Fujian, the land of billionaires

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

It might well be called the land of Asia’s first billionaires.

Filipino-Chinese tycoons, for one, came from Fujian - among them Henry Sy, John Gokongwei Jr., George Ty and Lucio Tan.

The roster of Tsinoy billionaires also includes descendants of Chinese immigrants from Fujian. Low-key taipan Carlos Chan is one, and so were the late Alfonso Yuchengco and the late Andrew Gotianun Sr.

Malaysian “Sugar King” Robert Kuok, the man who built Shangri-La is also of Fujian blood. The late Sudono Salim, father of Anthoni Salim and once touted as the richest man in Indonesia, also came from Fujian.

Fujian’s troubled past

I was just in Fujian’s port city of Xiamen over the weekend and I wondered in between sips of warm afternoon tea – black, rose, and jasmine – what it was in Fujian that bred future billionaires?

Was it the crisp afternoon air? Was it the spirit of the mystical mountains surrounding the province or was it the lucky nine dragons in Fujian? Or perhaps, it was the tea?

Nobody knows for sure, but locals point to the province’s troubled past.

Fujian was at the heart of the Opium Wars and later on, the Japanese ravaged China. This was before and during World War II. Japan seized control of the province and established a puppet Chinese national government.

There was a lot of lawlessness and dingy bars and brothels for the Japanese Army. Poverty swept the land.

It was this difficult life that forced many ethnic Chinese to survive elsewhere. Many of them felt that the only way to survive was to leave their mother country.

They were dirt poor and the situation made them into hardened people – well equipped at survival. In their new host countries, they strived and worked hard to become very successful, knowing that the best way to survive was to make money. The rest, as they say, is history.

Other Chinese-Filipino billionaires

But during my visit, I also learned that before the post-World War II Chinese diaspora, the province was already home to wealthy Chinese businessmen who expanded all the way to the Philippines.

They were names I’ve never heard before, but they were actually the first who made it big in the Philippines, long before Henry Sy, John Gokongwei Jr., George Ty and Lucio Tan.

In Kulangsu Island, a pedestrian-only island off the coast of Xiamen, I walked inside the mansion built by Huang Xiulang. History says he was among the first Chiness business magnates who migrated to the Philippines from Fujian.

“Huang Xiulang was born into a poor family from Jinjiang of Fujian in 1859 and later moved to the Philippines where he became a prominent businessman. In 1899, he returned to China and settled at Kulangsu. He opened a company in Xiamen, exchanging goods between the Philippines and Xiamen, and his business expanded quickly,” according to the Beijing Review.

Wong Chu King

A man named Wong Chu King, the man who would build the La Campana cigarette empire in the Philippines, was also among the early ethnic Chinese migrants to the Philippines from Fujian.

During my visit, I saw Wong Chu King’s hometown, Yuxi, a two hours’ drive from Xiamen. I also saw the Yuxi Primary School, a school that Wong Chu King helped build and which the family continues to support. It has a sprawling “Wong Chu King Memorial Hall.”

I also saw the family’s ancestral village and ancestral home not far from the school. There are various social projects, including a health center supported by the Wong Chu King family, a reflection of the late patriarch’s love for his hometown.

From Fujian to Manila

Fujian, I was told, has changed dramatically from what it used to be in centuries past. City lights glitter in the horizon at night as sky scrapers fill the booming city.  There are wide clean roads, smooth ferry rides, and efficient train systems. I learned that one can reach Hong Kong in just four hours by train from Xiamen.

Today, centuries after the Opium Wars and the Second World War, Fujian is no longer the devastated city that the would-be billionaires escaped from.

But it was the province’s complex past that shaped Fujian’s sons and daughters into the billionaires that they have become.

The Philippines benefitted from this because the billionaires would make Manila their home and build their sprawling empires in our country, creating tens of thousands of jobs for generations and generations of Filipinos.

Indeed, Fujian and the Philippines may be 800 miles apart, but the two places are connected in no small way as Fujian’s troubled past no doubt helped shape Manila’s future.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales.

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