LAWRENCE KADOORIE built himself into one of Hong Kong's richest and most influential taipans with all the genius of simplicity. Despite suffering internment by the Japanese during the Second World War, which caused extensive damage to the family's assets, and despite most of these being seized by the victorious Communist armies in 1949, Kadoorie maintained throughout an almost child-like faith in the future of Hong Kong and of the role as a catalyst out of all proportion to its size it was destined to play in the development of China itself.
He inherited the fortune built up by his father Elly Kadoorie, a Levantine Jew who had arrived in Hong Kong in 1880 with the proverbial shilling in his pocket to work in the offices of another prominent Jewish family from the Middle East, the Sassoons. In Shanghai Elly moved from stockbroking into utilities, building up transport and power generation firms in Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong. The father's achievements were rewarded by a knighthood but ended during the Second World War with the Japanese occupation of eastern China and Hong Kong where, in 1942, they took over his prized possession the Peninsula Hotel as their occupation headquarters. Sir Elly died in Hong Kong's Stanley prison camp.
His two sons, Lawrence and Horace, reclaimed the hotel after liberation in 1945 but found the main Hong Kong asset, the generating plant of China Light and Power, in ruins. The brothers' decision to rebuild the plant, which generated electricity for the whole of Kowloon and the New Territories, is regarded by historians as one of the two chief factors in Hong Kong's post-war economic recovery (the other was the decision by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank to recognise as valid the wartime scrip issued as currency by Japan's Occupational Forces).
Four years later all the family assets in China were seized by the triumphant Communist armies, including the family mansion on Shanghai's Bubbling Well Road which became a 'Peace' indoctrination centre for Communist children who proudly showed tourists how with wooden toy rifles they would shoot down US planes bombing Vietnam.
Such early setbacks failed to cloud the vision of Lawrence Kadoorie, who began expanding his Hong Kong interests into carpet-making and cotton mills. But power generation was always the main preoccupation, and Kadoorie was able to boast that his plants were always able to meet the ever-rising demand for electricity from the proliferation factories in Kowloon and the New Territories and the burgeoning, refugee-fed population. In the late 1980s he negotiated a joint venture with China to build a controversial nuclear power generator at Daya Bay, 30 miles to the north of Hong Kong.
He was affronted by the extremism of China's Cultural Revolution which spilled over into the streets of Hong Kong in 1967. Deliberately, he instituted night-shifts for the construction crews working on his projects, their flood-lights demonstrating Hong Kong's defiance of the mainland's threats and his own faith in the future.
In the early 1950s and 1960s, long before Hong Kong looked like achieving an economic miracle, Kadoorie nursed his apparently impossible dream of Hong Kong's seeding the establishment of a South China megapolis embracing Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton). By the time of his death, the vision was well on the way to being realised, with joint enterprises, largely financed and managed by Hong Kong, spreading throughout Guangdong province and along the motorway which will shortly link the two cities.
His fundamental faith was in the prosperity which would accrue from co-operation between Hong Kong and China and, even before the arrival of Chris Patten as governor, he deprecated the efforts of Hong Kong's liberals to persuade Britain to stand by its pledges to institute democratic reforms and guarantees of human rights before 1997. Born in 1899, he described himself accurately in a recent interview as 'still a Victorian, one of the very few around'.
He was, however, no Gradgrind: he and his brother Horace played the parts of Hong Kong's brothers Cherryble, running their businesses on paternalistic lines, with genuine regard for their workers' welfare. The Kadoorie fortune could have been much greater than its present estimated worth of US dollars 3bn had the Kadoories adopted the ruthless exploitation of cheap labour which has enriched so many of their contemporary taipans. Much good was done by stealth; more publicly he and his brother were tireless in their work on local charities and philanthropic projects.
A typical example of their practical charity was the establishment of an experimental and extension farm in the New Territories designed to train refugee peasants to grow easily marketable fruits and vegetables and to run pig and chicken farms with traditional Chinese breeds improved by crossings with foreign stock. Those who benefited were helped financially to set themselves up as independent farmers. The scheme was only a marginal success, for most refugees and immigrants from China swiftly took jobs in the very factories powered by Kadoorie electricity.
Kadoorie, who served on Hong Kong's Executive Council from 1951 to 1954, was knighted in 1974 and became the first Hong Kong man to be granted a peerage in 1981, as Baron Kadoorie, of Kowloon and of the City of Westminster. He was widely honoured elsewhere: he won the Raymon Magsaysay award (an honour named after a former Filipino president for achievements in Asia), received the Belgian Ordre de la Couronne, was made Chevalier of the French Legion d'Honneur. He is survived by his charming diminutive wife Muriel, a daughter married to a Scots accountant and a son, Michael, both of whom head the firms which Lawrence Kadoorie expanded so successfully as a very pragmatic visionary.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content