Fast Eddie: the rise and fall of Eddie Wong (王永祥), international tycoon of mystery and original developer of Discovery Bay

York Lo: Fast Eddie: the rise and fall of Eddie Wong (王永祥), international tycoon of mystery and original developer of Discovery Bay

Eddie Wong Image 1 York Lo

Eddie Wong (center) with John Pain (right), executive director of the HK Tourism Association at a press conference for HK Resort in September 1976. (SCMP)

Known as “Fast Eddie”, Edward Wong Wing-cheung was a legendary business figure in post-War Hong Kong whose business interests ranged from a bank and hotel in Panama to a fleet of vessels transporting goods and passengers between Southeast Asia to the Middle East to an abattoir on Lantau to processing cattle from his ranch in northern Australia and was rumored to be ‘worth US$800 million’ by the early 1970s. His wide network of global political contacts was equally impressive ranging from Soviet bankers to Indonesian generals and top Malay politicians and the former US Treasury Secretary to the Governor of Hong Kong. His most ambitious project – what eventually became Discovery Bay in Lantau proved to be his ultimate undoing in the late 1970s.

Rise of the Shipping Tycoon 

While Eddie Wong rarely gave interviews and even his pictures were hard to find, his entry in the Hong Kong Who’s Who edited by Rola Luzzatto revealed a lot of information about his early career.

Eddie married Shanghai native Linda Chang (sadly the marriage only lasted 6 years as she died during childbirth at HK Sanatorium in 1948) in Hong Kong. In April 1942 in a ceremony presided over by a priest from St Stephen’s College and shortly afterwards went to the mainland where he started Chung Hing Co in Kweilin and dealt in hardware, food and timber until Kweilin fell to the Japanese in 1944 upon which he continued to operate out of Kunming and Kweiyang.

In December 1945, he returned to Hong Kong and founded the shipping firm of Ta Hing Company (HK) Ltd (大興公司) in August 1946. In the late 1940s, the managing directors of Ta Hing were Wong and Cheang Koon-zung (鄭觀成), the Oxford-educated son of BAT comprador Cheang Park-chew and the directors of the firm included Liang Tze-wa, Wong Tsien-hong, W.A. Doust, Fung Chee-yee (possibly the only son of rubber shoe king Fung Keong) and three sons of the pawn shop king and onetime Macau gambling concession owner Ko Ho-ning (高可寧) – Ko Fook-iu (高福耀), Ko Fook-sing (高福成) and Ko Fook-wing (高福永). (Business Directory of HK, Canton and Macao, 1949)

Eddie Wong Image 2 York Lo

Left: Advertisement for Eddie Wong’s Ta Hing Co in 1950 (HK Scouting Gazette, 1950); Right: Ta Hing’s “S.S. Sing Hing” (State Library, Victoria)

Ta Hing’s initial business was transportation of passengers between HK and Macau through three vessels:“Cheung Hing” (祥興輪), “Wing Hing” (永興輪) and “Sing Hing” (成興輪) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In February 1950, the firm obtained the government tender for the lease of Tung On Pier along the Connaught Road Praya. The pier was formerly the pier for vessels between HK and Macao operated by the Fu family’s Tak Kee Company and was renamed Ta Hing Pier and painted green with illuminations under Ta Hing’s ownership. (The China Mail, 1950-3-14)

In 1950, Ta Hing’s “Sing Hing” and “Cheung Hing” were running routes between Hong Kong and Cham Kong and Fukien in the mainland. (TKP, 1950-9-7) In June 1950, “Sing Hing” was shelled by Nationalists while attempting to run the blockade in Shanghai and its Australian captain Robert Young was detained by the Nationalists. In April 1951, Ta Hing acquired two vessels from Australia which were worth HK$1.5 million – the 3351 tons “Mungana” and 3286 tons “Admiral Chase”. The Australian government tried to block the sale in fear that the vessels would end up in the hands of the Chinese Communists given the firm’s business ties to the new regime but Ta Hing defended that it was a British registered firm and its entire fleet flew the Union Jack.   (KSDN, 1951-4-13)

In the early 1950s, Eddie Wong entered the lucrative business of shipbreaking and removal of wreckage through the establishment of International Salvaging Association Ltd in HK in 1951 and International Salvaging Association (Malaya) Ltd in 1952 which was responsible for the clearance of Singapore Harbor from 1952 to 1959. Soon he expanded his footprint to Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia through a partnership with Matsukura Ltd of Japan.

