When the boy was born all he had was the dirt beneath him, clinging to his young body. Quickly he gained cloth and family, and even love. As he grew up he came to know very few comforts and even fewer possessions. Everything he saw would never belong to him, but he scraped by, collecting bits to stay alive. He knew the pain of hunger, the crush of poverty, and he saw how others who looked like him had so many things he never even dreamt of. The older the boy got, the more he accepted that comfort and items and opulence were not for him. He didn’t lust after what others had or envy them for their wealth. Though many would consider the people around him poor, the boy thought them unimaginably rich, to eat nice meals every day, to have enough clothes and warmth. His was a poverty so deep it stretched miles beneath the surface. And then he lost his parents and the war forced him out of education, which is how his parents promised he would rise to the level of his neighbors. With nothing but the dirt he was born to, he began to work the dirt. He added water and made it clay, and with the clay he made pots that he sold to the other poverty stricken communities. In this way he was able to survive, and there was always demand for more of his work because there was always need for cooking tools. As the work became too much for him, he taught his friends to make pots and plates and vases with him. Banding together, they created tools to help with the process, to make it more efficient. Eventually, he was selling so much that he stepped past the poor surrounding him. Even the middle class and wealthy came to him for his rustic wares, and he invested the money to improve his product even more. When asked why he made this his life’s work, he said, “I knew dirt, and it was all I had.”
Henry Fok was a man like this. He came from abysmal poverty and rose to be one of the wealthiest men in China before dying at the age of 83. Born on a small fishing boat in Hong Kong 1923 with nothing to his name, he died with a wealth estimated in the billions. Fok never received an education nearing the level of many of the people we’ve talked about so far. He wasn’t a prodigy or show early signs of great promise. Rather, he was a very normal boy born to great poverty at a time when China was going through dramatic changes, and these changes would continue throughout Fok’s life. His formal education ended when he was a junior in high school because the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941. By this time, his father had died, and he never returned to school. For him, work was not a choice, but the only means of survival. He took the small family boat business and a variety of jobs in order to keep himself fed and ensure he could keep working.
Though he was young, he knew boats and his hard work began to pay off. As mainland China shifted through the tumultuous years under Mao’s communist rule, Fok worked tirelessly through WWII and the Korean War to amass a small fortune. It’s reported that much of this initial fortune came by smuggling arms into mainland China during the Korean War, going undetected by the UN arms embargo.
For the rest of his life he denied the weapon trafficking rumors, but admitted to smuggling iron plates, pipes, gasoline, car tires, and many other items. Though Fok didn’t know much, he knew boating, and he used his skill and expertise to turn his small boating company into what would become a major company. He personally oversaw his fleet of boats as they carried medicine and arms to the mainland.
Perhaps more important than proving his ability as a trading company and rising to the top of Hong Kong’s economy, he aligned himself closely to the Beijing government, which would prove to be advantageous for the rest of his life.
After the Korean War, he established a construction and real estate company, which pioneered the practice of selling apartments before they were even built. This coincided with the housing boom, which led to his wealth to continue to grow by leaps and bounds. In the 1960s, he teamed up with Stanley Ho, a casino owner, and was granted a government gambling monopoly, which would add greatly to his wealth for the following decades.
As the mainland began to open to the world, Fok was ready. In 1980, he was made a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which put him at the same table as many of the highest ranking people in China. With his connection to the Beijing government, he began constructing high end resorts, including the country’s first 5-Star hotel, the White Swan. He added luxury and opulence to a nation that had long suffered a deep poverty. While continually growing as a business man, he deepened his political involvements. Despite being closely affiliated with the Beijing government, he was among the first to condemn the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Though this sort of disagreement typically ends a Chinese political career, Fok was made the vice president of the CPPCC National Committee in 1993.
Though he became politically involved, he never left the private sector, and continued to invest in industry. He invested millions into new technologies and continued to push for the improvement of China, both within borders and across the globe. He founded the Fok Ying Tung Foundation in 1984, which has become one of the largest Hong Kong philanthropic organizations, pledging hundreds of millions into the project.
So how did a man without even a high school education become one of the most powerful and wealthiest men in China? How did a poor fisherman without family rise so high?
As with everyone, the answer is never simple, or only one thing over another. Rather, it’s a combination of thousands of choices and characteristics. He lived through a transformative time in China. Born just after the last emperor of China was overthrown, he saw Japanese occupation and the communist revolution, and then the Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the death of Mao, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “May you live in interesting times.” If any generation of people did, it was Fok’s, and Fok was able to use all this instability to his advantage.
Fundamental to his success, though, was that he knew his foundational business. Though he was young and uneducated, he knew how to make his family’s boating business work. Though he relied on illicit means to grow his initial wealth, even that never would have been possible had he not known the ins and outs of his business. He was an expert, and no amount of education would have made him a better boatman. In fact, an education may have caused him to look well past such a lowly position. Fok, however, didn’t have time or money to wonder whether a job was right for him, whether it was beneath his dignity or not.
He needed to survive, and it’s certainly that drive that pushed him to success, and also pushed him towards illegal means. A true nationalist, it’s easy for Westerners to look at him as a criminal, especially since he supported and then became a member of the Chinese Communist Party, but he was fighting for his country and his people in the only way he knew how.
Henry Fok didn’t need to go to college in order to become a success. He didn’t even need to finish high school. He gained his wealth through experience, and education rarely prepares you for the necessities demanded in any industry, let alone a manual labor one. But he never stopped learning and growing his business. He discovered how to turns his boating enterprise into multiple ventures, including construction and real estate, which is where the bulk of his wealth came from, which happen to be industries college rarely prepares you for.
Fok knew how to work with his hands and he knew what people needed. He was able to understand and navigate both the political and socioeconomic climates of China, which allowed him to take advantage of the many twists and turns of 20th Century China.
If ever there was a self-made entrepreneur, it’s Henry Fok.