Y.C. Liang and HK Macao Hydrofoil
York Lo: Y.C. Liang and HK Macao Hydrofoil
Left: a scene from the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun in front of the HK Macau Hydrofoil ticketing booth; Right: a HKMH ticket from 1983
In the history of transportation between Hong Kong and Macau, the legendary Yuen-Cheong Liang CBE (梁潤昌, but better known as Liang Cheong 梁昌, 1918-1979) and his family played a critical role as the founding proprietor of Hong Kong Macao Hydrofoil Co Ltd (港澳飛翼船, HMH) from 1964 to 1994, operating a total of 13 hydrofoils and 11 catamarans during that time. The first to provide high speed shuttle service between Hong Kong and Macau, HMH’s fleet of 11 hydrofoils and catamarans was transporting 1.7 million passengers a year by the mid-1980s and contributed to the emergence of Macau as Las Vegas of the East by significantly reducing the duration of the trip getting from HK to the gambling enclave. While Liang’s business interests include multiple trading businesses, numerous properties and large holdings in leading companies in HK and Macau, HMH was his main business and his family remain interested in the ferry and yacht business in the two decades since the sale of HMH.
Y.C. Liang: from Agent to Tycoon
Left: Y.C. Liang; Right: The former Y.C. Liang residence at 1 Po Shan Road (Source: Flickr)
The life of Y.C. Liang, an outstanding wartime BAAG agent turned post-war tycoon is enough material for a novel or a movie. News reports after his death suggest that YC Liang was born in Macau in 1918. Some sources claim that he lived in Shanghai in his youth (one source even claimed he was a bus conductor in Shanghai) but by the time when the Japanese occupied HK in 1941, he was living in Macau working for the provision shop Tak Wang Tai (德宏泰辦館), which was owned by the merchant Tang Ching-lung (邓晴隆). Since Macau as a Portuguese colony was neutral territory, it became a strategic outpost for British army intelligence and rescue effort in South China and the English-speaking Liang was recruited to work for the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) under the code name “PL” (not “Phoenix” as stated in a number of literature which was the code name of his colleague Dr. Eddie Gosano).
The following extract from a post in Gwulo by Lawrence Tsui, the son of Liang’s BAAG colleague Paul Tsui (high-ranking government official in post-War HK) best summarized Liang’s distinguished career with the BAAG during and immediately after the War:
“According to the citation given by the Commandant of the BAAG, Col. (later Sir) Lindsay Ride, for the award of the King’s Medal for Courage in the course of Freedom (usually awarded to outstanding members who were not British national), Liang was first recruited into the BAAG in Dec 1942 and served until 1945 when the War ended. The grounds for the recommendation of award was based on ‘valuable service in command of escape & intelligence operation in enemy-held territories’ which were Macao & SW Guangdong. He was a trader in Macao at the time.
He came to the notice of the British when he was especially kind to the HK British refugees through providing provisions to them on credits from his shop Wang Tai (Tak Wang Tai?) in Macao. He was also known to have very good connections in the surrounding territories which was valuable to the escape & intelligence operations of the BAAG. He was interviewed by Ride in Kweilin in early 1943 whence he was tasked & returned to Macao. He proved himself extremely efficient & effective. He was able to set up safe escape & communication routes in Forward Area 2 via Samfou (Kaiping) to Kweilin.
By October 1943, PHOENIX (Dr. Gosano) & Mrs. Joy Wilson (who operated out of the British Consulate) could no longer function under Japanese surveillance. The BCG John Reeves had been instructed by the Chungking Embassy to cease his private ‘I’ operations which were based on his own initiatives, but unwittingly compromising the BAAG operations, indeed suspected to be the cause of many purges of BAAG operatives in Hong Kong who came into contact with the BCG on innocent matters. PHOENIX was asked to handover his team to PL (Liang) who was described by Ride to be completely trustworthy. Eventually in May 1944, PHOENIX was withdrawn & PL took over as head of the small BAAG unit in Macao which included ‘NITRAM’ (Nelson MA Nai-kwong). His team also operated radio communications onboard a moving junk in the harbour; bought airtime in the Macao radio station to broadcast encrypted messages; generally doing outrageous things right under the nose of the Japanese.
