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Remembering Tan Yu, Once the Richest Man in the Philippines

At one point he was also the 10th richest man in the world.
IMAGE TAN YU
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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This month marks the 94th birth anniversary of Filipino-Chinese businessman Tan Yu, who was once the country’s wealthiest man. In 1997, Forbes magazine placed him at number 10 in its ranking of the world’s richest people, with a personal fortune of $7 billion. His name may have disappeared from the headlines after his passing in 2002, but Tan Yu left behind a legacy that is still felt in many corners of Philippine life to this day.

Who was Tan Yu 

Tan Yu was born April 5, 1927 in the town of Shishi in Quanzhou, a city in the Fujian province of China. According to multiple profiles written about him, he and his family migrated to the Philippines early in his life. They settled in Daet and Mercedes towns, Camarines Norte, in the Bicol region. His father passed away while Tan Yu was a young boy and so, at 13, he quit school to help his mother sell food like bread buns on the streets every morning. Wilson Lee Flores, in the obituary he wrote for in The Philippine Star, said that the young Tan Yu even worked as a fisherman to help make ends meet. 

“I had the opportunity to be by the sea,” he told Flores. “I love the sea. I look up to the sea, because the sea is vast and wide, mighty and full of spirit. It is this perspective that has influenced my whole life. The sea symbolizes endless opportunities and has given me the strength and the spirit to persevere through life’s struggles.”

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After World War II, Tan Yu’s mother sent him to work as a store clerk in Divisoria, where he eventually set-up a textile trading and manufacturing business. Eventually he progressed to selling T-shirts and textiles not just in Bicol but all around the Philippines. He must have been really good at it because various accounts mention that he was able to make his first million at the age of 18.

Building an empire 

With enough capital, Tan Yu was able to start building his empire. He built four textile mills and began acquiring real estate. An Asiaweek profile said he invested in land in Taiwan after the United States chose to recognize and establish formal diplomatic with the island-state’s rival, the People’s Republic of China, in the 1960s and the 1970s. 

“The move helped Taiwan regain confidence from investors while his business also expanded at an accelerating pace,” Taiwan-based China Post wrote.

Tan Yu spent the next decade amassing real estate and setting up businesses across the globe. But in the early 1970s, Tan Yu left the Philippines and moved to Taiwan. Flores says Tan Yu stayed out of the country during the Martial Law years, choosing to build his business from overseas. In Taiwan, he built AsiaWorld Plaza Hotel (now known as Holiday Inn Asiaworld Taipei). With 1,057 rooms, it was one of the biggest hotels in that country at the time. He also acquired a 17.5 percent stake in the Taipei-based Overseas Chinese Commercial Banking Corp., and a 15 percent stake in Asia Trust and Investment Company. Other businesses he set up include Asiaworld Department Store and Asia Tower, among other enterprises in construction and financial services.

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It was after the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986 that Tan Yu returned to the Philippines and started investing in businesses here. Most prominently, he purchased a 173-hectare reclaimed property near Manila Bay for $68 million in 1988 that was to become the Asiaworld Marina. In 1989, he snapped up 28 hectares in the then-burgeoning financial district of Ortigas.

Biggest landowner in the Philippines 

At one point, according to estimates, Tan Yu owned as much as 20,000 hectares of real estate in the Philippines, which would have made him the biggest landowner in the country right after the government. He also owned or controlled about 100 or so companies in China, Taiwan, Canada and the US. Asiaweek estimated his entire empire to be worth as much as $12 billion in the mid-1990s.

Tan Yu had a health scare in 1994. After a kidney transplant in Houston, Texas apparently failed, doctors gave him just 20 days to live, unless he underwent another operation. He refused and instead, made a deal with God: “If I live, I would work 17 hours a day so I can help people.” He eventually recovered, and said he was “the only one to do so out of 3,000 cases of failed kidney transplants in Texas.” 

The tycoon already had the Kingpaoguat Typoco Tanyu Internationale (KTTI) Foundation, which was established in 1989, that funneled educational, infrastructure and medical assistance to various beneficiaries. But he stepped up his giving even more. According to Flores, one of his favorite charities was donating public school buildings to the poorest barrios in cooperation with the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc.

