Mingbai (明白, meaning “understand”), written by Christian Føhrby and Deng Jie, is a daily newsletter that drops knowledge on things “everyone in China knows, but almost nobody outside the country knows.” Sign up for it at GetMingbai.com.
You may imagine top businesspeople as cold, suit-wearing calculators, hands clasped behind their backs as they gaze out of their glass skyscraper offices. At least if you’ve watched enough Batman or Wall Street. But when it comes to personality, many Chinese businessmen have more than enough for clients and tabloids alike. Meet some of China’s richest and quirkiest businessmen here.
Celebrity business magnate Wang Shi 王石 is the founder and chairman of 万科 (wànkē), the biggest real estate company in China, focusing on residential properties. The company — named “Vanke” in English to avoid lewd misunderstandings — has made Wang one of the richest people in China.
Other than the usual celebrity stuff (like being married to an actress 30 years younger than himself, etc.), Wang is famous for being a character. At 52, he broke the record for the oldest person to summit Mount Everest, then broke his own record when he was 60. His many escapades, including a stint as a fellow at Harvard, have people doubting how he has time to run a business.
Recently, Wang has been caught up in an ownership struggle, with a rival conglomerate trying to take over the stock majority in Vanke. He has flat out, and very publicly, told it he doesn’t like it.
Chu Shijian 褚时健 used to be known as “the king of tobacco,” building the greatest tobacco company in Asia and making floods of money. Now, he’s known as “the king of oranges,” building the greatest orange company in Asia…and making floods of money!
In 1995, the tobacco king came under investigation for serious corruption. Sketchy, yes, but many famous businesspeople, journalists, and tobacco farmers pleaded his case, saying Chu’s contribution to the country in the form of job creation and tax money was so great that the corruption charges paled in comparison.
Either way, it didn’t work. He was condemned to life imprisonment, at 71 years old.
Chu was soon released on medical parole because of his diabetes. He started planting oranges with his wife, and at 85, he become a billionaire again, this time by selling oranges. Of course, people call them “inspirational oranges.”
Liu Qiangdong 刘强东 is the founder and CEO of JD.com (京东 jīngdōng), one of the biggest e-commerce/delivery companies in China. He is famous for his meteoric business story, his philanthropism, and his romances.
Born in a poor village, Liu came to Beijing at 18, armed only with 76 eggs and $80 in cash, borrowed from his village neighbors. Following his business success, he has given this back many times, donating schools, infrastructure, and money for the elderly.
He’s known to be a real romantic, and closely followed in the media. The name of his company is a combination of the last characters in his and his then-girlfriend’s names. Aww.
Liu recently married a young internet celebrity, and as he says himself, it has nothing to do with her looks because he suffers from face blindness.
Stanley Ho 何鸿燊 is the uncrowned king of Macau’s casino empire. Macau, you ask? Oh, just a little Chinese autonomous territory close to Hong Kong with a gambling revenue seven times that of Las Vegas!
Ho showed up in Macau in 1942 allegedly with just $10 in his pocket. Getting his hands on a state-granted casino monopoly until 2002, he had time to build a gigantic business empire. He became known as a “red capitalist,” and came to play an important role in the handover of Macau from Portugal to China in 1999.
Ho has never gambled himself, but his love story is as rich as his career: With four wives (yes, simultaneous — just don’t ask) and 17 kids, there are plenty of people who regularly appear in Chinese tabloids with more or less outrageous claims to his money. Ninety-six years old, he shakes his head from his wheelchair while they squabble.