Razzle Dazzle: International Jeweler, Developer and Hotelier Kevin Hsu (許開文)
York Lo: Razzle Dazzle: International Jeweler, Developer and Hotelier Kevin Hsu (許開文)
Left: Kevin Hsu (Business Times, 1984-2-16); Center: ad announcing the acquisition of the Cockpit Hotel in Singapore by Kevin Hotels with financing provided by DBS Bank in 1980 (Business Times, 1980-5-19); Right: Kevin Hsu in 2019 with painter Zhang Yuan (张媛)whom he bought a painting from.
Kevin Hsu was one of the highest profile figures in the HK jewelry, real estate and hotel scene in the 1970s and early 1980s. After making his initial fortune through his chain of high-end jewelry stores under the Kevin brand across the region, he built and acquired a large portfolio of hotels and buildings in HK, Singapore, US and Canada within a very short periodthrough his global connections and access to bank financing. As it turned out, the Kevin Hsu group of companies was one of the three large borrowers from Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) in HK, behind Carrian Group (US$800 million)but ahead of EDA Investments (US$40 million, controlled by Chung Ching-man, the younger brother of the Chung brothers of E.WahAik San, see article), having borrowed a total of over US$123 million.When the property bubble burst in the mid-1980s, most of Hsu’s properties were sold and Kevin Jewelry has also since faded into history.
Kevin Jewelry (開文珠寶): the Rise of the International Jeweler
Kevin Hsu, whose original name was Hsu Shang (許盛), was the grandson of a Chinese doctor but entered the jewelry trade instead, first working as a clerk at another jewelry store in HK before striking out on his own. Based on testimony by congressional aide Donald Richbourg during the Koreagate hearing in the US Congress in 1977, Otto Passman, the US congressman from Louisiana from 1947 to 1977, was a friend and client of Kevin Hsu who knew him from his first jewelry job and gave Hsu a loan in the range of US$50,000-100,000.
The exact date of inception forKevin Jewelry is unclear but by the mid-1960s it was already operating out of 6 Carnavon Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. (HK Trade Directory, 1964) He was one of the first Chinese jewelers in Hong Kong to use his English first name as the name of his shop and focused primarily on the high end local and tourist markets. For the logo of his jewelry business, he picked a ring with a letter K in the center.
In 1967, Kevin Hsu teamed up with Henry Ng Chun-for (吳鎮科), the manager of August Moon Jewellery (中秋月珠寶) to open Kevin Hilton Jewelry at the Hong Kong Hilton. As a firm, Kevin Hilton was incorporated in 1976, renamed Kevin Central in 1982 and dissolved in 1993
In 1972, Kevin entered the Singapore market by opening Kevin Jewelry Pte Ltdat the Singapore Hilton and his Singapore business was headed by Patrick Chia (謝寶華). In 1973, a burglar smashed a showcase at Kevin’s Singapore Hilton branch and fled with three diamond rings worth over $30000 on a motorcycle. (New Nation, 1973-12-6; Straits Times, 1973-12-7) The burglar was later arrested and sent to jail for two years.
Left: ad for Kevin Jewelry in Singapore in 1972 which listed its branches in HK (Straits Times, 1972-5-6); Center: article and picture about Kevin’s custom-made tiara for Emma Aw in 1980 (Business Times, 1980-9-24); Ad in (Straits Times, 1980-10-27)
In September 1980, Kevin designed a tiara for Emma Aw Cheng-hu (胡清湖, a.k.a. Datin Lee Chee-san), the daughter of Tiger Balm king Aw Boon-par and wife of the founder of Chung Khiaw Bank, for her golden anniversary celebrations. (Ironically, Emma Aw died in 2010 in obscurity in a public housing flat in Singapore)The next, Kevin Hsu opened a diamond specialty store D.I.F. – Diamond Is Forever (玉華珠寶) at 22 Queen’s Road in Central, likely named after his wife Hsu Yu-hwa (許玉華). By this time, his jewelry empire as shown in the ad above included three stores in HK (Kevin at Holiday Inn in Kowloon and Hilton in HK plus affiliate Henry Jewellery), two stores in Singapore(Kevin at Hilton and Kevin Diamond at Shangrila), and has also expanded into Indonesia with a branch at the Jakarta Hilton and Hyatt Surabaya and into the US with a branch at the Hyatt Regency in Honolulu. In Hawaii, he acquired a 3.5 acre beach site in Kihei on Maui.