On 17th Aug (1945), after the Japanese surrender on 15th, BAAG received message from the Embassy in Chungking that HM Government directed F. Gimson to assume authority to restore British sovereignty over HK under the Letter Patent pending the arrival of British or Allied forces. This message was delivered by PL (Liang) who travelled to HK (still under Japanese rule) on 22 Aug with Wireless Radio & operator Fung Bei. PL delivered the message personally to Gimson at Stanley, offering Gimson four Sovereigns of his own money for his expenses in establishing Provisional Government (which was set up at the French Foreign Mission – today’s Highest Court of Appeal). PL continued to shuttle between HK & Macao for relief supplies using ferry boat ‘Fat Shan’. (Ref: the series of telegrams concerning the liberation of HK has been deposited by Paul Tsui at the PRO HK MS30)”
While Liang’s career as an agent was legendary, his rapid ascent after the War was even more spectacular. Within a few years after the end of the War, Liang amassed a huge fortune and became a powerful figure in Macau by securing a monopoly in the highly lucrative gold trade (reportedly more lucrative than the gambling monopoly at the time) in partnership with powerful Portuguese financier Pedro Jose Lobo (1892-1965), Chong Chi-kong (鍾子光,d. 1952) and banker Ho Yin (何賢, 1908-1983), who was closely associated with the executives of Hang Seng Ngan Ho (predecessor of Hang Seng Bank) in Hong Kong which included his brother Ho Tim (何添, 1909-2004) and the co-founders Lam Bing-yim (“Big Lam”) and Ho Sin-hang. Critical to the gold trade was transportation between HK and Macau which was what prompted Y.C. Liang and his partners to invest heavily in the sector covering sea, land and air.
Left: YC Liang and his BAAG colleague Paul Tsui in the early 1970s in Macau (Source: Gwulo, Lawrence Tsui); Right: YC Liang (first from the right) and business partner Ho Yin (first from the left) and martial arts masters Chan Hak-fu (陳克夫, second from left) and Wu Kung-yi (吳公儀, second from right) during their famous kung-fu charity match in Macau in 1954
YC Liang (center) with Hang Seng Bank chairman Ho Sin-hang (left) and managing director Ho Tim (right) in 1962 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1962-9-4)
In 1948, Y.C. Liang and the Lobos formed Macau Air Transport Co (MATCO, see separate article for more details) with Catalina planes leased from the upstart Cathay Pacific in HK to begin seaplane service between Macau and HK with Liang as manager. The transportation of gold in these flights attracted hijackers and one of the planes – Miss Macao crashed in July of the same year after a failed hijacking attempt with only 1 (the lead hijacker Wong Yu) of the 27 on board survived.
In 1951, Liang and the Ho brothers (Ho Yin and Ho Tim) formed Yu On Shipping Co (裕安輪船) and took over the S.S. Fatshan (佛山輪), one of the main vessels between HK and Macau at the time from Sir Tsun-Nin Chau. Other directors of the firm included Sir Tang Shiu-kin, Chan Lan-fong (king of firecrackers) and Chong Lap-fu (son of Chong Chi-kong). Built in 1933 for Swire’s China Navigation, the Fatshan had accommodation for 39 first class, 23 cabin class, 60 steerages and 1,261 unberthed deck passengers although it only had lifeboat capacity of 54 and raft capacity of 550. The other two main vessels on the same route at the time were M.V. Tai Loy (see article) and S.S. Tak Shing, which were respectively controlled by the Fu and Ko families, the co-owners of the Macau gambling monopoly from 1937 to 1961 whom Liang and Ho were both closely affiliated with.
Aside from airline and ferry, Liang also bought into other utilities in Macau. In 1952, Ho Yin and Liang organized Companhia de Auto-Carros ‘Fok Lei’ Limitida (澳門福利公共汽車股份有限公司) which took over the bus service in Macau. Liang also acquired stakes in Macao Electric Lighting Co (澳門電燈公司) and its subsidiary Macao Water Supply Co (澳門自來水, which Ho Yin and Chong Chi-kong took over in 1949) and joined their boards.
