful Hong Kong businessman.

Despite his initial objection to his eldest daughter not marrying an ethnic Chinese, once her decision was final and the marriage complete, YK Pao brought him into the business on equal footing as he did his three other son-in-laws.  I suspect this was very forward and open-minded from someone in the late 1960s.  Especially from a man who lived in 1930/40s Shanghai when ethnic Chinese were prohibited from entering 'public' parks located in the European concessions.

Keeping with the tradition of handing the business to his sons, YK split his businesses into four parts - one for each son-in-law. The largest and central business - shipping - went to the eldest son-in-law, despite his European heritage.  The second largest business, Wharf/Wheelock went to the second-eldest.

The book also highlights YK Pao's charitable works.  Like other successful entrepreneurs he never forgot his roots and he and his daughters have given generously to educational and other institutions in the family's hometown of Ningbo, as well as Shanghai, Hong Kong and other places.

The book is an easy read, a good insight into one of the wealthiest and more charitable families in Asia, and is highly recommended for readers who are interested in gaining insight into one of modern Asia's true builders. 

My biggest criticism is not the lack of objectivity, but lack of an index.  There is a great deal of valuable information that scholars and others would/should value but is hard to find to without an index.  This oversight is especially surprising as it given its academic linked publisher.

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