In December 1980, Kevin’s “City Building at Noon” featuring a 1.28 carat diamond and 110 tampered diamonds won the top prize at the HK Diamond Design Competition. The piece was designed by Alan Tam Yiu-cho. (Business Times, 1980-12-16)
Buy! Buy! Buy!: Emergence of a Real Estate and Hotel Empire
With his profits from jewelry, Kevin Hsu began moving into real estate, hotels and other businesses in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the formation of several firms including First Hong Kong Credit (香港第一財務) which wasincorporated in 1978,Yorkland Ltd (renamed Dollar Hotel in 1982) and Bergeral Ltd which were incorporated in 1979, Quadrutec Development (中化發展) in 1980and Kevin Hotels International (開文酒店)in 1981.
In 1977, Kevin Hsu through Oliver Trading (incorporated in 1976, dissolved in 2006)teamed up with the Ayala Group from the Philippines to acquire the control of Sealion Hotels, the holding company for the 22-story, 824 rooms Hyatt Hotel on Scotts Road in Singapore from the Chung family (which also owned the Hyatt in HK; see article on E.WahAik San) for S$47 million.The hotel, which opened in 1972, was renamed Hyatt Regency. (Straits Times, 1986-9-13)
Left: Old brochure of the Empress Hotel; Right: First Commercial Building in Causeway Bay which was developed by Kevin Hsu (PS)
By 1980, Kevin had five projects in HK – 22-story First Commercial Building (第一商業大廈) at 33-35 Leighton Road which was sold for minimum of $2500 per sq ft, First Credit Building which was about to be completed in 9-12 months, eight Spanish villas called Sassoon Villas overlooking Telegraph Bay, luxury residential project Yu Hwa Tower (named after his wife)with swimming pool and saunas and Kevin Industrial Building. (Business Times, 1980-8-22)
In Guangzhou, Hsu’s Quadrutec Development in partnership with the Canton Housing and Property Administration Corporation announced plans in August 1980 to develop Yap Chui Garden, a complex on a 37161 sq m site which included 11 residential buildings, playgrounds, restaurants, hotel and theatres along the Pearl River. (New Nation, 1980-8-22)
In the US, Kevin bought a 4-story building on a 600 sq m site at 212 Stockton Street in San Francisco’s Union Square for US$4.8 million in 1980 after years of negotiation with 70% financing provided by a major US bank with plans to re-develop once the tenant Philippines Airlines’ lease was up. He also developed 11 timber townhouses with “skylavators” on the slopes of Sausalito, selling for US$400,000 each and keeping two of them for his own use and had plans to develop his Maui site into a commercial center. (Business Times, 1980-10-30) In September 1981, Hsu acquired 2.26 million shares of Solaron Corp of Denver, Colorado, a developer of solar-powered water heating system for US$1.1 million. (Straits Times, 1981-9-5)
In Singapore, Hsu through Kevin Hotels acquired the 8 year old,13-story, 180 room Cockpit Hotel (so named because the original hotel was popular with crews and passengers of the Dutch airline KLM) on Penang Road in Singapore in May 1980 out of receivership for $45.5 million with financing provided by DBS Bank. He immediately began work on a S$30 million which would increase the number of rooms to 300. He also began construction of the S$12 million, 5-story Kevin House at the junction of Orchard, Tanglin and Orange Grove road.
Back in HK, Kevin Hsu bought two major hotels inTsim Sha Tsui in 1981, both of which were built in the 1960s and in need of updates. In April, he paid HK$227 million to acquire the 233 room Imperial Hotel (帝國酒店) in Tsim Sha Tsui (to be covered in greater details in article about its developer Chapman Ho) in an auction through Truro Ltd. (KSEN, 1981-4-27) In September, Hsu acquired the 189-room Empress Hotel from Kowloon Wharffor HK$190 million. At the time of the acquisition, Empress’ food and beverage license was revoked, and the HK Hotels Association also refused its membership. After $10 million in renovations (new kitchens, restaurants and remodeling of 233 rooms) and reorganization, Empress re-opened in March 1982 and recorded profits of $6 million in its first six months. According to the new GM, the hotel’s clientele had changed from 75% single female to tourists and mid-market business travelers from US, Europe, Japan and Singapore. (KSDN, 1983-1-30)
In Canada, Kevin Hsu hit the headlines when he acquired the 740 room Skyline Hotel near Toronto Airport, which has a shopping center, two cinemas and a convention hall that could hold 2000 guests for HK$200 million in September 1981. He also bought the 200 room Holiday Inn in Calgary, Alberta for HK$70 million.He was referred to in the Canadian press as one of the world’s biggest private hotel owners. (KSEN, 1981-9-9)
In February 1982, Kevin Hsu through Cheuk Kam Ltd (卓金有限公司) formed Summeron Investments Ltd in partnership with Ontrade International (鴻易國際) and Ayala Properties with Cheuk Kam holding 40% and the other two parties 30% each to develop Babington Gardens in the Mid-Levels at the cost of HK$250 million. In March 1982, Kevin Hotels took out double spread advertisements in local HK newspaper listing its four hotels (Empress and Imperial in HK, Cockpit in Singapore and Skyline in Canada) as “major step towards an ambitious international hotel network holding plan”. (Business Times, 1982-7-15)
Sell! Sell! Sell!