In 1957, Eddie Wong formed The Fir Line Ltd in HK which became a major contractor and supplier of troop carriers for the Indonesian government for deployment of troops against rebels in Sumatra and West Java. By 1961, the firm claimed to be doing over 5 million British pounds in sales. (FEER, 1961) Over time, the fleet of ships under Ta Hing and Fir in addition to the ships mentioned above included “Wa Hing”, “Ceylon”, “Adri IX” (ex “Malaya Fir”), “Adri X”(ex “Hongkong Fir”), “Adri XI” (ex “Djawa Fir”), “Adri XII” (ex “Djakarta Fir”), “Adri XIII” (ex “Neptune Fir”), “Adri XIV” (ex “Apollo Fir”), “Adri XV” (ex “Ruthy Ann”), “Sumbawa” (ex “Grandhing”), M.V. “Lombok” (ex “Culcairn”), M.V. “Sumba” (ex “San Miguel”), M.V. “Asia Fir”, M. V. “Eastern Fir”, S.S. “Pacific Fir”, “Pacific Abeto”,”Bene Abeto”, “Mei Abeto”, “La Grande Abeto” and others.

In 1966, the 1500 ton “Sumbawa” began transporting Muslim pilgrims from Indonesian ports to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Assisted by his younger brother Michael Wong Wing-tai (王永泰), Eddie extended his business empire to Malaysia when his Great Malaysia Lines secured a similar concession to ship Muslim pilgrims from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia in 1970. In addition to former US Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson, the directors of Great Malaysia included UMNO secretary general Datuk Abdul Rahman Senu and UMNO Youth head Syed J’aafar Albar. (Straits Times, 1978-3-9)

Eddie Wong Image 3 York Lo

Left: Mary Wong (KSEN, 1973-3-19); right: Governor and Lady Maclehose at the funeral of Mary Wong in 1973 (WKYP, 1973-3-22)

Back home in Hong Kong, Eddie’s second wife Mary Suffiad (石崇傑, 1920-1973) had emerged as an influential social welfare leader and politician by the early 1970s. Eddie married Mary at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Singapore in May 1952 after his first wife Linda’s death. A graduate of St Paul’s Girls College and HKU, Mary received her MBE from the Queen in 1946 for her service with the BAAG during the War. In the 1960s, she co-founded and built Heep Hong Society (協康會) into one of the leading non-government social welfare organizations in Hong Kong.  In 1972, Mary was appointed unofficial Justice of the Peace and the third female member of the Legislative Council. Sadly, Mary Wong collapsed while delivering a speech at the ground breaking ceremony along with Sir Albert Rodrigues and Sir Sidney Gordon for the new building for the HK Council of Social Service on Hennessy Road with an estimated construction cost of HK$10 million in March 1973 and died at the Queen Mary Hospital. The Governor and his wife attended her funeral and her pallbearers included Dr. Gerald Choa, Oswald Cheung, Sir Rogerio Lobo and Dr. Harry Fang. (KSDN, 1973-3-13)

From Abattoir to Resort in Lantau

Aside from shipping, another main business for Eddie Wong was meat and poultry. In April 1947, he formed Ta Hing Trading Co Ltd which initially specialized in exporting ducks, mainly to the US.

