Amid hoopla across China this month to mark the centennial of the Communist Party, a smaller celebration kicked off in a Shanghai public library to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a long-shot project that has gone on to become a city icon. Xintiandi is a rags-to-riches neighborhood for which developer Shui On Land of Hong Kong won awards for rejuvenating old structures and breathing new life into one of Asia’s richest cities.
The exhibition is largely about history, but it subtly hints at changes under way in Shui On itself and the rise of the next generation at one of Hong Kong’s most powerful business families. Shui On’s billionaire founder Vincent Lo, now 73, has also been working for several years to clear the path for the company’s heir apparent: daughter Stephanie Lo, 38, who was promoted as executive director in 2018 after joining the business in 2012. Though the elder spoke from Hong Kong by video at the opening ceremony, it’s a tape of Stephanie Lo that is part of the exhibition itself. The rising star speaks in today’s policy parlance about sustainable development and Xintiandi’s contribution to spread of “the great rebirth of Chinese people.”
Vincent and his daughter are part of one of Hong Kong’s most storied business families. The family – counting Vincent, his five brothers, three sisters and his mother— collectively control at least nine publicly traded companies at the Hong Kong. The large collection of success started out with Vincent’s father, Lo Ying Shek who launched the family’s original flagship Great Eagle as a real development company in 1963. Ambitious Vincent remains on the board at Hong Kong-listed Great Eagle, yet struck out on his own in 1971, borrowing HK$100,000 from his father to go into construction materials. “He had a lot of determination from the time he was young,” older brother K.S. Lo told Forbes Asia in an interview in 2010.
Vincent arrived in the mainland in 1982 and not long afterward established himself as “Mr. Shanghai,” a commercial advocate for the city. He took his Shui On Construction & Materials public in Hong Kong in 1997; real estate investments were eventually
rolled into Shui On Land in 2004, which went public in 2006. Today, he is worth $1.8 billion on the Forbes Real-Time Billionaires List. K.S. Lo, chairman of Great Eagle, is worth $1.1 billion.
Vincent’s shoes will be hard to fill. Xintiandi today attracts tens of thousands of visitors daily to its stylish architecture and nightlife shops that include Burberry, Sephora, Tom Ford, Swatch, Lululemon and Tesla. Rather than making easy money knocking down the area’s mostly dilapidted old buildings and then quickly selling residences, Lo took a longer route to success in the 22-block area. Shui On has built follow-on “Tiandi” projects in major Chinese cities including Chongqing and Wuhan, and the Shanghai site has inspired imitations around the country. Shui On in 2018 formed a joint venture to build one of Shanghai’s largest towers with government-controlled China Pacific Life Insurance and Shanghai YongYe Enterprise in the Xintiandi area. Nearby is home to a Communist Party memorial opened in June ahead of the party’s centennial that adds to its tourist appeal.
Stephanie Lo, a Wellesley College grad in architecture who worked in design in New York before returning home to Asia, also has a fondness for Shanghai and embraces her father’s long-term point of view of business. “There’s a real commitment here to try to build something of quality, something of value that can stand the test of time,” she said in an interview with Forbes China last year. Shui On, she said, wants “to make a last impacting and not just a short-term gain.”
Shui On has been backing that up in its new projects in the city. In May last year, just as Shanghai was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, it spent more than $300 million for residential and commercial parcels in a historic water town area near one of Shanghai’s major international airports. That project, known as Panlong Tiandi, includes residences, along with historic conservation village houses and infrastructure such as bridges and canals. “Given limited land resources in city center areas, in particular first-tier cities like Shanghai, we believe in urban regeneration, as it provides a sustainable option for livable cities,” Stephanie said in an announcement about the project last year. Dwight Law, a landscape architect who worked both on Xintiandi and is involved in Panlong too, says young Lo “asks the right questions and makes you think about different ways of doing things. She respects the architects and planners that work for her.”
Not far from Panlong Tiandi, Shui On already operates a large commercial complex in Shanghai’s Hongqiao district called “The Hub,” which is within walking distance to the city’s main rail state and a major airport. New investments will add to its footprint in the city and make Shui On a force in Shanghai for decades to come.
In the exhibition video this week, Stephanie describes Xintiandi as melding of history, the present and the future that reflects some of Shanghai’s own character. It’s looks like she’s well-positioned to be around for a large part of what’s ahead.
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