Chow Yau (周有, 1912-1983) – Vertical Integrator of the HK Death Care Industry
York Lo: Chow Yau (周有, 1912-1983) – Vertical Integrator of the HK Death Care Industry
With over 45,000 deaths per year, the death care industry is a huge business in Hong Kong. While many Chinese articles have covered Siu Ming, the king of funeral homes who monopolized the business in the 1960s and early 1970s, little has been written about Chow Yau, the tomb construction mogul who not only successfully challenged Siu’s monopoly in 1975 by co-founding Universal Funeral Parlor in Hunghom but had the foresight to develop the massive Tai Pang Wan Cemetery in Shenzhen in the early 1980s, making him a pioneering vertical integrator of the HK death care industry. An active community leader from the 1940s to the early 1980s who served on the board of many leading organizations, Chow was involved in many businesses outside of construction and death care ranging from furniture, financial services, car dealerships, restaurants to real estate including what eventually became Fairview Park in Yuen Long.
The Rise of a Construction Magnate and Philanthropist
Left: Chow Yau as director of medical service for the HK Building Contractors Association (HKBCA yearbook); Right: ad for Yau Kee Construction and Palace Furniture
Born in the Wai Yeung district in Guangdong province in 1912, Hakka native Chow Yau was educated at Wai Yeung Middle School and followed his father to Hong Kong as a teenager. Hakka natives dominated the HK construction industry in the early years, particularly in the field of stone masonry and Chow learned the trade quickly and established Yau Kee Construction Co (有記建築) in 1930 when he was only 18, taking on contracts of all sizes.
After the War, Chow operated Yau Kee Construction out of 27 Stanley Street in Central and soon identified a business niche in the construction industry which had significantly less competition and much higher profit margin – the business of tomb construction. Historically most Chinese families in HK preferred burials in their ancestral villages in the mainland but that option became infeasible with the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the subsequent Chinese Civil War and regime change in 1949. As a result, more and more people were buried in HK and more cemeteries such as the Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery (which opened in 1941) were being developed. By the early 1950s, Yau Kee was a leading contractor in tomb construction with sites at the Aberdeen Chinese Permanent Cemetery and the Tsuen Wan cemetery, where there was so much business that the firm built a dormitory at the top of the hill for several dozen workers and a construction site office and dormitory at the mid-levels. In 1957, two burglars robbed the dormitory and made off with $885 in cash and a gold ring worth over $100. (WKYP, 1957-2-11)
With his profits from construction, Chow Yau expanded into related businesses. In 1957, Chow and fellow board members of the HK Building Contractors Association including many who were covered in earlier articles such as Cheung Chan-hon, Chung Cheu-kee, Godfrey Yeh, Tam Shiu-hong and Ching Chun-kau formed United Builders Insurance (建安保險) to provide insurance coverage for fellow contractors in response to new labor laws mandating workman’s compensation. In 1958, Chow opened Palace Furniture & Decorations Co (皇宮傢俬) at 473 King’s Road in North Point in August 1958 with a ceremony led by his fellow kinsman Sir Chau Tsun-nin and attended by the Who’s who of HK Chinese community at the time. Chow later served as president of the HK Furniture & Decorations Merchants Association and spoke at their fifth anniversary ceremony in 1962. (WKYP, 1962-7-2) Based on the ad above, Palace specialized in making custom interior and exterior Western style furniture and decorations.
Chow Yau (left) and Sir T.N. Chau (middle) cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony of Palace Furniture in 1958 (WKYP, 1958-8-1)
Among his fellow contractors, Chow was particularly close to Cheung Chan-hon and Ching Chun-kau. He partnered with Cheung to acquire the Hang Lung Bank in 1964 and served as director of the bank into the 1970s when it was under the control of Southeast Asian Chinese interests. Chow was vice chairman of Ching’s car dealership Auto Mart (Far East) Ltd (遠東汽車總滙, incorporated in 1957, dissolved in 1995) and in 1961, he succeeded Ching as chairman of Pok Oi Hospital in Yuen Long.
