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World Man with ties to Canadian bank serves tiny taste of life among China's nouveau riche

Buildings are seen at the Yujiapu financial centre, in Tianjin, China February 22, 2016.

JASON LEE/REUTERS

Wandering into the gated apartment complex 200 kilometres southeast of Beijing, I knew almost nothing about the man I was looking for.

I knew his name, Xu Chang'an. I knew he had signed as a financial guarantor for his wife, Gui Fang Zhu, who lives in Vancouver. I knew she was a founding member of Wealth One, a new Canadian bank that has created controversy over the close ties between some of its directors, the Chinese government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended a cash-for-access dinner and fundraiser with some bank founders this spring.

That, in turn, made Mr. Xu a person of some interest.

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But who was he? The only clue was an address he had included on Canadian legal documents, which led to this complex.

Read more: Money and lawsuits: The early backers of a Canadian bank

Read more: The murky beginnings of a new Canadian bank

Read more: Trudeau attended cash-for-access fundraiser with Chinese billionaires

Inside the gate, a sprawling three-storey red-brick mansion occupied its own corner. Stone balustrades lined terraces that faced onto a courtyard filled with fruit trees. A black Land Rover stood parked outside.

Who lives there?

"Xu laoban," said a man standing nearby. Bossman Xu. This was it.

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"Who are you?" he asked.

"We're from Canada," replied my travelling companion, Yu Mei, The Globe and Mail's Beijing bureau news assistant.

"Do you want to come in?" the man asked.

This was a stroke of extraordinary luck. In China, there is often a direct line between a person's wealth and their reluctance to be in the public eye. Those at the top are a small but powerful bunch. A recent study showed that the wealthiest 1 per cent now own more than a third of China's net wealth and that the country's Gini coefficient – which helps define the gap between rich and poor – is at an all-time high. Lofty heights also have their dangers, though, in a place where wealth is often built through intricate webs of connections that, if they fray, can quickly undermine a life's work.

Best, then, not to stick out and risk angering anyone. It's one of the reasons untangling the people and motivations behind the Liberal cash-for-access scheme has proven difficult.

But Mr. Xu, it seemed, was not so reticent – and I was about to sample a tiny taste of life among China's nouveau riche.

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When he arrived a few minutes later, he wore a form-fitting long-sleeved black top, a purple Nike baseball cap and baggy olive corduroy pants. He clearly had his own style.

He launched into a barrage of questions: Who are you? What are you doing here? What do you want? We tried to ask him a few questions before he interrupted.

"Do you play ball?"

"What ball?"

"Golf."

Mr. Xu golfs almost every day. When the ground gets too hard here, he flies south. But on this early winter day, with a heavy smog and a chill breeze, he was still knocking balls around a local course where his picture hangs on the clubhouse wall to commemorate a 2009 hole-in-one.

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In Chinese, the word for "caddie" translates directly to "ball child" or even "ball servant." It's a linguistic entree to a peculiar world where both ends of the Gini coefficient occupy the same short-cropped grass.

The caddies are almost all young women. They wear waist packs equipped with a can that serves as the golfer's personal ashtray. When you swing, they hold your cigarette. They pick up the ball after every stroke, carefully wiping it down with a cloth before meticulously replacing it.

Hit a nice drive and they cheer, "Beautiful!" Go too light on a putt and they yell, "Jiayou!" – "Go! Go!"

Mr. Xu drove the cart between shots with a gleeful abandon that only temporarily paused when he cranked the wheel hard around a sharp corner. I heard a crash and turned around to see the caddie lying crumpled on the concrete. She whimpered, unmoving.

Another cart was dispatched to take her away. Her face bruised, she ended up in hospital.

"Every job has its dangers," Mr. Xu said, pointing to his cart's bald tires, which had no bearing on his abrupt turn. He resumed his play.

An hour later, we walked into the clubhouse.

"Do you want to bathe?" he asked me. The club, he explained, was built on a hot spring.

I knew what this meant. A soak in China is done in the nude. Maybe, I thought, the experience would thaw any lingering reservations he had about me.

Off went the clothes. Cold shower first, then into a tub so hot I grew light-headed. Mr. Xu spent part of the time standing out of the water, legs akimbo, before another shivering rinse down. It's good for blood flow, he said. I asked for a towel.

Waiting for him to do the same, I realized he had barely spoken with his golfing companion, who I later discovered was a labourer who lived nearby. Half of the people he chatted with in the change room were his employees. And his mansion may be enormous, but he lives there alone, surrounded by staff. It's a common condition for China's wealthy, whose riches often get family members far from smog, demanding schools and an unpredictable business environment.

Had Mr. Xu invited me golfing because he wanted company?

He offered to order pizza and, when we said we preferred local fare, dispatched staff to buy regional specialties – including sweet roasted chestnuts, still warm – and feed us dinner.

He had told me much about his own past as he golfed. He showed me pictures of his family in British Columbia, described the logistics and construction-material businesses he has built and the tangles he has had with former business partners, some of whom have ended up in court – in both Canada and China.

But he had refused an interview. As I prepared to leave, I made one last push.

"This is just between friends," he insisted.

Every reporter in China knows what that phrase means. My experience in full-frontal journalism had yielded nothing.

"Maybe some day," he said as I left, "I'll need your help. Then I will call."

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