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Cheng Yu-tung plowed profits from his jewellery stores into Hong Kong real estate during China’s Cultural Revolution. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)
Cheng Yu-tung plowed profits from his jewellery stores into Hong Kong real estate during China’s Cultural Revolution. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)

Hong Kong billionaire Cheng Yu-Tung began as apprentice in gold shop Add to ...

Cheng Yu-tung, a gold-shop apprentice who married his boss’s daughter and helped to develop the world’s largest jewellery retailer, died Sept. 29 at the age of 91. His family said he died peacefully with relatives at his side.

A refugee during Japan’s invasion of China, Mr. Cheng plowed profits from his jewellery stores into Hong Kong real estate during China’s Cultural Revolution. Mr. Cheng, the third-richest tycoon in the city on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, had an estimated net worth of $12.7-billion (U.S.) through holdings of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group Ltd. and New World Development Co.

Mr. Cheng was honorary chairman of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery, which operates more than 2,000 outlets in mainland China and whose revenue was more than 70 per cent larger than that of New York-based Tiffany & Co. in the latest fiscal year. In 2012, he announced his retirement as chairman of New World Development, founded in 1970. Its businesses include property, energy, bus services and department stores.

He was born on Aug. 26, 1925, in Shunde, a city in Guangdong, the southern Chinese province adjoining Hong Kong. In 1940, he fled to Macau to escape China’s war with Japan. At 15, he got his first job as an apprentice at the gold shop of family friend Chow Chi Yeun, who had founded Chow Tai Fook in 1929.

Three years later, Mr. Cheng married Mr. Chow’s daughter, Tsui Ying, in a marriage arranged by their fathers. The couple had two sons, Henry and Peter Cheng; and two daughters, Amy Cheng and Cheng Lai Ha.

In 1946, Mr. Cheng moved to Hong Kong from Macau to open a store. The jewellery chain expanded as Hong Kong’s population doubled to almost 1.5 million with mostly displaced refugees. By 1950, the city’s population swelled to more than two million as Chinese fled Communist China, and he used the profits from selling gold to fund his property purchases.

He expanded his property business in May, 1967, when the Cultural Revolution in China spilled over into Hong Kong. Pro-Communist demonstrators rioted against the British rule, leading to 51 people killed and 800 injured. Real estate prices plunged 70 per cent and he bought property in the aftermath. He started the New World Centre, a retail-hotel-residential-office complex in Kowloon, followed by the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in the mid-1980s.

As his businesses took off, he would visit jewellery stores unannounced to check on them, and eat with his workers at the company canteen.

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