As the HK real estate market turned south in mid-1982, Kevin Hsu began to offload its assets to stay afloat. In July 1982, Hsu sold the site of Babington Gardens to Summeron for HK$115 million and left the consortium with Ayala picking up his stake in Summeron. (Straits Times, 1982-7-14)
In August 1982, market rumored that Kevin Hsu was in discussion to acquire 48% of the listed Madison Securities (400 million new shares at $1 per share) controlled by the family of Deacon Chiu (see article on Far East Flour Mill) by injecting seven of his properties into the firm – this include 57-59 Lockhart Road, 61-73 Lockhart Road, (57-71 Lockhart Road was later developed into Wharney Hotel) 301-305 Lockhart Road, a site near Caine Road and Bailey Street in the Mid-Levels, a site behind the London Theatre on Austin Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and a mansion in Kowloon Tong. (KSEN, 1982-8-12)
In October 1982, the French bank Credit Lyonnais filed a lawsuit against Kevin Hsu at the Supreme Court in HK seeking repayment of HK$34.34 million – which included $30 million principal and 15% interest. This was the second suit after Bank of America filed one regarding US$8.4 million in letter of credit. (KSEN, 1982-10-7)
In November 1982, Hsu sold the newly built but unoccupied Kevin House in Singapore to Feroland, which was controlled by the Galadari Group of Dubai for S$26 million. (Business Times, 1982-11-11) Also in 1982, the Hsus through Jamestown Company sold 212 Stockton Street in San Francisco for US$12 million to Sylvia Lichauco.
In January 1983, Kevin Hsu announced plans to acquire 48.6% of Singapore HK Properties by injecting two properties in Wanchai – 301-305 Lockhart Road and 57-59 Lockhart Road into the firm. Both properties were mortgaged to Bumiputra Finance at value of HK$22 million as part of the guarantee for a HK$32 million loan. (KSDN, 1983-1-26) By February, Hsu had secured 72% control of Singapore HK Properties and hinted at the potential of injecting his two hotels – Empress and Imperial into the firm. At the same time, Hsu announced that his First Credit received loans of $2-3 million from a bank which solved its cashflow issues and he was actively working with the regulators to resume its operations. (KSDN, 1983-2-9) New directors joining the Singapore HK Properties board included Hsu Yu-hwa and accountant Stephen Fan Sheung-tak (1940-2004), late husband of former Legco chair Rita Fan. (TKP, 1983-2-9) The firm was later acquired by Anthony Lin from Taiwan in 1990. (see article on Wing Sang Cheung Provisions)
In mid-1983, Hsu sold the Cockpit Hotel in Singapore to the Duke Hotel group controlled by Teo Lay-swee (1927-2002) for S$62 million andsold out of his 30% stake in Sealion Hotels. (Business Times, 1982-6-9) Sealion was eventually acquired by Borneo Properties, a firm controlled by the Sultan of Brunei, for S$180 million in 1986 while Cockpit was eventually re-developed into a condominium by Wing Tai.
In February 1984, Hsu sold the Empress Hotel to Malaysian financier Datuk Seri Mohammed and Alan Khoo for HK$150 million, $40 million lower than what he paid for less than 3 years earlier. (Business Times, 1984-2-16) Both the Empress and Imperial eventually came under the control of Orient Leasing, which began the process of offloading the assets. At first, Shui On was rumored to have acquired the Imperial for $210 million (TKP, 1987-6-12) but eventually the hotel ended up in the hands of the HK Industrial & Commercial Bank, which sold it to New Zealand investment firm Glynhill in August 1987 for HK$216 million or $977,376 per room. (TKP, 1987-8-8) In April 1988, Glynhill sold the Imperial to Shun Ho for HK$293 million. (TKP, 1988-4-13)
After the mid-1980s, Kevin Hsu has generally kept a low profile. In the 1990s, many of Hsu’s companies mentioned earlier were dissolved – Bergeral in 1991, Kevin Hotels and First HK Credit in 1996 and Quadrutec Development in 1998. As a firm, Kevin Jewelry was incorporated in 1976, dissolved 2003.
In the early 1980s, Hsu donated $1 million to CUHK for research into Chinese medicine and also formed a foundation which included an advisory board that included Professor Hu Shiu-ying(胡秀英, 1910-2012) of Harvard, Y.C. Kong (江潤祥) of CUHK, head of pharmacology at Cambridge and professor from Meiji University in Japan. (KSDN, 1980-08-21)
Sources (other than those cited above):
This article was first posted on 16th April 2021.
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