Hotelier and patriarch of Hong Kong's Harilela clan dies at age 92

On Monday, Dr Hari N. Harilela, patriarch of the Hong Kong-based clan, died in the southern Chinese city at the age of 92. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
On Monday, Dr Hari N. Harilela, patriarch of the Hong Kong-based clan, died in the southern Chinese city at the age of 92. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

For more than three decades the family guru to the Harilela clan, said to be among the richest ethnic Indians east of the sub-continent, was Swami Satchidananda, the mystic figure who inaugurated Woodstock, the biggest music festival of the 20th century.

It might seem strange that a spartan renunciate, who taught a philosophy that integrates 10 faiths including Taoism and African religions, could be so close to a family of immense wealth. But the Swami had an answer.

“There is nothing wrong with wealth if you know how to use it well,” he told The Straits Times, a few years before his death in 2002. “And I believe the Harilelas have that in them.”

On Monday, Dr Hari N. Harilela, patriarch of the Hong Kong-based clan, died in the southern Chinese city at the age of 92.

No stranger to Singapore, which he called his second home, he was the honorary chairman of the group which owns and operates 19 hotels around the world, after stepping down as executive chairman two years ago. That list includes the Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre and all transit hotels in the three terminals at Changi Airport.

Not shy to flash his wealth, yet generous, Dr Harilela was well known for his philanthropy. In 2012, when he and his wife Padma celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary and his 90th birthday, he gave $250,000 each to the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund and the Singapore Indian Development Association.

Many leading Asian business families have, in recent times, displayed a startling relish for going public with their private disputes, a mix of conflicting goals, ambition, greed and in-law troubles. The Harilelas have been largely spared that pain.

Rising from being custom tailors and suppliers to British troops during World War II to today’s immense wealth with diverse worldwide investments that include real estate to telecommunications, race horses and hospitals, the Harilela home is a massive joint family operation in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district.

The former British territory, where four generations of the clan live together in a 70-bedroom Mughal-style mansion and annexe of eight self-contained apartments, has been their home since 1934.

Among the visitors to pay respects to Dr Hari was Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, who called at the family home on Tuesday.

“Dr Harilela was a successful entrepreneur and devoted much effort to the development of the hotel and real estate sectors in Hong Kong,” Mr Leung said. “He was also a renowned philanthropist and made tremendous contributions to the tertiary education sector.”

The Harilelas are as comfortable in Cantonese as they are in their native Sindhi, the language spoken in the Pakistani province of Sindh, from where they migrated before the Partition of India in 1947. Indeed, two decades ago, Dr Hari’s standing in Hong Kong business circles and society led to his appointment by Beijing as one of only two non-Chinese on the Hong Kong Advisory Council.

Although George is the oldest of the six Harilela brothers, the acknowledged clan chief was clearly Dr Hari, who is the second brother. Both have seen the worst and best of times together.

Dr Hari, who was conferred a doctorate by Pepperdine University, was pulled out of school early because of poverty brought on by the Great Depression.

His father did not live to see the brothers make their first million, back in 1950 or 1951. But when Dr Hari bought his first car, an Austin with the number plate 9922, he was around to go for a drive.

Dr Hari’s devotion to his wife Padma, who is 10 years his junior, is legendary.

“Her grandmother was friendly with my mother in Hong Kong. After we lost our fortune, we saw extreme poverty,” he once told The Straits Times.

"In spite of that, the grandmother used to bring the granddaughter to visit," he recalls, grinning at the memory of a 15-year-old girl in a school uniform and white tennis shoes.

His only son and heir, Aron, is now chairman of the group. Dr Aron, who holds a PhD in politics from the University of Hull, once revealed in a clipped, upper-class British accent why his father would not fly first class on British Airways, despite his own resounding endorsement for the airline.

“It turned out,” said Dr Aron, “that the space between the seats is too wide for my Dad to sleep holding Mum’s hand.”

Always good for a party, the Harilelas marked their 50th and 65th wedding anniversaries in style, with celebrations in Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok.

Among his philanthropic contributions are the Padma & Hari Harilela Lecture Theatres, with seating capacities of 250 and 150 respectively, so named in recognition of a HK$5 million (S$852,682) donation to Hong Kong Baptist University.

“It is always good practice to do your philanthropy in the area that gives you your livelihood,” Dr Hari once told this writer.

The famed businessman believed that above all, it is the womenfolk who knit a household together.

“Love your sister-in-law like your own sister and your daughters-in-law like your own daughter. Your daughter has to bring glory to another family. The real daughters are your own daughters-in-law,” he used to say.

Asked if he had his life to live again, what would he have wanted different, Dr Hari glanced at his British-educated son.

Then, in his own less-polished tones, he replied: “Education. Nothing is more important. You know, I was forced to leave school when I was 12.”

velloor@sph.com.sg

With additional reporting by Jalelah Abu Baker