In 1963, Chow Yau led a group of 16 businessmen, many of whom directors of Pok Oi, and formed Sun Wing Wah Enterprises Co Ltd (新榮華企業) with registered capital of HK$10 million to acquire a 12 million square feet plot of land in Tai Sang Wai (大生圍) in Yuen Long. Chow led the firm as its managing director and the board was spearheaded by Hang Seng Bank vice chairman Kwok Chan as chairman, shipping magnate Hui Oi-chow and Yuen Long local leader Chiu Lut-sau (who was chairman of Pok Oi from 1949-1954 and co-founder of Wing Wah restaurant group known for their mooncakes) as vice chairmen and KMB chairman Tang Shiu-kin as executive director and advisor. The other directors of the firm include Chan Cheung-chi of Hop Sing Lung Oyster Sauce (see article) and his son Ling-fung, the metal window manufacturer and theater owner Chow Mud-wai (see article), Pok Oi vice chairman Chan Tai, Pok Oi chairman Kam Kwong-how (see articles on Kam family of Hocan and Jardines), Hui Oi-chow’s son Hui Ki-pak and grandson Hui Chun-fung (also a Pok Oi director), Pok Oi director Chan Wan-sing and Po Leung Kuk director Cham Siu-leun. Originally, Sun Wing Wah planned to develop an exclusive country club and golf course on the site (allegedly with the Japanese group Tokyu) but the plans for whatever reason never materialized so the firm sold the land to Canadian Overseas Development led by the architect Clifford Wong (黃振輝) in 1975 who developed it into the Fairview Park (錦綉花園) development and as a firm, Sun Wing Wah was dissolved in 1979. Chow was also involved in other real estate firms such as Chuen Hing Investment Co (全興置業, incorporated in 1971, dissolved in 1986) and Chun Wing Investment Co Ltd (振榮置業, incorporated in 1962, dissolved in 1967) and invested in several Chinese restaurants such as Alhambra Restaurant (平安大酒樓) at the Alhambra Building on Nathan Road and Blue Heaven Restaurant & Nightclub (京華酒樓) at Manning House in Central.
Chow Yau (front row center with bow tie) and fellow directors of Sun Wing Wah celebrating the launch of the enterprise at Kin Kwok restaurant in 1963(WKYP, 1963-6-22)
Aside from Pok Oi, Chow was very active with many organizations starting from the late 1940s, having served as a director of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and principal director of the Po Leung Kuk, chairman of the Central District Kaifong Welfare Advancement Association (中區街坊福利會), Chung Sing Benevolent Society and HK Life Saving Society and board member of South China Athletic Association. He began his association with the Confucian Academy in 1958 when he joined its board and became its president from 1980 until his death. Aside from the desire to give back to society, these community engagements also provided important business networking opportunities which was important to Chow’s various business activities. For all his community involvement, Chow Yau was awarded the MBE by the Queen in 1969.
Chow Yau and fellow directors of the Central District Kaifong Welfare Association. Right to left: Chow, chairman Li Che-kong (see Asia Provisions article), supervisor Chan Kam-po, vice chairman Wong Yin-ching (WKYP, 1954-3-27)
Breaking the Monopoly – Universal Funeral Parlour (世界殯儀館)
Universal Funeral Parlour
Aside from the rise of cemeteries, another important trend in the HK death care industry after the War was the rise of funeral homes in the 1950s. Historically, Chinese families held their funerals at home and the coffins were lowered from the windows of their homes on second or third floor of buildings (which was the height of most buildings before the 1950s) through special scaffolding (this is depicted in a picture in the article about Longfellow shirts; Yau Kee might have been involved in this type of construction) followed by a funeral procession to the cemetery. As population skyrocketed and buildings became much taller as a result, the traditional practice became infeasible and funeral homes became more popular. Enter Siu Ming (蕭明1914-1986), a third-generation undertaker who acquired the HK Funeral Home in 1950 (founded in the 1930s, relocated from its original Wanchai location to its current location in North Point in 1966), co-founded Kowloon Funeral Parlour in 1959 and through the acquisition of International Funeral Parlour in 1970 (later transferred to Tung Wah Group of Hospitals under pressure) successfully monopolized the business.