Liang and his wife Helen Liang (梁文燕) also moved their primary residence to HK in the 1950s, where they formed Yin Cheong Limited (燕昌有限公司, taking a character from each of their name) in 1955 with HK$3 million in paid up capital to invest in land and properties. Their HK address at the time was listed as 8A Stanley Beach Road. Together they had 5 sons and 2 daughters but sadly Helen passed away at the HK Sanatorium in 1960. In her memory, YC Liang donated the Helen Liang Primary School near Blake Garden in Sheung Wan in 1961 (opened by Financial Secretary Arthur G. Clarke, who was the godfather of Helen Liang, highlighting the closeness of the Liang family to the colonial administration thanks to his wartime achievements) and Creche Diocesana Helen Liang in Macau in 1962.
Obituary of Helen Liang (Kung Sheung Evening News, 1960-11-22)
A number of articles in the Chinese press referred to Liang as a co-founder of Hang Seng Bank but that is not entirely accurate as Liang was only 15 when the original Hang Seng Ngan Ho was founded in 1933 by B.Y. Lam, Ho Sin-hang, C.L. Sheng and Leung Chik-wai. In the 1950s Hang Seng emerged as the largest Chinese owned bank in HK based on assets and deposits and formally changed its name to a bank in 1960. Liang began serving as a director of Hang Seng as early as 1962 until his death.
HK Macao Hydrofoil – the First Decade
As mentioned earlier, Liang and the Ho brothers operated the Fatshan ferry through Yu On Shipping. In 1961, a syndicate led by Stanley Ho outbid the Ko and Fu families and took over the gambling monopoly in Macau. The same year, Ho established Shun Tak Shipping which acquired the British vessel Princess Margaret in 1962 and renamed it Macao to compete with the Fatshan. Liang had known Stanley since the War and their relationship was complicated – courteous yet very competitive at times.
To step up the competition, Liang looked to the new technology of hydrofoil that came out of Europe which could shorten the 3.5 hours trip between HK and Macau by half. Most modern hydrofoil technology traced back to the wartime work of German engineer Baron Hanns von Schertel (who started Supramar in Switzerland after the war, see article about Pacific Island Shipbuilding) and the first commercial hydrofoil was launched at Lake Maggiore in Swiss-Italian border in 1952. Liang settled on hydrofoils from one of the leading hydrofoil manufacturers – the Rodriguez shipyard (Cantiere Navale Rodriguez) of Messina, Sicily and launched HK Macao Hydrofoil with the Ho brothers and others in May 1964 starting with two Rodriguez PT-20s: Flying Phoenix (allegedly named after YC Liang’s BAAG colleague Dr. Eddie Gosano, whose code name was Phoenix) and Flying Kingfisher.
Article about Y.C. Liang welcoming guests on the new Flying Albatross in 1964 (WKYP, 1964-11-22)
The new service (which was only daytime for the entire duration of the three decades under Liang family’s management) quickly caught on and by 1965, the fleet of HMH had expanded to 6 making 22 daily trips. By 1966 however, competition in the form of Stanley Ho’s Far East Hydrofoil began to heat up with price wars and coupon wars. The competition reached a boiling point in 1968 with the HMH hydrofoils and Fatshan both suspending services at one point to exert pressure. In August, an agreement was reached where HMH and Far East agreed to not expanding/reducing their fleets (Far East had 4 hydrofoils compared to HMH’s 8 at the time) and not lowering their prices for 3 years. In the traditional ferry front, Stanley Ho’s Tai Tak Hing took over Fatshan and Tai Loy (renamed Chung Shan). From 1969 to 1971, traffic grew by 25-30% per year and HMH maintained well over 50% market share. In 1971, Typhoon Rose sank the Fatshan and damaged 9 out of the 11 hydrofoils in service. Between 1971 and 1975, HMH ordered five RHS-140 hydrofoils, replacing its first-generation fleet of PT-20s (Far East Hydrofoils also bought 7 more hydrofoils during this period). In 1974, Liang acquired majority control of HMH. In its first 15 years under the leadership of Y.C. Liang, HMH acquired all its hydrofoils from Rodriquez and below is the full list of hydrofoils with names in Chinese and English and models are listed below:
First Generation (all Rodriquez PT-20, each vessel has 68 seats, 5 crew members required)
1964: 飛鳳 (Flying Phoenix) – sold in 1977 to Brazil
1964: 飛翠 (Flying Kingfisher) – sold in 1977 to Brazil
1964: 飛燕 (Flying Swift) – withdrawn in 1974 and subsequently scrapped
1965: 飛鸞 (Flying Heron) – sold in 1977 to Brazil
Second Generation (all Rodriquez PT-50, 125 seats, 7 crew members required)
1965: 飛騰 (Flying Albatross)
1965: 飛達 (Flying Skimmer)
1965: 飛鴻 (Flying Condor)
1967: 飛鳴 (Flying Flamingo) – written off in 1982 collision with Flying Goldfinch
Left: Flying Albatross on a Macanese postage stamp; Right: the retired Flying Skimmer. Both are Rodriguez PT -50
Left: Flying Flamingo at a HMH dock in 1980; Right: Flying Sandpiper from James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun in 1974
Third Generation (all Rodriquez RHS-140)
1971: 飛龍 (Flying Dragon)
1972: 飛鵬 (Flying Egret)
1972: 飛凰 (Flying Sandpiper)
1973: 飛麒 (Flying Goldfinch)
1974: 飛燕 (Flying Ibis)
Accidents involving HMH over the years include:
May 13, 1966 – Flying Phoenix collided with Far East Hydrofoil’s Penha in Macau Ferry Pier, no injuries
March 7, 1974 – Flying Skimmer sunk near Cheung Chau, 3 injured
May 20, 1975 – Flying Dragon hit by Shun Tak’s Tai Shan in HK Macau Ferry Pier, no injuries
March 1977, Flying Albatross hit HKYF ferry Man Tack (民德號) near Hei Ling Chau. 21 aboard Man Tack were injured and Man Tack also sank; no material damage or injuries on Flying Albatross.
April 12, 1978 – Flying Condor hit a fishing boat near Lantau, a 12 years old girl vanished and couple who owned the fishing boat were injured
July 11, 1982 – Flying Flamingo and Flying Goldfinch collided at speed near Lantau, killing 2 and injured 84. Flying Flamingo was written off and Flying Goldfinch was repaired and re-entered as Flying Swift
Business in HK and the Second Generation
YC Liang (left) conferring with Lawrence and Michael Kadoorie at the Rolls Royce arrival reception at the Peninsula in the 1970s (Source: HK Heritage)
In the early 1970s, the deregulation of the gold market put an end to the golden era of the Macau gold trade but by that time Liang had shifted his focus to HK properties. Aside from Hang Seng, he became one of the largest shareholders of HK & Shanghai Hotels (at one point owning more shares than the Kadoories) and served as its vice chairman. In 1970, Liang formed New World Development with Hang Seng co-founder Ho Sin-hang as chairman, Cheng Yu-tung as managing director and Liang as vice chairman. When HSBC opened its branch in Macau in 1972, he was appointed a director of the branch. In 1973, he was awarded CBE by the British government for his generous philanthropy. After Helen’s death, Liang married Sophia Ho (何杏莊), the tutor for his children and niece of the wife of the vice chairman of Dao Heng Bank in 1963. Together they had 3 more sons but the marriage ended in divorce in 1977. By the late 1970s, Liang was in poor physical and mental health and in early June 1979, his suicide sent shockwaves across HK and Macau. Liang was survived by 8 sons and 2 daughters and tragedy struck again a year later when his fifth son also committed suicide.
