IF legendary tycoon Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong were alive, he would be beaming with pride amid the fresh air atop the snow-capped Dama Mountain, as he gazed down on Genting Secret Garden Resort – an important venue for the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022.
Located at the outskirts of Zhangjiakou city in Hebei Province, this RMB20bil (RM13bil) all-season holiday and skiing resort stands testimony that his third son Datuk Lim Chee Wah has inherited his entrepreneurial and fighting spirit.
Tan Sri Lim was known for opening up the formidable dense forests of Genting Highlands in the 1960s and transforming it into a bustling casino city of entertainment, which has become a “must-go” site for tourists.
“My dad was definitely the inspiration for starting my own mountain resort dream in 1994,” said Chee Wah at a briefing for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak during his official visit to Beijing from Nov 1-4.
But unlike Genting Malaysia, this snowy mountain resort to the northwest of Beijing is built on a much wider scale in a hugely remote foreign land, where farming was the only activity before the concrete structures were erected.
The emergence of China’s largest ski resort called Secret Garden has changed the economic landscape of Zhangjiakou.
Farmers, who used to endure winters without income, now enjoy higher and stable income brought about by non-stop tourism and entertainment activities.
Covering 100sq km (which is bigger than Hong Kong island), the Secret Garden Resort currently comprises not only ski runs, but also a hotel, ice rink, indoor golf facilities and sporting amenities catering for four seasons.
The “land of nothing” has been turned into a famous skiing and holiday resort by this articulate and handsome corporate man, who deftly used it in 2014 to back Beijing in bidding for the hosting of Winter Olympics 2022. Without a doubt, the economics graduate of the London School of Economics succeeded.
As 50 Olympic events in 2022 will be held at this resort, which has a size equivalent to one-third of Singapore, the project has become China’s “national priority project”.
The central government has built an elevated highway to cut down travel time from Beijing to the resort, and is also constructing a high-speed rail from Beijing to Secret Garden, which will bring travel time down to 47 minutes when completed in 2019. Currently, travel by road takes about three to four hours.
The soft-spoken Chee Wah, who was deputy managing director of Genting Bhd from 1985 to 1990, shared his success with this writer in an interview in Beijing: “I have inherited the entrepreneur spirit of my father – to take risks and manage the risks with a little bit of luck.”
He was visibly uplifted when Prime Minister Najib expressed pride in the development of the five-star eco-tourism resort, and said “the involvement of a Malaysian company in the Olympics will raise our country’s international stature.”
But what is even more important for him is that Najib had informed China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, as well as Hebei Governor Zhang Qingwei, that the Malaysian government supports Secret Garden’s huge investment in Hebei.
To be sure, Genting Snow Park within the Secret Garden resort – whose master planner and architect is none other than Chee Wah’s own son Lim Keong Wee – has been selected as the Olympic venue for the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events.
It has also been selected as the official venue for the 2021 FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships.
Once it’s fully developed, the mountain resort will boast 88 slopes totalling more than 70km in length and 22 high-quality European engineered lifts with a total length of 30km.
It will become a multifunctional resort, with an annual capacity of 1.8 million visitors.
In 2022, Olympic events taking place in Zhangjiakou will offer 50 gold medals out of the total 96 gold medals up for grabs.
Although this 62-year-old flamboyant man has not lost his personal charm, he has visibly mellowed.
He was measured in his words during the interview with Sunday Star at the Business Center of China World Hotel, where the rich and powerful meet and socialise.
But who can fault him for his caution? After all, he needs the support of the authorities and people of all levels. The success of the Olympic project is of utmost importance not only to him and the Genting brand, but also to China and Malaysia, as well as the world.
Before beginning the two-hour interview, this friendly media savvy man – who will be the focus of attention from now till 2022 – struck a verbal pact with this journalist: “The writer can ask anything of public interest, but the interviewee has the right not to reply”.
Despite this, the interview – punctuated with light jokes, witty humour and laughter – went on smoothly. Here’s an excerpt:
The Prime Minister told reporters he had helped you to iron out some problems. What are your problems in China?
I appreciate the Prime Minister’s support. In China, it is important that our project is recognised by the home country. It is important at national and provincial levels.
Malaysia and China have signed an agreement on Investment Guarantee. So being registered in Malaysia gives Malaysian investments in China full cover. In this way, the Prime Minister has helped in the preparation for more bilateral investments between our two nations.
“Good problems” in the positive sense do arise and we had shared these with our PM. In his four-eyed meeting with Hebei Governor Zhang Qingwei here (Beijing), the Prime Minister was told Hebei would like to see Malaysian trade missions and investments coming to the province and vice versa. I also hope our Malaysian entrepreneurs will come to Hebei to invest and contribute to the local economy. Malaysia is quite developed in tourism, manufacturing and service industries.
What is the progress of your project so far?
We have so far invested RM1bil. The whole project will cost over RM10bil. Financing comes from equity and local bank loans.
Equity-wise, it’s only me and my brother Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay (chairman and chief executive of Genting Bhd). I am the majority shareholder. (What is your share?) As to our individual shares – it is between me and my brother.
At this stage, it is a good example of PPP (private-public partnership). My brother and I share the same investment philosophy. We take calculated risks, looking at long-term returns, and at the same time contribute to the local economy to benefit the local people.
How did you make this investment decision?
In 1994, I heard that someone had put up a skiing project near Beijing. We drove about eight hours to discover a rudimentary skiing place. What I witnessed was: although it was a long drive, Beijing residents still went there to learn skiing and endure hard conditions for their holiday. It showed Beijing people love life, but tourism must have a face.