In the early 1970s, Chow Yau and a group of a dozen businessmen including fellow Pok Oi director Ng Yau-man (吳友文), former staff of Siu Ming such as So Nam (蘇南) and Law Tin (羅鈿, father in law of former ICAC commissioner Fanny Law) and police sergeant Wan To (尹濤) joined forces to build a new funeral home to challenge Siu’s monopoly. The group formed Universal Funeral Parlour Ltd (incorporated in 1968) with Chow as chairman and Ng as managing director and successfully bid for a plot of land in Hunghom near the Kowloon entrance of the newly opened Cross Harbour Tunnel for HK$10 million. According to So Nam, the consortium intentionally picked “Universal” as the new funeral home’s name to outdo Siu’s “HK”, “Kowloon” and “International”. With additional bank borrowing of HK$10 million, they built the Universal Funeral Parlour, which opened on November 28, 1975. At launch, the funeral home was one of the most advanced facilities in Asia with five halls equipped with state-of-the-art audio system, central air conditioning, private waiting rooms and exits and a 20,000 sq ft parking lot. As described at launch by managing director Ng Yau-man who ran the business, their goal was to remove some of the drawbacks of traditional funeral services and operate the funeral home like a professional hotel and services were offered at three different rates – premium, nonprofit and free. (WKYP, 1975-11-29)
The founding shareholders leveraged their personal connections to get business, resulting in lots of business over the years not only from the police force and firefighters but the underworld and show business. Within a few years, Universal became the top funeral home in Kowloon and surpassed Kowloon Funeral Parlor.
Ng Yau-man (third from the right) at the opening of his son Ng Kim-wai (third from left)’s accounting firm in 1981. Second from the left is Urban Councilor Chow Wai-hung (WKYP, 1981-5-24)
Born in 1926 in Bangkok, Ng Yau-man was a native of Chenghai in Chiu Chow and graduated from the City Secondary School in Swatow. He came to HK and established many different businesses in the 1960s and 1970s – including Man Hing Marble (文興雲石), Man Kee Stones (文記生花石廠), Man Kee Air Conditioning, Man Shing Construction (文勝建築), Asia Aquarium (亞洲水族馆) and Yau Fat Enterprises Ltd (有發企業, incorporated in 1969, dissolved in 1972) and served as the 13th chairman of the HK Ng Family Association and was elected to the board of Pok Oi Hospital in 1970. (WKYP, 1970-4-25) Ng passed away in around 1983 and was succeeded at Universal by his second son Ng Kim-wai (吳劍威), who graduated with an accounting degree from Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes) in the mid-1970s and later returned to HK to start his accounting practice. (KSDN, 1976-11-27)
The business continued to prosper under the second generation and in December 2006, Universal paid $91.5 million for the five-year contract to operate Perpetual Funeral Parlour, its next-door neighbor in Hunghom, outbidding 10 other firms. The move increased its total number of halls from 26 to 47 and gave Universal a 70% market share of the funeral halls in Hunghom which was 70% of the entire HK market and provoked an unprecedented industry wide protest from competitors but regulators did not consider it an antitrust violation as there were five funeral homes in the HK market. Under Universal’s management, Perpetual was renamed Sai Sing Funeral Parlour but the group did not renew its contract after five years in 2012.
Tai Pang Wan Overseas Chinese Cemetery (大鵬灣華僑墓園)
Groundbreaking ceremony of Tai Pang Wan Overseas Chinese Cemetery (WKYP, 1981-3-31)
Three years after establishing Universal, the opening of China to the outside world in 1978 created an unique opportunity for Chow Yau and his godson Leung Yin-hei (梁延禧, also known as Leung Hei 梁禧) to pursue vertical integration through the development of private cemeteries. In HK, cemeteries were and still are operated by the government, religious organizations and the Board of Managers of Permanent Chinese Cemeteries with long waiting lists. Chow and Leung saw the potential of Mirs Bay (大鵬灣, also known as Tai Pang Wan or Dapeng Bay), a location in the mainland with good feng shui (mountain in the back and water view) which is only a 30-minute drive from the Shenzhen border.
As Chow was an executive committee member of the pro-Beijing Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, he had strong ties to the mainland government and with the help of two left-wing journalists – Kam Yiu-yu (金堯如, 1923-2004), editor in chief of Wen Wei Pao and Wu Tai-chow (胡棣周), former editor of Hongkong Evening News, he was able to convince the Chinese government to grant their Kong Sum Investment (港深投資有限公司, incorporated in 1980) the permission to build and operate a private cemetery called the Tai Pang Wan Overseas Chinese Cemetery on a 5 million sq ft plot in Tai Pang Wan in partnership with the state-owned Shenzhen Gardening Co.