By the late 1950s, Ta Hing had become one of the largest importers of live cattle in Hong Kong and the firm opened an abattoir on Lantau Island in 1959 to slaughter cattle – according to Lam Wai-keung, the former chairman of the Lantau District Council, the abattoir was equipped with modern equipment and was highly efficient with the ability to process a cow every five minutes. The majority of the cattle were imported from Indonesia at first, but later Eddie looked to Australia. To supply cattle to his abattoir, Eddie joined up with his business partner Sir William Gunn (1914-2003), a major cattle grazier and chairman of the Australian Wool Board best known for the creation of the famous Woolmark and acquired the Elsey Downs Station cattle ranch in the Northern Territory in Australia in 1961. By 1962, 1000-2000 head of buffalo were imported from the Northern Territory to Hong Kong but Eddie complained to the Australian press that the buffalos were too wild (including an incident which killed a worker during unloading) and proposed that the Australian exporters establish a “finishing school” to condition the buffalo before their long sea voyage to HK. (Canberra Times, 1963-4-4)

A player in the global shipping arena, Eddie recognized the strategic importance of Panama. With the help of Robert Anderson (1910-1989), a American shipping executive who had served as US Secretary of the Navy and Treasury Secretary during the Eisenhower administration and was involved in the Panama Canal negotiations, Eddie bought the Pacific Atlantic Bank in Panama for about US$8 million in 1973 as his first toehold here and then bought out Canadian mining magnate John C. Doyle’s 51 per cent interest in Hotel El Panama to which he added 350 rooms. (Andean Times, 1974)

Eddie Wong Image 4 York Lo

Eddie Wong (right) with John Pain of the HK Tourist Association (center) and architect Joseph Hruda (left)with a model of the Tai Pak Wan project at a press conference in 1976.

Through his abattoir on Lantau, Eddie became interested in the prospects of the island, specifically a site in Tai Pak Wan owned by the government, as a luxury resort with hotels, golf courses and casinos much like the ones in the Caribbean. In May 1973 (less than two months after his wife Mary’s death), Eddie formed Hong Kong Resort Ltd (香港興業) to execute his ambitious plan with Anderson as one of its directors and Paclantic Financing of Panama as the majority shareholder with 83%. At the advice of his friend Chan Yat-san, the New Territories leader who was the mastermind behind the Pearl Island resort in Tuen Mun (see article on Ching Chun-kau), Eddie began accumulating Letter B land rights from New Territories locals with the help of Lam Wai-keung’s father Lam Shu-chun as broker and eventually accumulated titles to 800 properties in the New Territories amounting to over 6.6 million square feet of land (4 million square feet of which were in Yuen Long). Before that, Eddie Wong was not big in real estate as his only project was the 12-story Kennedy Apartments (堅尼地大廈) at 34A Kennedy Road in the Mid-Levels in 1962 which was developed by his Kennedy Estate Ltd (incorporated in 1959 and dissolved in 2000).

In September 1976,HK Resort made a deal with the government which involved trading all its parcels in the New Territories(which according to Chan Yat-san’s estimates if held to today these would have made Eddie Wong the richest man in HK; the majority of this land was developed into the Yuen Long Industrial Estate which was completed in 1983) in exchange for the Tai Pak Wan site on Lantau ten times the size for the construction of a resort. In return, HK Resort was granted permission to build 1.5 million square feet of hotels and 4.3 million square feet of resort villas with payment ofHK$61 million to the government due in 10 annual instalments. When the project was unveiled at a signing ceremony with David Akers-Jones, then New Territories Secretary, it called for construction of three hotels, three golf courses and 2400 residential units over the course of 5-6 years at the projected cost of HK$2 billion and two foreign construction giants – Dragages et Travaux Publics of France and Nishimatsu Construction of Japan were appointed contractors. (KSDN, 1976-9-11)

