Image shows Hu Fa-kuang as a teenager, when he decided to become an engineer, a 1950s world map, and a ship from the Blue Funnel Line, which would take him across the world.
Hu Fa-kuang, who passed away recently, literally changed the face of Hong Kong. He was “the elevator king” of a city which would grow to have more skyscrapers than New York, London and Sydney put together. By providing affordable efficient lifts, the city could grow upwards more than any city on the planet. But then he moved into public service to become a trusted confidante for the Chinese and the British powers, and his problem-solving abilities led him to be known as “the bomb defuser”.
CHALLENGE: You are a three-month journey away from home.
You can’t stay where you are, because your expired work visa cannot be renewed, and you’d face arrest.
You can’t go home because you don’t have enough money to take any form of transport to where your family live on the other side of the world.
What do you do?
That was the sticky problem facing young engineer Hu Fa-Kuang. It was late 1951. A Shanghai native, the 28-year-old had been working in the city of Manchester in the UK.
He would have liked to have stayed on – but after the tumultuous events in China in recent years, he found himself with a problem. He had arrived in the UK as a national of the Republic of China. But that country had become the People’s Republic of China. His legal status had changed, and he had to leave.
How could he get home?
Fortunately, Fa-Kuang was an exceptionally bright, resourceful young man, having gone to university at the age of 16. He came from a family of scholars in Shanghai, and was also good at building relationships, knowing that the best conversationalists were those who were good listeners.
He packed his suitcase and went to a very famous old British shipping firm officially called the Ocean Steam Ship Company but known to everyone as the Blue Funnel Line.
He asked to see a manager.
“May I offer you a deal?” he began.
He said he could provide his skills as a trained engineer free of charge, and in return, they only need put him on their ship to the Far East and let him off when they reached Hong Kong.
To the Blue Funnel Line managers, the bright young Chinese man seemed intelligent and capable. His references were good. He listened carefully when the ship managers told him their needs in terms of engineering. The deal was struck.
That cold but unusually sunny winter of 1951-1952 saw Hu Fa-Kuang adjust to living life on a ship, as he began the months-long journey to the other side of the world. He could withstand the climate, being strong in body as well as spirit. His family had always had a sporting streak.
Hu’s father, using his academic qualifications, had spent time at Cornell University in the United States, and picked up tennis there – a skill he passed on to his children.
Hu settled down for a long journey on the ship. He was happy to be working his way home. But at the same time, he knew that he was sailing into the unknown.
DECISION TIME IN HONG KONG
On April 1, 1952, after months of travel, Hu Fa-Kuang stepped off the boat on to the soil of Hong Kong. It was still cool, with the city’s characteristic humidity yet to return.
Yet in a political sense, the whole region was hot, with many uncertainties about the future. He needed to think hard about what to do next.
Sitting in a Hong Kong canteen with a cup of Chinese tea, he realized he had three choices. Head home to his original family base in Shanghai, where his parents were. Take a boat or a plane to Taiwan, where his eldest brother was working as a pilot. Stay in Hong Kong and try to make a life for himself in the British-run city.
What were the pros and cons?
The first choice, returning to Shanghai, was the most logical. His grandfather Yu Ren (1868 to 1928), had been very famous scholar, and his statue still stood in pride of place in the town of Wuxi, his family home. Yu Ren had solved major agricultural difficulties by setting up an irrigation system and had become a local hero. The family stayed in the area, and Hu Fa-kuang had been born on February 14, 1924.
The second choice, heading to Taiwan, was also tempting. Hu’s brother worked in the air force for the government of the island.
But in the end, there were two reasons to stay in Hong Kong. First, he managed to contact his parents in Shanghai, who told him that things were still very much in flux there, and would be for some years, so it may be better to delay his return.
And second, an unexpected thing happened that tipped the balance towards staying. Friends in Hong Kong took him to a wedding party – where he met a girl called Rose and fell in love.
