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How A Poor, Fatherless Young Boy Became a Successful Man of Steel

Cheng Han Sui passed away earlier this week. He was 97.
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My Dad, Cheng Han Sui, had to struggle early on in life. He came from a poor village district in Xiamen, China. Losing his father at the age of 12, he supported himself by raising ducks and  planting vegetables, and hawking them.

With the support of the village elders who saw his potential, he gained a scholarship to Jimei High School (now Jimei University), and became the first from his village to go to college. He went to Xiamen University, also on a scholarship. Years later, he would return to Jimei University and Xiamen University and show his gratitude to both schools.

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The war years were difficult for him. He lost his sister to the bubonic plaque. While in school away from home, he survived on a meager allowance sent by his hardworking single mom. He contracted malaria and had no access to quinine. Out of sheer will, he embarked on a rigorous swimming regimen until the fever broke, and he recovered.

In 1949, at the age of 26, he left China to accompany a younger relative to Hong Kong. A day later, the Nationalist government fell to the Communists. Instead of returning to China, he headed to the Philippines, where his father and his grandfather had worked as seasonal stone masons and steel artisans. His grandfather was one of the many Chinese migrant laborers who helped build the San Sebastian Church, the only all-steel church in the Philippines. This foreshadowed my father's future calling in the steel business.

Arriving in the Philippines, with only a rudimentary grasp of English, he painstakingly taught himself the language with methods like reading National Geographic magazine and highlighting vocabulary words in it. He also wrote down difficult words he found in English newspapers.

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He taught himself well enough that he was able to complete a Master’s degree in Economics at FEU with a thesis entitled “Nationalization of the Retail Trade in the Philippines and its Effect on the Sino-Filipino Relations” which is archived in the University of the Philippines library.

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He maintained a lifelong daily ritual of reading three English dailies, two Chinese dailies, and an international business daily. In his old age, he used a magnifying glass to aid his reading.

While taking his Master's degree he supported himself by teaching Chinese history and literature at Chiang Kai Shek College and St. Stephen High School for seven years. Having been a Chinese teacher, his chief frustration was that none of us learned to speak Mandarin. 

During my grade school days, a few classmates told me that my dad had taught their parents. Even the dad of the class bully had been his student which gave me some protection.

Later, it did not hurt either that my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, turned out to have been his student as well.

It was also in school where he met Mom. He attributed whatever he attainted to the steadfast support and the entrepreneurial intuition of Mom who ran her own non-ferrous steel trading business. My aunts referred to her devotion as “service deluxe”. He constantly reminded us to find somebody like Mom.

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Han Sui and Helen Cheng

To supplement his income, he also sold insurance and investment funds on the side. He must have been a good salesman because he was awarded a Patek watch for his performance. He wore it proudly.

The watch is of questionable monetary value because the fund inscribed its name on it, but I would proudly wear it, knowing what it symbolized for him.

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He started in the steel business in the 1950s as the personal assistant of Cheng Jai Lun and later Johnny Cheng. In 1968, he partnered with Johnny Cheng to rehabilitate Apollo Steel. In 1974, Johnny Cheng moved to liquidate another floundering steel company called Central Steel, the forerunner of Capitol Steel.

At the time, Dad was taking up his Ph.D in Economics at the University of Sto. Tomas and presented his boss and partner with a business plan to turn around the steel company. His boss instead proposed a joint venture and accepted a minority stake.

The boss said, "Better to be minority partner in a profitable business than to be the sole owner of a losing business.” In the intervening years, Dad also helped rehabilitate another steel company and an ailing PVC resins company which his partner had taken over from the BF Goodrich Company.

Dad juggled multiple hats and worked nights and weekends. None of us siblings dared complain of long hours. Otherwise, we would not hear the end of his WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE sermons.

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He also found the time to actively participate and head a number of industry, school and family associations. He was particularly concerned about safety and strongly lobbied for a rebar standard in industry and government forums.  The first acronym I learned as a kid was ASTM (American Standard for Testing and Materials).

He was sustained by his faith and his firm belief that people respect what is right. He told us, "Never do anything in dealing with others that would make you avert your gaze when you meet them on the street."

Han Sui Cheng with his sons, Alvin and Berck.
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When he took over the management of the PVC business, he promptly fired the Ivy League- educated American running it and went after the technical smugglers of PVC resins by working with the Department of Finance. This was just after the EDSA Revolution.

The board directed him to retain a security escort. He declined, reasoning that even smugglers would respect someone who is doing the right thing. And if they did not, he believed in divine protection— a gamble, considering his own father had been killed for speaking out.

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During the height of militant labor activism in the waning martial law years, Dad engaged directly with labor leader Ka Lando Olalia of the KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno) and they were able to develop a respectful rapport. This averted strikes in Capitol Steel.

It helped that Dad and Ka Lando shared a common experience.

During the 1950s, Dad had been tagged a Communist sympathizer by one of his students and was pursued by the Philippine Constabulary in our local version of the McCarthy red scare.

This was crazy, given that he had barely escaped Communism at a young age and was certainly not a fan of what he had left behind. Thankfully, he was exonerated of all accusations.

Dad dabbled in “stuff”. He liked to discuss the latest labor code or tax ruling and then move into geopolitics and history. He tinkered with his medium-format camera. He kept clippings of assorted subjects, kept sketch books, plotted charts of ore production and correlated stock prices. He even kept fishing rods just in case he found the time to fish.

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But above all, he was a teacher at heart. He valued character and discipline. He was never one for small talk. But when he spoke, we had better listen.

His background as teacher influenced the way he conducted business. When I started in the family business, I immediately gained the trust of those who knew him. The common refrain was,  “Your Dad is a teacher.”  And that was enough.

Han Sui Cheng and students.
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One thing he instilled in us was a Chinese saying — “tsao pao kim.” This can be translated into "gold wrapped in straw” or not to be given to ostentation or extravagance.

I might have taken it a bit too far. I drove a 10-year old white Corolla when I was going out with my wife. And it stalled on more than one occasion during our dates.

When news of Dad passing on reached our friends, a number reached out to share their interaction, memories, and stories of him.

A friend shared these comforting words, “It really is a sad day when men of good character and integrity leave our world, but consoling to know that he leaves a legacy of those very special traits in his children. In that way, he’s never really gone.”

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Dad, you have taught and shown us a life well-lived. We hope to carry on.

Rest well, Dad.

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Berck Cheng
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