By early 1977, construction of roads had begun and $20 million was poured into the project but the slowdown in the global shipping trade and troubles in the Australian cattle ranch had put Eddie Wong in financial distress.In January 1977, the Panamanian banking commission appointed an administrator to take over Pacific Atlantic Bank and other Wong companies in Panama and the Hotel El Panama were taken over by the Banco Nacional de Panama. To keep his operation afloat, Eddie Wong pledged some of his shares in HK Resort to local businessmen such as the builder John Lok (See Shanghainese Builders Part VII) who had lent him $8 million but the majority of the shares were pledged to the Singapore branch of the Soviet-controlled Moscow Narodny Bank (MNB), which he had been dealing with since the early 1970s and his Pacific Atlantic Bank even facilitated the Russian bank’s purchase of Peninsula National Bank in Burlingame, California via the HK/Singapore financier Amos Dawe back in 1973. On April 1, 1977, MNB served a writ to Wong for nearly $38.9 million which they lent him back in 1973 and took over Wong’s shares of HK Resort. Coupled that with another petition from HKR employees who were owed three months’ worth of pay, the firm went into liquidation. Fast Eddie hit the road and Hong Kong newspapers had a field day with speculation that the Soviets were landing in Lantau. How much was hysteria or hype is unclear, but many sources maintain serious anti-Soviet sentiments prompted Beijing to facilitate a bailout scheme. The next month, the textile tycoon Cha Chi-ming (who was allegedly approached by Ta Kung Pao publisher Fei Yiming under the instruction of Beijing official Liao Cheng-chi) and developer John Wu (younger brother of Hopewell’s Gordon Wu) were brought in to acquire majority of Hong Kong Resort through Thornleigh Ltd from the bank for HK$30 million to continue the project.

In October 1977, Eddie Wong’s business partner and Ta Hing chairman Cheang Koon-zung died in Tainan during a trip he was leading in Taiwan of a delegation of business leaders to attend the Double Ten celebration. (KSDN, 1977-10-29).

In November 1978, the Cha family acquired the Wu family’s stake in Thornleigh and in early 1979, HSBC and Manhattan Garments were brought in as shareholders of HKR. In August, a disgruntled contractor for the Tai Pak Wan project who was originally hired by Eddie Wong but was fired by the Cha family went to HKR’s offices in the Realty Building in Central and shot Cha Chi-ming’s eldest son Payson in the chest (fortunately he survived). The incident did not slow down the development at HKR, which announced in the next month (September, 1979)the revised plans of the Tai Pak Wan project comprised of 4500 residential units under the name of “Discovery Bay”. (KSDN, 1979-9-18) Over the next four decades, HKR under the leadership of the Cha family developed over 15 Phases of residential complex in Discovery Bay and realized billions in profits.

As for Eddie Wong, he and his Paclantic Financing filed a lawsuit in 1982 against the Moscow Narodny Bank but the motion were dismissed in 1984. He immediately followed up with a suit in the HK High Court against Dennis Lee Kim-yew, the brother of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan-yew and partner of the law firm of Lee & Lee to the tune of HK$300 million. According to the suit, Lee acted on behalf of MNB to ask the liquidator to sell its HKR shares for an amount significantly less than what it should worth. (Business Times, 1984-1-14) That suit also went nowhere and Wong was never heard from again.

One of Eddie’s sons – Dennis Wong Gai-on was listed as general manager of the Carnival Hotel on Nanking East Road in Taipei in the early 1980s(台灣指南, 1981) and manager of Ta Hing Co (HK) Ltd in the late 1980s which by then was listed as an importer and exporter of sundries and was operating out of Prosperous Building on Des Voeux Road in Central (Business Directory of HK, 1987)As a firm, Ta Hing Co (HK) Ltd was dissolved in 2000 and Fir Line was dissolved in 1995.

Sources:

工商晚報, 1962-04-25; Next Magazine, 2004-12-2

Share, Michael. Where Empires Collided: Russian and Soviet Relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao, Chinese University Press, 2007.

https://archive.org/stream/panamac00unit/panamac00unit_djvu.txt

https://www.scmp.com/article/481625/when-cold-war-hit-discovery-bay

https://www.hongkongcaselaw.com/category/edward-wong-wing-cheung/

https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/1973PANAMA01325_b.html

South China Morning Post; Hong Kong [Hong Kong]13 Feb 1994: 11

https://bibliotheca.limkitsiang.com/1976/11/15/lim-kit-siang-calls-for-a-full-government-investigation-and-a-white-paper-on-the-umno-youth-leader%E2%80%99s-links-and-associations-with-russian-communist-money/

https://finance.discuss.com.hk/viewthread.php?tid=26503698

This article was first posted on 27th August 2021.

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