The surviving four sons by Helen Liang succeeded their father at HMH, led by the eldest son David Liang Chong-Hou (梁仲豪, 1945-) as managing director. From 1981 to 1985, David served as president of the International Hydrofoil Society. He also upgraded HMH’s fleet by ordering 7 waterjet propelled catamarans from the Swedish shipyard Marinteknik Verkstads) in the early 1980s in response to Far East’s purchases of Boeing jetfoils:
Fourth generation (Marinteknik Verkstads JC-3000 catamarans, 215 seats):
1981: Apollo Jet – laid up in 1993
1982: Hercules Jet – laid up in 1993
1982: Janus Jet – laid up in 1993
1983: Triton Jet – sold in 1986 to HK-Zhaoqing
Hercules Jet in 1987
The opening up of China also opened up new opportunities and HK China Hydrofoil (港中飛翼船) was formed as a subsidiary of HMH in 1980 to provide shuttle service between Kowloon and Jiuzhou (九洲港) in Zhuhai, just north of Macau and the service was launched in 1982. Two of the catamarans mentioned above were shifted to this route.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, HMH ordered seven Marinteknik 41 CPV – since the capacity of these boats were double that of the hydrofoils and could complete the trip in 60 minutes, the hydrofoil fleet was gradually phased out.
Fifth generation (Marinteknik Verkstads 41 CPV catamarans, 306 seats):
1989: Estrela do Mar
1991: Vasco da Gama
1991: Santa Cruz
Outside of HMH, David inherited his father’s board seat and stakes in HK & Shanghai Hotels and New World. In 1987, David sold the family’s 30% stake in HK & Shanghai Hotels to China Entertainment and Lai Sun group for over HK$1.6 billion. He stayed on New World’s board until 2013 (although a cousin Thomas Liang Cheung-biu who is also the son in law of Sir Q.W. Lee of Hang Seng Bank remains on the board). In the 1990s, he shifted his attention to Thailand where he became involved in a number of major real estate projects with former HK Hotels executive Eric Lai. In October 1994, the Liang family sold HMH to CTS-Parkview, an affiliate of the state-owned China Travel Services group. The seven HMH catamarans were transferred to CTS’s joint venture in the Philippines. In 1999, CTS merged its ferry operations with Shun Tak to form TurboJet and HMH became a subsidiary of the Shun Tak group.
After the sale of HMH, the family’s interest in shipping and yachts continued. Y.C.’s third son Roger Liang Chong-wai (梁仲偉) became very interested in the shipbuilding aspects of the business and acquired the Baglietto shipyard in Italy in the 1980s and Green Bay Marine in Singapore in the 1990s. in 2004, he formed Kingship Yachts which builds superyachts in a 60 acres facility in Zhongshan. In 2006, David and his son Francis Sai-cheong Liang (梁世昌,named after his maternal grandfather Francis Zimmern and paternal grandfather YC Liang) formed Macao Dragon which received its license to operate high speed ferry between HK and Macai in 2010. The venture unfortunately only lasted for 14 months and folded due to a number of headwinds including soaring fuel costs, regulations, competition and lack of casino subsidies.
Y.C.’s second son Arthur Liang Chung-meng (梁仲鳴, 1949-) has been investing in leading hotels globally via partnerships with other HK tycoons such as Chow Tai Fook (owned by New World’s Cheng family), Lai Sun and Far East Consortium. These hotels include the Four Seasons in New York (1996), Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills (1995) and the 237 room Marriott Grosvenor Square Hotel in London (2014). In addition, he also served as non-executive director of former Chow Tai Fook affiliate Tai Fook Securities from 1997 to 2003 and served on the board of HK China Hydrofoils and Yin Cheong Co Ltd. Y.C.’s fourth son Robert Liang Chong-in (梁仲賢, 1952-) founded the Magusta Group in 1989 which has been active in real estate development in HK and Canada and operates Polytek Engineering, a leading distributor and manufacturer of high end commercial kitchen equipment. He served as non-executive independent director of Pico Far East from 1992 to 1998.
- Gunn, Geoffrey.Wartime Macau: Under the Japanese Shadow, HKU Press, 2016
- 工商晚報, 1964-09-15
- 香港工商日報, 1964-03-05, 1968-07-10 , 1979-6-5, 1982-7-12
- Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1965-3-31, 1966-2-10, 1968-8-1
This article was first posted on 5th February 2018.
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