The Man with The Golden Touch

HERE! sits down with the original trailblazer for the local hotel industry, Dongguan’s Mr hotel…

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Blazered and bow tied, in an upscale Japanese-style bar in the heart of Dongcheng, sipping an ice-cold Czech beer, sits Edmund Liu, “These are just two of the business cards I carry on my person,” he says as he hands them to me. A quick glance at just one of the business cards and the range of letters after his name is remarkable: CBA (Certified Business Administrator), CHA (Certified Hotel Administrator), FIH (Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality), FRSH (Fellow of the Royal Society of Health) FCFA (Fellow of the Cookery and Food Association), MIHRM (Member of the Institute of Human Resources Management), and MKHCS (Member of Hong Kong Computer Society)—the latter gives him voting rights on Hong Kong legislative council, for computing matters. These honorary and studied titles are testament to a man who, by his own confession, never stops working.

If Dongguan were to give any man the title of Mr Hotel, then it would be surely be Edmund Liu, who arrived in Dongguan from his home city of Hong Kong in 1981. Indeed, he played a key role in establishing the city’s first ever major hotel, called, aptly enough, the Dongguan Hotel, “It opened in 1984, though there were a lot of discussions before that. I oversaw the opening and was the negotiator on behalf of the joint venture. It was an oasis in the city. We had two villas, two food and beverage outlets, Chinese and Western. In the early years they badly needed hotels for foreigners and investors,” say Liu, clearly proud of his achievement.

It is easy to think with the right people and the money involved it is straightforward to open up a hotel in a thriving city, but in the early 1980s Dongguan, indeed China, was a very different beast and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were barely taking effect. The picture Liu paints of what he had to deal with at the time is almost comic, “Dongguan was just farmland then. And the primary industry was very light. Photo albums, Christmas lighting, simple handmade goods,” he says. “The government offices were so primitive; there were chickens running around. Dogs were chasing the chickens, and they had these old wind up phones that went clack, clack, clack. The office floors were dirt.”

“I said to my father, ‘if you are my boss, I don’t know when you are my boss and when you are my father.”

After the success of The Dongguan Hotel, Liu spent the best part of 20 years opening up hotels, not just in Dongguan but all over China. And he reels of a few of the hotels where he played major roles: The Canal Hotel in Dongguan (where he was a major investor, selling his share for profit in 1994), The Astor in Tianjin, not to mention ventures in Shenzhen and Anhui. Most of his work has primarily been done through a small holding company called Mayfair International Hotels, where Liu serves as CEO.

Many self-made men spend hours bragging about their rags to riches stories, how they came from humble beginnings and lived on nothing but a few grains of rice for their entire childhood and fought their way to the very top. Edmund, however, tells a different story. He came from a rich Hong Kong family but abandoned the iron rice bowl his family could have provided to carve his own outré and unique path, “My father was a very rich man. He owned three companies, a rice importing company, a construction company, and we did export. I did not want to be his successor,” he says. “I said to my father, ‘If you are my boss, I don’t know when you are my boss and when you are my father. If I work for you, I cannot resign. I would have no freedom at all. I have no interest to be your successor.’”

As a young man, Liu put his vast reserves of energy into becoming the man he is today, doing everything from being a butler and cleaning rooms, to being a night manager at a hotel. At one point he says he was working a full-time day job, a full-time night job, all while studying at the weekends. “In those years I was just building up my potential doing my work and studies. I was like a dead body walking. What I did in one year was what a lot of people did in three.”

I ask the secret to his success and he looks me in the eye “Guanxi. Connections. If you make the right connections, you can do anything.” And it is certainly true that Liu likes to make connections, loving to socialize, one minute he can be having a dinner meeting with a billionaire, another time he will spend half an hour having a cigarette with a lowly porter, or give his advice to a young bar or restaurant owner trying to make their way in Dongguan. After a few beers, and a fantastic dinner, I leave Liu and walk out into the cold; there is something about Liu that is unfathomable, like he is a mystery that can’t be worked out, and perhaps that is the way it is always going to be with Dongguan’s Mr. Hotel.