Frank Tsao Wen-king, the Shanghai-born entrepreneur who fled to Hong Kong amid the turmoil of the Chinese civil war and went on to build one of Asia’s biggest shipping empires, has died aged 94.
Tsao, who held Malaysian citizenship and was made an honorary citizen of Singapore, died peacefully in the Lion City on Monday, his family said in a statement sent to This Week in Asia.
Trained in economics at Shanghai’s prestigious St John’s University, which closed in 1952, Tsao first moved to Hong Kong as a 22-year-old in 1947, before the Communist Party took control of the mainland.
He co-founded the Great Southern Steamship Company in 1949 with the purchase of a solitary coal-burning ship from a Singaporean businessman.
Within two decades, he had established International Maritime Carriers (IMC), which later became IMC Group.
The firm – now based in Singapore – has a diverse fleet of five bulk carriers and 21 tankers owned either directly or through joint ventures.
Tsao handed over control of the company – now a multi-business industrial conglomerate – to his third child, Frederick Chavalit Tsao, in the mid-1990s.
The elder Tsao was also a founding member of Suntec City Development, a venture by 11 Hong Kong tycoons – including the city’s richest man, Li Ka-shing – who went on to develop Singapore’s Suntec City mall.
The acumen in shipping was also tapped by Malaysia, where he, along with another billionaire with Hong Kong ties, Robert Kuok, co-founded the country’s national shipping line Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC).
Kuok – Malaysia’s richest man – wrote in his memoirs published in 2017 that he had sought Tsao’s help to set up MISC on the advice of Malaysian government officials.
For his contributions to the country, Tsao was given the title of “Tan Sri”. He told the Post in 2003 that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – who led the nation from 1981 to 2003 and is currently back in the job – offered him citizenship in the 1990s.
“I had to sit a test in Malaysian, and I learned enough to pass. Before that I had a BNO [British National (Overseas)] passport, which nobody trusted,” Tsao said in recollection of his early days.
He described Hong Kong as “primitive” when he first arrived in the then British colony.
His parents joined him in the city but later moved to Brazil with two of his sisters.
“Our office was on the seventh floor of the Pedder Building, the only old building remaining in Pedder Street, and I lived in Wyndham Street. There was a severe shortage of housing,” he said.
“We lived in a three-storey house which accommodated our staff from Shanghai. Later, the whole building was filled with my relatives … my father and mother, my sisters, my brother and my wife’s family. They had eight children. Then there were my uncles and their families. About 30 of us squeezed into the house. Every day we had two dishes and one soup – in very big quantities.”
Tsao was born to moderate wealth, with his father, George Tsao Ying-yung, an export-import businessman and mother, Tsao Ng Yu-shun, an inheritor of a controlling stake in the China National Development Bank.
Tsao’s mother founded the Tsao Foundation in Singapore, which is well known for its efforts to improve the lives of the elderly. Frank Tsao said he took over his father’s export-import business after the latter became “totally disenchanted” with the venture.
He said an impetus for his shipping business to flourish was the Korean war, when goods being traded with the mainland were blockaded.
“We had to charter ships, which were not always available,” he said. “So we got our own ships to ensure delivery. We started with shipping, then became involved in container terminals, shipyards, warehousing and the land transportation business in China, Thailand and Malaysia.”
Tsao’s accolades include the honorary citizenship Singapore awarded him in 2008 – the highest honour the city state’s government can bestow on a foreigner. He helped to establish the Centre for Maritime Studies at the National University of Singapore in 2005. The Hong Kong government awarded him the Silver Bauhinia Star in 2006.
He was a member of the selection committee that picked the semi-autonomous Chinese city’s first government upon the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997.
A wake will be held on Thursday in Singapore. Tsao is survived by his children Calvin, Mary Ann, Frederick and Cheryd. His wife of 70 years, Maisie Chow Tsao, died in 2014.
More from South China Morning Post:
- How I launched Malaysia’s national shipping line (and what Genghis Khan had to do with it): the Robert Kuok memoirs
- Mission to Malaysia leaves HK shipowners high and dry
This article Frank Tsao, who went from civil war migrant to towering pioneer of Asian shipping, dies aged 94 first appeared on South China Morning Post