The HK$100 million development, which had five phases, included 3 million sq ft of graveyard comprised of 30,000 five by ten-foot graves and another 2 million sq ft of gardens designed by the architect Ng Chun-man. (WKYP, 1981-1-13) The project broke ground in March 1981 and guests at the groundbreaking ceremony included the deputy mayor of Shenzhen, Lee Wan-yuen of Glory Metal Works, Lau Sai-yan of Kong Sun Weaving, Lau Chi-yuen of Wilman Rubber and Alan Lau of Millie’s Group (all of whom were covered in earlier articles).
The initial sales effort was handled by Cecil Chan Kam-chiu J.P. (陳錦釗) and by February 1982, the first 2000 graves in the cemetery were sold and completed and Phase II construction which included garden, pagoda and offices commenced. (TKP, 1982-2-18) Thanks to referral sales by affiliate Universal and rival HK Funeral Home and convenience such as shuttle buses, Tai Pang Wan was a huge hit and many famous personalities including politician/businessman Dr T.K. Ann and Francis Tien and the shipping tycoon T.Y. Chao chose to bury there.
By 2011, all 50,000 graves in the cemetery were sold out, out of which 30,000 were taken up by HK residents and the price per grave had appreciated close to twentyfold from HK$12,000 at launch to over HK$200,000 each. As cemetery space ran out, cremation became the norm with 90% of HK resident choosing that option over burial, which was the reverse case three decades before. Today, Kong Sum continues to collect HK$3500 per grave as annual management fee, which represents an estimated HK$175 million in recurring revenue.
Chow Ping-wing (right) presenting a $5000 check to Po Leung Kuk chairman Woo Wing-fai in memory of his father Chow Yau in 1983. (WKYP, 1983-3-10)
In 1980, Chow Yau established Creditland Finance (基富財務), a deposit taking company and lender in partnership with Southeast Asian interests and served as its chairman. In October 1982, Creditland opened a branch on the ground floor of 717B Nathan Road with Sir Tang Shiu-kin, former Tung Wah chairman and developer Cho Shiu-chung (to be covered) and Ng Chu Lin-fun as guests of honor. (WKYP, 1982-10-7) In January 1983, Creditland opened a branch at 81 Castle Peak Road in Yuen Long. (WKYP, 1983-1-7) The next month, the firm donated a God of Wealth statue in Repulse Bay which was opened by Sir Philip Haddon-Cave (WKYP, 1983-2-11)
In February 1983, Chow Yau died at the age of 75 at the Tang Shiu Kin Hospital in Wanchai. His funeral was held at Universal but he was buried in the Chai Wan Buddhist Cemetery instead of his Tai Pang Wan cemetery. He was survived by his widow Auyeung Kam, 2 sons –Ping-wah (周炳華) and Ping-wah and three daughters. His second son Chow Ping-wing (周炳榮) was deputy managing director of Yau Kee and Sun Wing Wah, vice chairman of Alhambra Restaurant, president of Creditland Finance, director of Po Leung Kuk and Tung Wah, vice president of the Lions Club of Happy Valley (WKYP, 1977-10-2) and ran for the first Central and Western District Council election in 1982.
On September 20, 1983, barely seven months after the death of Chow Yau, Creditland suddenly shut down. (WKYP, 1983-9-28) As it turned out, two executives of the firm defrauded two banks out of HK$40 million (one of whom was sentenced to 7 years jail sentence in 1985 as a result) which caused Creditland to fail and as a result, $6.6 million in customer deposits were lost. (WKYP, 1985-5-18)
This article was first posted on 17th April 2020.
Related Indhhk articles:
- Wo Hop Shek Spur Line
- Wo Hop Shek Spur Line – film en route to the cemetery and crematorium
- The Hong Kong Excavation, Pile Driving and Construction Company Ltd and the Charles L Shank photograph album
- Tam Shiu-hong (譚肇康 1875-1961) – HK Construction Industry Pioneer and Supporter of Sun Yat-sen’s Revolution
- Cheong Hing Co/Cheung Hing Construction (祥興建造) – leading building contractor
- The Hongkong Engineering & Construction Company Ltd 1922-1993