Felix Chee appraises a platter of crisp, glistening fowl with a careful eye and then leans over the table to share a thought.
"The Peking Duck here is among the finest in the world," he says, falling back into a chair at Toronto's casually elegant Lai Wah Heen restaurant. "It is all about the freshness of the meat and the oil."
Mr. Chee has made a career out of finding winning combinations. Ever since he and his wife Margaret immigrated to Canada from Singapore in 1974 with two suitcases and $5,000 in their pockets, the 64-year-old businessman has shown a talent for marrying foreign knowledge and money with local institutions.
He rose to prominence on Bay Street in the early 1980s as an innovative financial manager at Ontario Hydro, which was among the first to import then-exotic derivatives to Canada to reduce interest rate and currency risks on the utility's bonds. More recently, Mr. Chee nudged China's sovereign wealth fund to its most successful direct investment ever, when he convinced China Investment Corp. to bet $1.5-billion (U.S.) in 2009 on embattled Teck Resources Ltd. That investment is now worth $5.4-billion.
In January came "the highlight" of Mr. Chee's career, when CIC opened a Toronto office with him at the helm as its chief representative. The world's fifth-largest sovereign wealth fund, with $332-billion of assets, snubbed larger capital markets by opening its first non-Asian office here, putting Mr. Chee in a unique position to help build the fragile economic bridge that links Canada's resource riches with the world's fastest-growing major economy.
Mr. Chee says the new office partly reflects the gratitude of officials at state-owned CIC that Canada "is a welcoming place" for its investments. "They don't want to be where they are not wanted."
But people familiar with the fund say the location of the new office is also a gesture of thanks to Mr. Chee, who temporarily left his home and family in Oakville in 2008 to move to Beijing to help build the Chinese fund. During that time, he pushed CIC's somewhat reluctant officials to shift their focus on resource investments from nearby Australia to Canada.
It was his persistence that is credited with overcoming resistance in China - and on Teck's board of directors - to a $1.5-billion equity investment that helped the Canadian mining company get out of financial trouble in 2009.
Mr. Chee, whose contract expires in 2014, said he has two remaining ambitions: He is on the hunt primarily for minority stakes in resource, infrastructure and real estate ventures that will deliver strong returns. But a bigger challenge is to dispel Western fears that CIC is a puppet of a centralized Chinese government seeking to control Canada's valuable resources.
"Obviously there is a perception and concern about China and the controlling of resources," says Mr. Chee. CIC, he says, is a "financial investor" and "it does not seek control" in any Canadian company.
Contrary to what some Westerners think, "China is not a monolith," he continues. CIC is one of several state-owned entities that answer to a variety of different officials and they have devoted over $100-billion to acquire long-term interests in foreign companies and securities.
"Actions will speak louder than words. Hopefully by the transactions we do, it will help people here, the government, regulators, businesses and investors understand CIC and China much more. What we do will also be a template for how Chinese companies can invest abroad by thinking of all stakeholders."
During a leisurely three-hour lunch of succulent duck crepes and tea, Mr. Chee speaks candidly in a deep, gravelly baritone about his career and his new mandate. He is tall and thin with a neatly shaved head, and when he stands he favours one leg, which was badly injured during a car accident last year that left him bedridden for months.
Mr. Chee's background makes him uniquely suited to help nurture stronger business ties between China and Canada. A descendant of educated, middle-class Chinese from the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou (his grandmother had bound feet), he was born and raised in Singapore and educated in Britain.