He is one of Hong Kong’s oldest rags-to-riches billionaires, but although Dr Cheng Yu-tung (born in 1925) is retired and frail, his philanthropy will continue beyond his lifetime through the legacy of giving he is set to leave behind.
With an estimated net worth of $10.5 billion in 2015, according to Forbes, Cheng and family control one of Hong Kong’s largest conglomerates. Chow Tai Fook, one of their businesses, is Asia’s largest jewelry retailer, while New World Development has interests in real estate.
After fleeing Japanese-occupied China for Macau at the age of 15, Cheng started his career as a jeweler, working for the family friend who took him in. The friend, Chow Chi-Yuen, owned a gold shop called Chow Tai Fook. Cheng fell in love with his daughter and the couple moved to Hong Kong in 1946 to open up shop in the British colony.
The jewelry business prospered and Cheng started investing in real estate. New World Development, the conglomerate for his property and non-jewelry investments, was founded in 1970. By 2011 his empire spanned three generations, with holdings ranging from New York’s Carlyle Hotel, to highways and a chain of Ferrari dealers in China. Not forgetting Chow Tai Fook, the world’s largest jeweler.
Typical of many of Hong Kong’s rags-to-riches billionaires, Cheng is also known for his modest lifestyle and spirit of giving. Although he had always supported philanthropic projects in Hong Kong and mainland China, his charitable work was formalized by the establishment of the Chow Tai Fook Charity Foundation in 2008. The jewelry giant donated $219,000 to get it started.
The foundation announced that its main aim was to support charity programs in the field of education, disaster relief and aiding persons with disabilities. The first donation was for the assistance of poor students and orphans in provinces and cities such as Hubei, Liaoning and Tianjin.
According to a press release issued at the time of the establishment of the foundation, Chow Tai Fook had up to that point donated at least $132 million to charitable causes over the years. Beneficiaries included the United Nations Children’s Fund, General Administration of Sport in China, and the China Charity Federation.
By 2015 the Chow Tai Fook Charity Foundation had supported over 400 worthy causes with over RMB 1 billion (about $154 million) spent.
Cheng attended many money presentation ceremonies in person. In 2008 he donated HK$400 million (about $50 million) to the University of Hong Kong to support its campus development and the academic development of the Faculty of Law.
“I hope my donation can not only be beneficial for the future development of the Faculty of Law in nurturing local talents, but also contribute to the rule of law of our country and to its prosperity,” Cheng said at the presentation ceremony.
Two years later Cheng gave the university another $90 million for the construction of a research
and academic building. At this occasion in July 2010 he said his foundation is collaborating with the university because they seek a common mission in seeking innovation and social progress.
A month later the Chow Tai Fook Charity Foundation gave MOP 30 million (about $3.7 million) to the University of Macau Development Foundation in support of the residential colleges on the new campus of the University of Macau (UM). Once again, Cheng made a personal statement.
“Throughout our history of over 80 years, the Chow Tai Fook Group has always devoted significant resources to charitable causes in Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland and the neighboring region. Not only are we concerned about the needs of the underprivileged in society, we have also strenuously supported educational projects because of the high priority we place on the education of the next generation,” Cheng said.
He continued to say investing in education is particularly meaningful because it could help develop future leaders and contribute to the welfare of society. He expressed the hope that by creating a college setting with excellent facilities students can “stay focused on exploring the vast ocean of knowledge for the benefit of their community and country”.
Although he handed over the reins to his oldest son Henry in 2012, the Chow Tai Fook Charity Foundation has made it clear that the family’s philanthropic work will not end with Cheng.
“Looking forward, the Foundation will continue to contribute to the development of philanthropy in mainland China and Hong Kong by supporting schools, youth training and education, as well as disaster relief,” it has stated repeatedly.