Conceit hangs on the words and drips from each sentence. Yet lawyer Robert Wang’s autobiography, Walking the Tycoons’ Rope (2012, Hong Kong, Blacksmith Books, 380 pages, US$17.95), still contains some interesting moments.
The highlights include:
-- a wartime journey to Hong Kong on a train attacked by the Japanese;
-- an excursion into Kowloon’s infamous Walled City, including to an opium den;
-- a ghost story with see-look-there evidence presented by a Singapore cabbie;
-- a dinner visit from Asia’s richest man; and
-- insight into why the wealthy make charitable donations (because they anticipate something valuable in return).
How much boasting happens on these pages? Consider just two lines. “My day had arrived. I basked in the sun of success and my contemporaries were in awe of what I had achieved.”
A legal adviser to the rich and famous who loves to rub shoulders with them, Wang indulges in an orgy of name-dropping. Presumably, he derives more pleasure from this than his readers ever will. He starts young. “There was an older boy who went by the name of Bruce Lee. He was a loner…. He was fanatical about fighting skills…. He was very unpleasant. Everyone was afraid of him.”
As a child, Wang fled from wartime China. If the author can be believed (the more he brags, the less his credibility), a tug-of-war erupted between his mother taking him away and his grandparents trying to keep him. “ ‘My Bo Bo,’ my grandmother cried uncontrollably. ‘My heart is broken. Grandma loves you. When will I ever see you again?... I can’t stand the thought of Bo Bo leaving us.’ ”
The book’s most exciting moments come early on the ensuing train journey. “In confusion, passengers scrambled for the doors, pouring off the steps like cascading water, on top of each other, and ran like mad away from the target into the safety of the surrounding fields. A fighter plane swooped down from the sky and fired rapidly at the train. Clap… clap… clap… clap… the machine guns exchanged fire. Then a bomb was dropped. It exploded near the train, making a deafening sound and sending a cloud of thick smoke into the sky.”
The book’s claims about the author arriving in Hong Kong “with nothing” ring distinctly false. He traveled with his mother and sister to meet his father who had gone a year earlier as “part of the withdrawal plan of his then employer”.
Even the author’s memories as a new-in-town child reflect arrogance. “My first impression of Hong Kong was how backward it was, in terms of both the place and its people. The dialect they spoke – Cantonese – sounded like ngon, ngon, ngon to me, strange and totally incomprehensible. For all I cared, I may as well have landed on Mars.”
In telling his own story, with sections about a few relatives too, Wang covers a big slice of modern history in Hong Kong, Singapore and China. But inconsistencies and contradictions abound. For example, about the transformation of Shanghai: “For years the whole city seemed to be a huge construction site…. It was as if someone had waved a wand and magically transformed the city overnight.”
Astute readers will notice telling details, like how the Beijing Massacre receives just a passing mention. “And disaster did not strike just once. It struck again in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square crackdown shook already fragile confidence to the core.” Using a mild word, “crackdown”, to describe an atrocity, reveals plenty.
As Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China neared, Wang made overtures to Singapore. He arranged a refuge there for his family and others, including tycoons.
Elaine, the author’s wife, who appears to know him better than he knows himself, tried to warn him of dangers. “ ‘At best you’re just a messenger for the big boys. Please know your place, Robert. It makes no sense to act bigger than you actually are. It’s your ego at work again.’ ”
After waging corporate battles, the author then laments losing. “My fall from grace was complete. I was now persona non grata even among my friends.” But his moans deserve little sympathy since he had tried to push others into the same situation.
Some important concepts prove elusive to the author. “ ‘But I still don’t know why a man of your wealth lives so frugally. One works hard to get rich so that one can be surrounded by all the trappings that wealth can bring – mansions, servants, yachts, luxury cars, mistresses and so forth.’
‘Slow down, Robert. Money is not everything. Keeping one’s sense of values is more important – it is the key to happiness.’ ”
Luckily, a few lessons do stick. “I learned how pillaging, philandering, power and greed can destroy us all, and worse, one’s family, and how the relentless pursuit of wealth can all come crashing down.”
Rightly or wrongly, the author admires tycoons. But arguably, he met nicer people and received better treatment when penniless on busy streets than when seated in corporate boardrooms. As a student, he once ran out of money while exploring Europe with a girlfriend: “ ‘We can beg,’ said Aceline. ‘We will each hang a placard around our necks that reads ‘Student Needs Money – Return to London’…. It totally surprised us that, within the same day, we got enough money to buy tickets to return to London.”
Recently, Asian tycoons have felt distressed to learn that, for puzzling-to-them reasons, the public detests high-rollers. So why must they habitually behave so arrogantly? As Wang quotes a Singapore tycoon as saying, “When you have so much money, you just want to erect the biggest and tallest monument to immortalize yourself as if it is going to be your last erection.”
Despite Wang’s insider insights, often trying to flatter and defend men with big moneybags, nothing on these pages improves the image of tycoons. They come across as shallow, predictable people always busy following self-interests. “…in politics as in business, there are no permanent enemies, nor are there permanent friends. What matters is current interest.”
Why do people of immense wealth always grasp for more? “There was intense rivalry between Li Ka Shing and Lee Shau Kee. Both of them vied to be Hong Kong’s richest. At times they were at each other’s throats. The difference between Number 1 and Number 2 is huge. The former gets all the attention; when prime ministers and politicians visit, they ask to see him. He also gets to see them when he travels overseas. He gets all the media attention. He is sought after by money men such as the head of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other top international bankers and financiers. Deals are often presented to him on silver plates together with all the finance he needs.”
Worthy values appear badly warped. “…wealth and elegance were in abundance and high fashion filled the room, the kind of stuff that legends were made of. The ladies flaunted their diamonds and jewellery, each trying to outdo the other while the men behaved according to their pecking order in society….”
Again, a voice of reason comes from the author’s wife. “ ‘I yearn for the old days when you were a struggling solicitor, when family values came first and friends were truthful. Nowadays, when I look around, it is nothing but falsehoods – false values, false sense of grandeur…. False this and that.’ ” The more that Wang quotes his wife, the more one wishes that she had been the person to write the book.
Born in Ningbo, China, Wang studied in England before practicing law mainly in Hong Kong and Singapore. A law firm that he founded became one of Hong Kong’s largest before falling on hard times.
Many good books have been written about Hong Kong and even Singapore. Walking the Tycoons’ Rope falls considerably short of the best ones, but most readers still will find some passages worthy of attention.
Meanwhile, Wang regards his grandchildren and thinks: “Who knows? One of them may grow up to be another Li Ka Shing.” Doesn’t that sound more like a curse than a blessing?
Approval rating: 48 per cent.
For more information: www.blacksmithbooks.com
(May 21, 2012)
Robert Wang: legal adviser to the rich.