That was the clincher. He became aware that his destiny was to marry her and set up home here in Hong Kong. Fortunately, with his natural persuasiveness, he soon landed a job as an engineer at the Star Ferry, and then moved up to Jardine Engineering. He was placed in a department that specialized in installing elevators.
Hu didn’t realize it at the time, but that chance assignment – to be posted in a division focusing on lift engineering – was going to be the guiding factor of his life.
He was good at what he did, so was headhunted by China Engineers the following year, to build their machinery department.
TIMING WAS IMMACULATE
Hu Fa-Kuang’s timing, becoming a specialist in the elevator business in the 1950s and 1960s, was immaculate. Hong Kong was in accelerated development mode and was on its way to becoming the most densely populated city on earth.
It would one day have more skyscrapers than London and New York and Sydney put together.
It would also have the tallest residential buildings in the world, with homes being 50, 60 or 70 storeys in the sky.
And it would have individual shopping complexes which would have fifty or more elevators each, and even innovations such as curved escalators.
Hong Kong would literally become the elevator capital of the world.
And Hu Fa-Kuang would become the “elevator king of Hong Kong”.
But he didn’t know any of that at the time.
All he knew was that Hong Kong buildings were getting taller, there was a desperate need for good value, efficient elevators, and he was really excellent at his job. No longer was he installing them himself – he was managing teams of engineers. And there was never a shortage of work.
FROM THIRD PLACE TO FIRST
At that time, European firms like Otis and Schindler dominated the market, but Japanese companies were also making inroads in that area. In 1960, Hu Fa-Kuang signed, on behalf of China Engineers, a deal for the firm to be the distributor for Mitsubishi Elevators in Hong Kong.
By 1966, he had set up a joint venture with his Japanese colleagues, founding a company called Ryoden Electrical Engineering Ltd. Mitsubishi’s logo consisted of three diamonds. In Japanese, Ryo means “diamond” and Den is “electric”.
During the 1960s, Hu lifted the Japanese company’s elevators from a distant third place to being number one in Hong Kong, ahead of both Otis and Schindler. His secret? While the European firms focused on selling, Hu built relationships by investing in the provision of after-sales service. This level of maintenance cost a lot to provide, but in the long run, it paid off. People preferred working with him, and would give him repeat orders. He knew that business was really about relationships and trust.
Ryoden became remarkably successful, and workaholic Hu Fa-Kuang expanded the business into many areas – including air-conditioners, cold storage systems, home appliances, generators, switching equipment, power distribution units and so on. The firm went on to do large scale operations, too. The huge antennas used by Cable and Wireless in Chung Hom Kok were built by his firm, as were Hong Kong Electric’s power plants in Ap Lei Chau and Lamma Island.
By the 1990s, the company broadened to become a multi-focused conglomerate with a wide range of interests, ranging from sportwear to catering.
But the Hong Kong media never forgot his original business. They dubbed Hu Fa-Kuang “the elevator king” of Hong Kong, which in itself had now become the lift capital of the planet.
TIME FOR PUBLIC SERVICE
Once he had become the head of a large company with good managers, Hu no longer had to oversee everything himself, so he decided he had to devote some time to public service, as his family had done for generations in Shanghai.
SPREADING A LOVE OF SPORTS
Three generations of his family had been tennis players, so it was natural for him to become a voice to promote sports in Hong Kong. He became president of the Hong Kong Lawn Tennis Association, and later the Asia Tennis Federation. He also was president of the Hong Kong Football Association and the Hong Kong Cycling Association. He was a key figure in a large group called the South China Athletics Association, which became one of the largest sports associations in the world.
One of his fellow workers in the creation of a thriving sports scene in Hong Kong was a man with Portuguese roots called Sonny Sales (his actual name was Arnaldo Augusto de Oliveira Sales, but he didn’t expect anyone to be able to remember that).
