From Singapore to the World: Growing the Family Tree

Close Up

August 11, 2015 | BY Jolene Khor

In our Singapore to the World series, Claire Chang and Ho Kwon Ping, co-founders of Banyan Tree Holdings, share their definitions of success this SG50 month.

Not all love tatler_tatler_stories are made for the books, but this one is. One hot day in 1975, a white-shirted, bespectacled Ho Kwon Ping caught the eye of 24-year-old Claire Chiang in a Cold Storage supermarket. They bonded over a shared love for history and development (sharing perspectives from their respective backgrounds in economics and sociology), but most of all, travel. Their first date was grocery shopping in Yaohan supermarket, and their courtship years entailed countless backpacking trips when they were dating, coach rides and shady US$1 hotel night stays—one was so dusty, Kwon Ping had an asthma attack and Claire stayed up all night with him thumping him on the back. Newly married in 1978, they moved to Hong Kong for Claire to pursue her graduate studies and Kwon Ping to work as a journalist. Years later, they named their new hotel chain after the little village where they lived, Yung Shue Wan, Cantonese for Banyan Tree Bay. A footprint in 28 countries with over 35 hotels and resorts, more than 70 spas, 80 retail galleries, three children and a new grandchild later, the brand and the charming couple behind the 21-year-old business shows no signs of slowing down.

What was one decision that led you to where you are today?
Ho Kwon Ping (KP): We moved to Hong Kong right after we got married in 1978 and were too poor to live anywhere on Hong Kong Island or Kowloon. So we stayed in a fishing village so small, there were no cars on the road. The village name, Yung Shue Wan, is Cantonese for Banyan Tree Bay. It was an important milestone for a young, poor but in-love couple to find an idyllic life. Years later, we named our new hotel chain after that little fishing village to remind ourselves and others that romance and intimacy does not need to involve luxury and snobbery.

What does it mean to succeed?
Claire Chiang (CC): Success has both tangible and intangible aspects. Success is a feeling of being proud of the value I add to life experiences. Family bonding and community engagement are the success pillars I work on.
KP: I define success as having lived a purposeful and meaningful life, however one wishes to measure that for oneself. Failure is to wake up one day and realise that one has wasted one’s life when you only live once.

What is a feature or trait necessary to succeed in your field?
CC:
To persevere in finding the innovative ideas to create the next best project.
KP: Claire has said that I am an optimistic person, and always see the glass as half full rather than half empty. I think that is the basis of perseverance—to always think that tomorrow will be a better day.

Is it more important to be inspiring or successful?
KP: To have inspired people around you is to have already succeeded in life; to be simply successful in material ways is a solitary and transient satisfaction, and not the source of lasting joy.

What drives you to innovate today?
CC: Generating a good idea and seeing it transform from imagination to actualisation gives us a heightened sense of achievement.
KP: Paranoia. If you do not innovate and stay on top of the wave of change, you eventually languish and fall behind. To adapt to change and remain relevant is imperative for survival and not a reward for success.

What was the toughest lesson the both of you had to learn along the way?
CC: Loyalty and trust are not eternal human qualities. What Mao said was true, that today’s friends can become tomorrow’s enemies.
KP: Failures are the foundation of future success, and that it is the ability to bounce back from wanting to give up that defines our ability to survive and thrive.

Any memories that you look back and have a good chuckle over?
CC: For me, the present moment is the most important. I do not look back.
KP: One particular memory is the way that I proposed to Claire. I said to her that if we got married she could visit me in jail [in the late 1970s, Kwon Ping was detailed for two months for controversial articles he had written for the Far East Economic Review], which was something she could not do if we were just dating. Until now, she still thinks it wasn’t a romantic proposal though I think it was spontaneous and heartfelt!

Is there anyone whom you see as a source of inspiration and motivation—someone who has helped you get to where you are today?
CC: My grandmother is my first coach on self-reliance. I saw how she weaved carton plastic strips into baskets to hold her clothes. She also sewed every piece of her clothing by needle and thread.
KP: My wife, of course!

What are the milestones in your lives this year?
CC: I celebrate SG50 as a grandmother. We welcome our grandson Kang Peng into the family, weighing in at 3.6kg on May 31 and we send off our youngest son to Cambridge University in October.
KP: The death of my parents made me realise that building a legacy that one can be proud of is more important than just making money. At SG50, we became grandparents—my grandson’s initials are KP, like mine—and we realise yet again that the cycle of life is magical and profound.

What has been the proudest moment for you?
KP: Personally, it’s our wedding, the birth of our children, and the birth of our grandson. Opening a new hotel is always an opportunity for reflection and pride but it pales when compared to our family’s joys.

Read more about home-grown brands’ success tatler_tatler_stories in From Singapore to the World in the August issue of Singapore Tatler. 

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