It’s been just under three weeks since I left Hong Kong, and I’m still in withdrawal. So this week I read Robert Wang’s rags to riches memoir, Walking the Tycoons’ Rope: How Ambition Drove a Poor Boy From Ningbo to Compete with the Richest Men of Hong Kong and Singapore (Blacksmith Books, 2012).
Wang’s book isn’t just the story of how he left China for Hong Kong at a young age and rose out of poverty to become the most successful attorney in Hong Kong. It’s also a history of modern Hong Kong.
Like most Chinese families from that era (circa WWII), Wang, his mother, and sister barely made it out of China to the British colony of Hong Kong. His father had already moved to Hong Kong before he sent for his family. But once the family was reunited, they never had enough to eat and had to share a cramped apartment with other families (one was the brother of the Young Marshal, Zhang Xueliang, which I thought was super cool).
In school, young Robert met Bruce Lee on their boxing team. According to Wang, Bruce was moody and a loner, and couldn’t keep up with the rigorous expectations of their school, so switched to another. But Bruce was always kind to Wang. After Bruce Lee rose to international stardom, Wang ran into him near the Star Ferry in the early 70s. It was a bittersweet reunion, what with Lee’s impending death.
As most of his classmates prepared to leave Hong Kong to study abroad, Wang applied to study in London. His living conditions didn’t improve in London and sometimes he couldn’t afford to eat a cooked meal for two weeks in a row. But once his luck changed, he found better living conditions and no longer went hungry. He also started dating a French woman who came from a family that didn’t approve of inter-cultural dating.
Back in Hong Kong, alone and with a law degree, Wang met Elaine Kwan, who became his devoted wife. He then embarked on a legal career so prosperous it would have been unfathomable to young Wang back in the 1950s. As Wang’s career took off so did Hong Kong. Gone were the days of the turbulent Cultural Revolution (which seeped into Hong Kong in the late 60s) and in came the steadfast years of Hong Kong’s manufacturing heyday.
Wang found himself rubbing shoulders with Hong Kong’s heaviest hitters, like Li Ka-shing and Sir Run Run Shaw. In the 1990s, he traveled to Singapore and single-handedly secured permanent residency for Hong Kong’s tycoons, just in case things turned sour after the 1997 handover.
As history would show, the only instability that hit Hong Kong at the handover was the Asian financial crisis. Wang fell on hard times, both at his law firm and in his relationships with the Hong Kong and Singapore tycoons. But like a phoenix rising from the flames, he bounced back once again and found joy in his family and philanthropies.
Walking the Tycoons’ Rope is a quick read at 379 pages. There’s never a lull in the story because Wang’s story is so fascinating. It’s also a testament to the amazing people of Hong Kong who have reinvented themselves over the decades to adjust to the changing times.