Bernard Van Zuiden (萬瑞庭, 1899-1979) – Dutch Trader and Philanthropist in Hong Kong

York Lo: Bernard Van Zuiden (萬瑞庭, 1899-1979) – Dutch Trader and Philanthropist in Hong Kong

Bernard Van Zuiden Image 1 York Lo

Bernard van Zuiden (right) welcoming his visiting elder sister at a cocktail reception in HK in 1959 (WKYP, 1959-12-10) 

Life and Career of Bernard Van Zuiden 

Born in Enschede in eastern Netherlands, Van Zuiden studied textile and commerce in his hometown in the 1910s. He came to the Far East in 1919, first working as a textile merchant in Makassar in Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). From 1930 to 1939, he worked as manager for the import export firm L.E. Tels & Co Trading Society and wrote for Soerabaijasch Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper in Dutch East Indies which operated from 1853 to 1942. 

In 1940, he relocated from Dutch East Indies to Shanghai, only to be interned by the Japanese in the Lunghwa concentration camp from 1941 to 1945. On his way back to Holland in 1946, Van Zuiden had a stopover in Hong Kong for couple of days. According to his nephew Peter Van Zuiden, he “took one look at Hong Kong, fell in love with it, and made it his home until his death 33 years later”. He founded the trading firm of B. Van Zuiden Brothers Co Ltd which started out from a small desk at the Peninsula Hotel became one of the leading Dutch trading firms in the Far East, importing European textiles and other general commodities into Asia with offices in Amsterdam, HK, Singapore (formed in 1952), Tokyo and Osaka.  

In Hong Kong, one of his early customers was a young Hari Harilela (see Tailor article series Part II), who bought European cloth from Van Zuiden for his burgeoning tailoring establishment. Aside from textile, Van Zuiden also distributed other products such as Dutch oatmeal and he was supported by his brother who came out to HK from the Netherlands. The firm operated out of Union House in Central in the 1960s and 1970s.    

In 1962, Van Zuiden Singapore was appointed local agents for the Royal Netherlands Industries Fair (Straits Times, 1962-8-3). The Singapore branch was also the distributor of the Erres brand of electronic appliances including TV sets, radios, fans and vacuum cleaners manufactured by the Dutch firm Van Der Heem in Singapore and won the 1963 Golden Erres Canary awards as one of the top Erres distributors worldwide (Straits Times, 1964-4-24) 

Bernard Van Zuiden Image 2 York Lo

Bernard Van Zuiden (third from left) shaking the hands of his HK distributor Yuen Chi-kong (袁志剛) of Hop Hing Hong while the Dutch consul general in HK and Mrs. Yuen on the left looked on (WKYP, 1964-2-1) 

Philanthropy and Legacy 

Van Zuiden, who remained single, was thrifty but extremely benevolent. He spent his final years living out of the Peninsula Hotel and when he died in 1979, he bequeathed the bulk of his estate to the Van Zuiden Charity Trust, administered by HSBC Trustees and his nephew Peter Van Zuiden. The Trust had quietly donated millions of dollars for decades to over 40 organizations including the Red Cross, the HK Physically Handicapped and Able-Bodied Association (PHAB), the Helping Hand (which has received over $2.7 million from the Trust over the years), the Ebenezer School for the Visually Impaired and the China Coast Community. 

In 1983, HK$1 million of the Van Zuiden estate went towards the establishment of the Bernard Van Zuiden Music Fund (萬瑞庭音樂基金), which has been providing scholarships to musicians in Hong Kong since its inception. The fund is administered by HSBC Trustees and the HK Philharmonic Society. 

As for his trading business, B. Van Zuiden Brothers was acquired by Hank Stijweg, a Dutch businessman in HK and Dentex, the Dutch subsidiary of UK-based Sherwood Group, one of the largest lace producers in Europe in 1990. In 2001, the firm was re-organized as BVZ Asia and focused its business in the distribution of Sunbrella outdoor fabric materials in Asia. 

Bernard Van Zuiden Image 3 York Lo

Left: Van Zuiden Music Fund trustee (right) presenting an award to flutist Tsang Man-fai (center) while Tong Kin-woon (唐健垣), the inaugural head of the Chinese music department at the HK Academy for Performing Arts in 1986 (WKYP, 1986-5-18); Right: Peter Van Zuiden visiting Spastics Association of HK, one of the charities sponsored by the Van Zuiden Trust (  


Rola Luzzatto: Hong Kong who’s who. G.P.O., Hongkong 1970, S. 472.

This article was first posted on 16th August 2019.

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