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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Mysterious Till the End
A colonial millionaire who defied the odds

By Tim Hamlett

NOEL CROUCHER LIVED TO the age of 88, by which time survival becomes an achievement in itself. In 1970s Hong Kong, he was a historic figure in a fly-by-night society: a man who could remember the colony before the Kaiser's war. Naturally he had become a legend-encrusted byword, with a lavish apocryphal past and a crop of anecdotes. Some of these concerned his wealth, some his personal habits, some his interesting past.

Like so many millionaires, he combined sporadic generosity with miserly personal habits. Two people vouch for the story that in its closing years, his household had one light-bulb, which was moved from room to room as the guests moved from drawing-room to dinner and back. But for those who came across Croucher in his last years, the man was a puzzle. He did not come from, and nor did he found, a great Hong Kong family. No modern company bears his name. It carries on in the Croucher Foundation, which shovels generous sums of money into the bottomless pit known as academic research. But that was a late creation, and Croucher was not a scientist or a technologist. The enthusiasm for those disciplines was merely a way to avoid subsidizing sociology.

He was an excellent yachtsman. His other talent was for making money. He spent his entire career in Hong Kong, apart from service with the Chinese Labor Corps in World War I. He was interned during the return match and survived the storms, both literal and metaphorical, of the post-war years. A portrait of Croucher is to some extent a history of 20th-century Hong Kong, at least in its economic development.

The Quest of Noel Croucher (Hong Kong University Press, 400 pages, $24) was commissioned by the foundation. It was apparently willing to give their author free rein. But author Vaudine England takes the view, which on the whole I share, that a biographer who enjoys the cooperation of friends and family should try to produce a book which they can read without embarrassment. Careful readers will gather that Croucher was a man of many facets, and some were not very nice. But this is a book which his grandchildren could read. Unfortunately this means that parts of his life are left in tactful obscurity.

The intriguing thing about Croucher is that he enjoyed none of the advantages associated with young men making good in the colonies. His mother brought her brood to Hong Kong in pursuit of a fugitive husband, Noel's stepfather. He soon makes his final disappearance from the picture, leaving her a single mother in a hard world. Noel Croucher's first job was as a hotel boy (legend has it he arrived in the colony as part of a traveling circus). Somehow he came under the wing of Paul Chater, the financier who helped found the Hong Kong bourse, and got a start in stockbroking. Croucher seems to have been extremely good at this.

The war forced a short break, which involved a trip to France with a force of Chinese "coolies," but normal money-making continued thereafter. Croucher evidently had no difficulty surviving the Great Recession, and by the time the Japanese arrived had become a 50-year-old pillar of society. He endured internment, found his business records miraculously preserved in his wrecked office, and carried on where he had left off. He was a stalwart of the Stock Exchange, and of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. And he became outstandingly rich. This is no mean achievement because he started with nothing.

Quite how it came about is one of the areas where Croucher's efforts to secure secrecy have triumphed over the author's curiosity. Was he driven by the humble beginnings which meant he could never quite be accepted in top Hong Kong society? Was he helped by his willingness to mix socially and in business with the Chinese community? There has to be something special to rack up millions in a few years. The Stock Exchange was a club devoted to enriching its members, but few accumulated the piles that Croucher did.

Some post-war sources speculate that Croucher engaged in activities which were perfectly acceptable at the time but would be questionable, even illegal, now. