We met the Tien brothers, James and Michael, on the same day at the end of last month.
We first bumped into Michael, the younger Tien, at a McDonald’s outlet in a public housing estate in Tuen Mun that morning.
The lawmaker, who founded the fashion chain G2000, was having breakfast with a friend at a place where you wouldn’t expect to encounter anyone from the city’s moneyed class.
Rich but humble
Scions of Francis Tien, a textile and property tycoon and unofficial member of the colonial-era Legislative Council in the ’70s and ’80s, the brothers have never been the typical conceited and profligate dandies from a wealthy family.
That afternoon we also sat down with Michael’s elder brother James in Kowloon Tong. He seems busier after he retired as a lawmaker and Liberal Party chairman last year.
He now hosts a morning talk show on Commercial Radio during weekdays, poking fun at members of the city’s political circus, many of whom are former colleagues and acquaintances in the Legislative Council and other agencies of the government.
The 70-year-old James, whose property investment is now worth almost HK$10 billion, never travels in a chauffeured limo nor does he have an aide to look after his every need.
This contrasts well with the awkwardness of chief executive contender Carrie Lam, who faced ridicule from netizens after she fumbled over such mundane matters as using an Octopus card at an MTR turnstile.
In one of her latest gaffes, Lam had to hail a taxi from her new home in Wan Chai to get to her former official residence at the Peak at midnight to fetch some toilet rolls after discovering that 7-Eleven doesn’t sell them.
The news spread quickly, and James lost no time in posting on his Facebook page photos of himself at a 7-Eleven store with the caption: “Don’t worry, I’m not here to buy toilet paper.”
Never a straight-A student
James is the first to admit that his younger brother was a far better student than him.
At Diocesan Boys’ School, he seldom made it to the honors list. In fact, he usually took the 50th spot, or even lower, in class standing.
His classmates at Diocesan included HKU law professor Benny Tai, the brains behind the 2014 Occupy Movement, and incumbent Liberal Party chairman Tommy Cheung.
“Lam said she took pride in coming out first in all exams. But I was never a top student. I would be perfectly happy with just a B… And probably because of that, I’ve always been willing to listen to others’ opinions, when I was running my own business or inside the Legco chamber.
“If you think you are smarter than others, you’d like to order people around and wouldn’t listen to others, because you think they are all inferior. [Chief Executive] Leung Chun-ying is that kind of person,” James said.
HK a blessed land
James was born in Shanghai where his father made his first million in the textile business. His family fled the Communists and took shelter in Hong Kong in 1949 when he was still a toddler.
His father could not transfer much of the family’s assets amid the tumult after Shanghai fell to the Red Army.
“My father came to Hong Kong without even a dime in his pocket, but Hong Kong gave us everything,” James said. “Hong Kong is a blessed land.”
“Maybe we can’t get the full marks in every aspect, but in all these key areas of life, like healthcare, public safety and education, we are the envy of many. The government has gigantic financial reserves, over HK$873 billion, and we don’t have to spend a cent in defense or diplomacy… And unlike many other regions, natural disasters always spare Hong Kong.
“So why do Hong Kong people still feel unhappy? It is because of the government, when our chief executive is more like a union-buster rather than a healer. Our city has many advantages over our competitors and I really don’t think we should have the friend-or-foe style of governance.”
Will he stand for the city’s top office, if he were 10 years younger?
“It’s not an easy job to do, and I don’t think I’m qualified for that,” James admitted, having witnessed up close the travails of all the three post-handover chief executives.
The Tung Chee-hwa administration would have already forced through Article 23 legislation to criminalize treason and subversion against the central government in 2003, had it not been for James’ last-minute turnabout and resignation from the Tung cabinet.
“I will act for Hong Kong if I’m in that post, just like the mayor of Shanghai will always put the interest of his city first. But it will be hard for the central authorities to balance and lead,” he said.
“Being the chief executive means you have two bosses to answer to, Hongkongers and Beijing, but usually the two bosses don’t think alike. So why bother?”
James was among the few establishment heavyweights to endorse the former financial chief John Tsang soon after the latter announced his election bid last month.
“John will strive for the best for the city, and he is very much unlike CY Leung, who doesn’t have the guts to even raise any issue with the mainland, as seen in the booksellers incident.
“Hongkongers are realistic and they won’t vote for a candidate who’s bent on challenging Beijing, and as for Beijing, it also wants a more harmonious Hong Kong. Anyway, our city’s standing today is hard-won, and we owe nobody nothing.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 1
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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‘Naughty kid’ who shot down Article 23 pledges to stand by HK