The Asian Voice

Guangdong tycoon went from laying bricks to transforming JB: The Star columnist

The writer with Yang Guoqiang, chairman and founder of the Country Garden Group, one of the largest real estate developers in China, at the Country Garden Group headquarters in Guangdong. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - There are a few legendary figures in Guangdong, the coastal province of south-east China, which borders Hong Kong and Macau.

Older people will remember this province as Canton or Kwangtung, the ancestral home of Cantonese-speaking Malaysians of Chinese origin.

I am a third-generation Malaysian Chinese whose grandfather came from a lychee and longan-producing county known as Gaozhou or Kochow, in its Cantonese name.

It is just a four-hour drive from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, and still remains a laid-back place of mainly farmers.

Guangdong is the home of the nationalist Sun Yat Sen, the father of China's republican revolution, and if he had his way, Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, would have been the republic's official language.

This is also where kung fu grandmasters, Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man, came from or more precisely, the town of Foshan.

Tales of their heroic acts have been made into movies, especially that of the latter, who was the teacher of the late martial arts actor Bruce Lee.

But over the past few days, I had the privilege of meeting a new Guangdong legend - billionaire Yang Guoqiang, or Yeung Kwok Keung, his Cantonese name.

He is the chairman and founder of the Country Garden Group, one of the largest real estate developers in China. According to one report, his family assets are worth 45.5 billion yuan (S$9.3 billion). He is regarded as super-rich.

His 36-year-old daughter Yang Huiyan created world news when she became the mainland's richest person at the age of 25 when her father transferred 70 per cent of his holdings to her in 2007 just before taking his firm public in Hong Kong.

She is now the largest shareholder of Country Garden Holdings. She is on the list of the richest in China with a net worth totalling US$5.1 billion (S$6.9 billion), according to a survey by Singapore-based consultancy Wealth-X.

Country Garden is China's No. 6 property developer in terms of sales and has a market capitalisation of US$61.87 billion (S$83.6 billion).

Like many rags to riches Chinese tycoons, Yang Guoqiang does not flaunt his wealth. He is simple with a down-to-earth personality.

A black Mercedes-Benz - an old model - which was parked at the entrance of the headquarters where 10,000 employees work, looks unpolished.

He showed up for this interview in a simple-cut blue suit. It looked oversized and for sure, it was not Zegna-designed. He was also not wearing any shoes, quite happy with his room slippers.

The 63-year-old businessman, who speaks Cantonese in thick Shunde or Soon Tuck accent, eagerly shared his plans to expand outside of China.

His company also entered the Hong Kong market for the first time in June, acquiring a redevelopment project in Kowloon City for HK$610 million (S$106 million). The company also has residential projects in Australia.

He spoke of the many sales galleries that have been set up in numerous cities such as Dubai, Jakarta and Taipei.

Well aware of the capital outflows that have affected potential Chinese buyers, it is clear that the company is also eyeing other buyers.

But at this point, his favourite destination is Johor Baru, where Forest City is taking shape.

"If Dubai can become a sprawling city from a desert, I do not see why Johor Baru cannot do the same, if not better. JB has such a great economic potential," he said at his office. To him, Johor Baru is in a strategic location.

With an experienced eye for a good location, Yang said he felt "really good" when he first saw the area surrounding the Forest City project.

At its sales gallery near the company headquarters, Country Garden shouts loudly about Forest City's location being "just 2km away from Singapore".

Forest City is a benchmark project for Country Garden, with a building area of 1,370ha, investment of RM170 billion (S$56 billion), and estimated to provide more than 220,000 job opportunities in Johor by 2035.

It will be the company's largest international project.

As it is adjacent to Singapore, it is easily accessible via the Second Link. First-phase units include apartments ranging from 75 sq m to 175 sq m and bungalows from 250 sq m to 550 sq m. The development, just off the coast of Tanjung Kupang, is expected to house hundreds of thousands of residents upon completion.

A keen golfer, Yang said he is looking forward to the 18-hole golf course, designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus and his son, Jack Nicklaus II, and scheduled to be completed next year. There will also be two other golf courses.

Obviously a fan of Nicklaus, he waved for his assistant to show me an autographed picture of the retired American golf professional.

He is also very proud of an award that he received from the Sultan of Johor; again, asking his assistant to show me the medal and decorations that he keeps in his office.

"We are both Datuk," he said. But I corrected him, pointing out a big difference as his award is from Johor, and that His Majesty Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar rarely confers such titles.

While many Malaysians are both amazed and sceptical at the size of the Forest City project, mainland Chinese have long known the track record of this man. Every project in China is built on a gigantic proportion, so it is quite difficult for the average Malaysian to grasp the size of the Chinese integrated townships built by Country Garden unless they come to Guangzhou to see it for themselves.

Its Phoenix City development project, which started in 2002, took about 20 years to achieve its current state. Originally occupying a 667ha land area, the project gradually expanded to about 30,000 homes and 150,000 residents with nine schools and four commercial areas.

The company, which was set up in 1992 and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2007, has a track record of over 300 projects with about 70,000 employees on its payroll.

The Country Garden headquarters is located in a huge township of apartments and three-storey villas complete with schools and hospitals.

There is a hotel, run by the company, which displays framed words of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on the lift landing of every floor.

One of the quotes reads: "Life is not fair - get used to it. The world doesn't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself."

It's advice that Yang obviously relates to. He is one of the richest and most powerful men of China but he started with nothing.

He runs one of the top 10 Chinese property development companies but he began merely as a brick layer. His fortunes changed when he began buying up land and developing them. He has always made it compulsory to build schools in his townships - both as a selling point and also because he holds dearly the importance of education.

"I remember when I was 16, I couldn't even pay that seven yuan (S$1.50) school fees of that year. I had to go back to farming. Thankfully my teacher went to my house to tell my father (a farmer) that I was not bad in my studies," he said in one news report. Eventually, he received a scholarship to cover the fees with some allowances.

Today, he runs a high school that provides free education for children from poor families all across China. Since its inception in 2002, more than 2,000 have graduated from the school, with almost all entering universities. He also runs two vocational training institutes that provide classes for free.

The students are picked by a team from Country Garden which criss-crosses the country each year to select the smart ones from impoverished villages. They are not just given free education; boarding, allowances, fares to travel home each year and even money for parking are provided.

Despite his generous charitable contributions, he has a policy - no schools should be named after him. One middle school is, however, named after his late brother Guohua. That school costs him 4.1 million yuan (S$838,000) a year to run.

Perhaps his one indulgence is food. According to his assistants, he has hired one of the best Cantonese-cuisine chefs in Shunde district to cook for him.

Corporate social responsibility runs big in the company. His current interest is to revitalise poor villages, with the hope of making the people become self-sustaining through agro-tourism.

A team of staff, many holding huge graphs, was standing next to him as I entered his office. The projects had occupied his morning.

There are no signs of Yang slowing down. In fact, he literally ran to another meeting, along with his staff, after seeing this writer off at the lift.

Every trip to China has been an eye-opener and also a reminder that Malaysians have plenty to catch up with when it comes to China. It is a country that is focused, determined and ambitious. It will not allow unproductive issues to distract what it plans to do.

As one China thinker said, the United States is not worried that China has a communist system but it is worried that it has embraced capitalism and beaten the Americans at their own game.

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