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Island dreams

But Tan Yu never stopped working. A few years earlier, in 1990, he purchased two islands in the northernmost territory of the country and planned to turn them into “the Hong Kong and Hawaii of the 21st century.” These are Fuga and Barit Islands, which are part of the Babuyan Islands off the coast of Cagayan province in Luzon.

“We'll build a city from scratch, without squatters, pollution, traffic, government red tape,” he said in the Asiaweek profile.

At that point, Tan Yu’s empire was so huge that he said both the Asiaworld reclamation property and Fuga island were paid for in cash. Asiaweek estimated that, at the time (in 1996 when the article came out), the islands were worth about $400 million, although Tan Yu reportedly got them far cheaper. And the Asiaworld boss reportedly made the purchase without even seeing them.

“He looked at the map of the Philippines and Southeast Asia and said, ‘OK,’” writer Antonio Lopez quoted an aide as saying.

The island development project, which Tan Yu imagined would have “high-rise condominiums overlooking the ocean, hotels, golf courses, a casino, shopping malls, office towers and light-manufacturing industries such as semi-conductors,” even attracted big name supporters at the time, including former President Diosdado Macapagal, former presidential legal counsel Renato Cayetano, and Juan Ponce Enrile.

Hit by the financial crisis

The Fuga island project was supposed to commence in 1997, with a $10 million master plan drawn up. It was then that Forbes ranked Tan Yu 10th richest man on the planet, just behind people like Bill Gates (number one that year), Warren Buffett, Li Ka-Shing of Hong Kong, and Paul Allen. He had even launched a new bank in January that year—Pan-Asia Bank, which, according to a news release at the time, was the “first-ever Philippine commercial bank with the biggest paid-up capital at P1.9 billion.”

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But then the Asian financial crisis hit that year, and Tan Yu’s vast real estate empire was not spared.

“At that time, the real estate bubble burst and interest rates went as high as 35 percent,” one of Tan Yu’s daughters, Elena Coyiuto, says in an interview with The Philippine Star. “Most businesses suffered and banks…stopped lending and called on loans. It was a nightmare and a wake-up call for all of us. Our business was very much affected and it was a turning point for me.”

By 1998, Tan Yu was still on Forbes' list of the country’s wealthiest—in fact he was still at number one—although his fortune had shrunk considerably from $7 billion to “just” $3 billion. Still, he was ahead of people like George Ty of Metrobank, SM’s Henry Sy Sr., and Lucio Tan. The sprawling Asiaworld reclamation project had also not progressed beyond a few condominium towers and townhouses. Pan-Asia bank was acquired by Bank of Commerce in 2001.

“My father was not in good health after (the) kidney transplant and all the stress and tension started to take a toll on him,” Coyiuto said. “I thought, you work so hard all your life and then at the end of the day, somebody can just pull the rug from under your feet and everything will be gone.”

The death of Tan Yu

Tan Yu succumbed to heart failure in Houston, Texas on March 12, 2002 at the age of 74. He left behind 14 children. His eldest daughter Dr. Emilia “Bien-Bien” Roxas-Yang assumed leadership of the Asiaworld Group based on succession plans drawn up since the the 1980s, according to Flores. His eldest son, meanwhile, is Elton See Tan, who is now chairman, president and CEO of The E-Hotels Resorts & Residences Suites and president of the Makati Tourism Foundation Inc. Coyiuto was involved in the family business and has since also turned to painting, a lifelong passion.

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“My father used to say, ‘The hardest thing is to get off from the back of a tiger,’” Coyiuto said. “And the higher you are, the harder the fall.”

“There's no such thing as luck,” Tan Yu said to Asiaweek. “Success is all hard work and persistence. When I was a teenager, I had a girlfriend in Bicol. She was the most beautiful girl in town. She had many suitors, some of them fair-skinned and good-looking. She married the ugliest guy in the village. You know why? He went to her house every day, fetched water, cut firewood, cleaned the house. I get scared if I see a competitor working hard because I know he's going to win.”

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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