His secret midnight voyages made him a national hero

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Henry Fok Ying-tung, born on a sampan, rose to be far more than your ordinary Hong Kong tycoon

SAILORS CONCERNED ABOUT their safety would never take a ship out at the dead of night on stormy seas when dangerous winds were howling. But Henry Fok Ying-tung had a good reason to do so. He and his team embraced the darkness, cold, and rough seas as natural allies, helping them evade interception by British colonial marine police hoping to catch them in Hong Kong waters.

He marshalled his shipping fleet to work day and night to transport tons of essential goods to mainland China during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

His staff set off on nerve-wracking journeys from Hong Kong to Shenzhen secretly, the smuggling vessels loaded with materials and resources that China needed urgently. While some people accused him of carrying weapons, he always insisted that his cargo was more basic: iron plates, petrol, rubber, life-saving medicine, and cotton.

Fok’s mind was focused on his mission to secure supplies of vital materials to help China on the battlefield. The US intervention in the Korean War was seen as a weapon aimed at China’s head, so the country had no option but to strike back.

Cargo was typically carried in boats like this in the early 1950s. HK Gov picture

EMBARGO AGAINST CHINA

The Korean War may be forgotten by many people, but it is remembered by many Chinese as “The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”. For them, it stands as a universal symbol of national unity against US belligerence. 

In October 1950, tens of thousands of Chinese volunteers bravely crossed the Yalu River – the border between China and North Korea – in support of the Pyongyang army, to fight off the US-led and South Korean forces.

Chinese army crosses the frozen Yalu River

China’s move swiftly prompted the United Nations and Washington to push dozens of nations to impose a tough embargo to cut off supplies of goods to the mainland. The aim was to isolate China and keep strategic materials out of its hands. Hong Kong, being a colony of Britain, strictly banned the export of materials to the mainland.

But to make headway against the US-led forces, Chinese forces needed a range of goods, particularly iron sheets to produce oil storage tanks for transporting fuel to the army in the war zone.

BREAKING THE BLOCKADE

At that time, most Hong Kong businessmen were not willing to risk offending the British colonial government by carrying goods to the mainland. But Fok, driven by his patriotism, broke the mold and threw himself at the risky task.

His fleet managed to break through blockades off the Hong Kong waters, despite the sea routes being under the heavy scrutiny of the British navy force and the marine police.

HUMBLE ROOTS

Henry Fok was born in 1923 as Fok Ying-tung in the most humble of circumstances: on a small traditional boat, from family roots in Pangyu, Guangdong.

A bright student, he managed to get into the prestigious Queen’s College in Hong Kong, but was forced to quit as the Japanese army invaded the city in 1941. Fok started operating a maritime transportation business later. “There was a serious shortage of vessels in Hong Kong and not many people know how to manage transportation business,” he told a TV interviewer.

It was hard to transport petrol and diesel to the mainland, as there were no specially-designed vessels to carry fuel. So Fok and his crew concealed petrol inside the cabins of their vessels to avoid interception by British colonial police forces.

Aberdeen harbor, Hong Kong island, 1950s

His eldest son Timothy Fok Tsun-ting recalled that the family was aware of the danger and hardship at that time. “I still remember my mother prepared a thick coat for him,” Timothy said during a recent interview in an episode of a micro-documentary series produced by CCTV in honour of those making contributions to national development.

The Chinese volunteer army worked alongside the Korean allies and repelled the US troops from the Sino-Korean border back to the south side of the 38th parallel. The Korean War concluded with an armistice in 1953, but no peace treaty was signed. The war established China as a major player on the world stage.

Hong Kong was very much part of the West in those days — this picture of the harbor was taken from USS Andromeda

TAKING THE PAIN

For many young people, feelings of patriotism don’t come naturally. But Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, Timothy Fok’s eldest son, learned what patriotism meant from his grandfather. He told an interviewer that many businessmen in Hong Kong and Macao, like his grandfather, loved their country, and were willing to take on personal sacrifices for the national good in during the war.

Henry Fok later found himself among the first batch of Hong Kong entrepreneurs setting their sights on making investments in China after the country’s economic opening-up. His projects included the White Swan in Guangzhou, the first five-star hotel on the mainland, which opened in the early 1980s. He made many investments in the mainland which were successful – and followed that with charitable donations too.

An avid sportsman, Fok contributed to national sports development and supported China’s bid to host the Olympic Games and other international sports games.

Henry Fox was much more than a businessman — he was a trusted confidante of the Chinese leadership, who took advice from him on what Hong Kong was really like

HONG KONG LEGEND

Fok became enormously successful in Hong Kong. Despite his success as a wealthy businessman , he never forgot the momentous times in the past. One of the greatest moments in his life was being on the presidium at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing when China commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Korean War in October 2000. 

Fok rose to the rank of vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference before he passed away at the age of 84 in 2006.

Despite the drama of the elder Fok’s life, he didn’t dwell on it, his grandson Kenneth told an interviewer. “My grandfather was a forward-looking person and he rarely talked about the past,” he said. “He always encouraged us to spend energy and time to map out personal planning and development for the future.”

Most of us live in peaceful times and have no experience of the hardships and dangers of war. But we can all remember Fok, whose courage and dedication to help his people saw him win great renown – and leave behind a rags-to-riches story that cannot help but inspire a new generation.


Link: If you are interested in true stories from the history of this part of the world, read about how a 14-year-old girl paddled into a war zone

Pictures from historical sources

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