Sales told his friend Hu that a person with his abilities was what was needed in the government circles and invited him to join the Urban Council. Hu became an urban councilor from 1973 onwards, and then joined the Legislative Council from 1979 to 1988. In 1985, he was appointed chairman of the Council of Recreation and Sports – the first Chinese person to take that role.
A CULTURAL DESERT BLOOMS
One of the highlights during his Urban Council days was his push to rescue Hong Kong from its “cultural desert” reputation. He was instrumental in getting government support for the setting up of five professional grade arts groups: the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Hong Kong Ballet, the Hong Kong Dance Company, and the Hong Kong Drama Company. He then pushed for the founding of the Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Hong Kong Asian Arts Festival.
As a Legislative Councillor in the 1980s, he wanted to change the system so that young offenders didn’t automatically end up in jail. To achieve this he introduced a bill that led to the passing of the Social Service Order. Instead of prison, young offenders could do community service instead.
By that time, it was obvious to all that Hu’s talents at bringing people together were exceptional: he was entirely trusted by the British government and by the Chinese government—not to mention being a legend in Japanese business circles.
CLEARING THE WALLED CITY
For that reason, the British colonial government decided that Hu might be the only person who could solve the Kowloon Walled City problem. This small area of land was left off the map of British territory, so it was, in some senses, considered mainland China territory. In reality, it had become virtually lawless. For the safety of the inhabitants, which included many families with children, Walled City residents had to be rehoused and the structures torn down.
The project was a legal, logistical, political, and practical nightmare – but both the British and the Chinese governments trusted Hu Fa-Kuang to manage it. In the event, there were many challenges, but the job was eventually done, with all sides content with the results.
All inhabitants were safely rehoused, the structures were torn down, and the area rebuilt as a much-needed public park in a crowded part of town.
After that, the politicians of Hong Kong gave him a nickname – the Bomb Defuser. If a tough problem was looming, they could send the charming Hu Fa-Kuang into action.
To list all of Hu’s projects would take a whole book, and indeed, a book has been written that records his exploits and his life in general.
But perhaps the key thing to remember is this. Hu Fa-Kuang realized that positive relationships were the key to success, and the secret of positive relationships was to be a good listener.
He had two sons, who were very much “chips off the old block”, with high level business skills, and who played a great game of tennis. One of them, Dr Herman Hu, quickly became a respected contributor to the local sports scene, and a key member of Hong Kong’s Olympic efforts. Like his father, he is a great believer in bringing people together and is a major contributor to society. He is also a devoted educator, supporting many schools and education programmes. Herman Hu was appointed as City University of Hong Kong Council Chairman from 2012 to 2017.
END OF AN ERA
Hu Fa-Kuang died on Saturday, June 4, 2022, in Hong Kong, at the age of 98. There was a huge outpouring of grief at the loss of such a big contributor to the city’s welfare. Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam and former leader CY Leung were among many who expressed their sadness at his passing – and who remembered his many contributions which should be celebrated.
But before closing, we should mention a cabinet at Hu Fa-kuang’s home which features some of the most important items he was given during his working life – and they also tell his story in a memorable way.
- The grateful British gave him the title of Officer of the Order of British Empire (OBE) in 1985 and Commander of the Order of British Empire (CBE) in 1989.
- The grateful Japanese gave him the Order of Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette in 1999.
- The grateful mainland Chinese gave him Magnolia Gold Award of the Shanghai Municipal People’s government in 1999.
- The grateful Hong Kong people gave him the Gold Bauhinia Star (GBS) in 2002 and the Grand Bauhinia Medal (GBM) in 2016.
- And the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave him the “150 Years, Pierre de Coubertin, Sport as a School of Life” award in 2013.
Hu Fa-Kuang was the ultimate bridge-builder, whose interests spanned many worlds. He will not be forgotten.
Images for this article come from the biography mentioned in the text, from historical sources, and from the sources identified in the captions.