After 1994, I discovered Zhangjiakou. It took us many years to do surveys, check on sufficiency of snow, et cetera.
Having ascertained that the weather conditions were conducive for skiing, I signed an investment agreement in 2007 with the Hebei Government on the framework for cooperation. The government agreed to provide legal framework, governance and infrastructure for our development.
In 2007, I was still alone in this investment. My (elder) brother Kok Thay joined me as equity partner much later.
Did your father provide you any financial support?
He gave support in spiritual terms. In all the years I had worked for him and under him in Genting Group, I had learnt all aspects of tourism. He gave me the full confidence as he shared how he turned Genting Malaysia into a city of entertainment.
He did not invest in my project but I have benefited from his wealth of knowledge and experience. I have inherited his entrepreneurial spirit. I was already investing in China in 1994, way before the Chinese became super-rich.
What I am developing is a large-scale resort, where the Winter Olympics will be held. It involves the whole city.
How did you manage to gather so much wealth after you left Genting Group?
I did inherit some money from my late father. As to how much he had given me, that is between me and him. But I do make money from my own investments.
I invested in telecommunications in China in the 1990s. My first visit to China was in 1979 and since, I have been coming back.
In 2000 when I began to live in Beijing, I reverted to tourism and real estate. I sold off my telecom shares and some others assets to focus on this large-scale resort project. But I still control Malaysia-listed Dataprep Holdings Bhd.
VXL Group, which is owned by me, is a major investor in Secret Garden.
My present businesses are in China, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
At what stage is the development of your resort to meet Olympic requirements?
After investing RM1bil, shall I continue to invest in this resort project? Of course, I will.
I want to deliver my promise of building 10,000 rooms. Now we have built 1,000 beds, and 35 ski runs out of the 88 that we have to build. Whatever facilities you see in our publicity brochure, they are all up.
What we have now is the largest skiing project in China, with the most modern equipment.
In general, we have built one-third of the total requirements for the Winter Olympics 2022. It is on schedule. China’s leaders do come and monitor the development.
But to meet Olympic specifications and expectations, we need government support.
The provincial government is making sure water and electricity supply and other infrastructure are brought to the resort.
The central government has put up a highway to cut the road journey from Beijing by two-thirds. It is also building a high-speed rail from Beijing to our resort.
What role did you play in winning the Winter Olympics 2022 for Beijing?
As a responsible investor, we are one of the important factors to win the bid for the Winter Olympics 2022.
The International Olympics Council (OIC) talks about investment, efficiency and sustainability. Hence, the private sector’s venue is preferred. The investment we have put in is of great value to the OIC, which wants the private sector to continue with what they are doing. They don’t want the government to use the Olympic Games to show off.
We were here even before the bid for the Olympics. I told the OIC that even if Beijing did not win the bid, I would still continue to build the resort because of the huge market here.
China’s booming economy and the rise in people’s disposal income will provide the base for growth of a huge winter sports market.
In 2014, we sponsored the Beijing Winter Olympics Bid Committee and I was a member of the committee.
After Beijing won the bid in July 31, 2015, Genting Park A and B were named as venues for Freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, and Genting Grand Hotel the mountain media centre.
The Olympics win helps to accelerate development here and because of the media exposure, more people are coming to the resort.
We hope investors and Malaysians will come. When Malaysians come, the local Chinese will also visit Malaysia. This is what tourism is all about.
How many Malaysians have stayed at your resort?
One. Me only. The next could be you. I am extending an open invitation to you.
Hopefully, after the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Hebei Governor and the media publicity generated, Malaysians will come to this resort.
During weekends, our hotel occupancy hits 90%. During weekdays, it is 60-70%. But at the moment, 90% of our customers are residents of Beijing and Tianjin, and the other 10% are foreigners living in China.
Our resort will be big enough to accommodate people of all disposable incomes. Our hotel room rates range from RMB600 to RMB2,000 per night (RM384.70 to RM1,282.30), depending on whether it is low or high season. We will also cater for youth, with a bed in the youth hotel costing RM60 per night.
Has the Genting brand helped in anyway?
In 2007, when we signed the investment agreement with the Hebei government, we did not use the Genting brand. I was alone.
But when we completed the hotel in 2013 and commenced operations, we invited “Genting” to come on board.
Right now, “Genting” is being promoted here as China Genting Snow Park. By 2022, advertising value for “Genting” will be tremendous.
We have not met since I last interviewed you in the late 80s. To be fair, how would you describe yourself as an entrepreneur?
Haha, your question puts me at ease. I am basically a laid-back person who likes to enjoy life and the company of friends. That’s why I am involved in the entertainment industry.
I don’t do much. I only do one job at a time.
You can say I am a man of passion. If I don’t have the passion for this place (Zhangjiakou), I would not have been able to build a resort. Passion is a strong self-motivating factor to drive a person to work.
What are your views on China?
I must be measured again.
It’s a land of opportunities, but we must work hard, be responsible for our behaviour when we come to China. So it’s with caution and responsibility that you should take the risk, manage the risk, and achieve a win-win result. You make money and leave some benefits behind.
What is the secret in “Secret Garden”?
The use of “secret” is because the place was so remote – so ulu as they say in Malay (remote) and so sangkala in Cantonese before we developed the resort. There were no roads, no water and no electricity. It was a place with “nothing”, except farming.
Today, we have turned the whole place into another Genting Highlands. This is the secret.
Now that the secret is out, we wish to share our pride and joy with fellow Malaysians. We hope Malaysians will come here to invest and help the local economy, or just for a holiday.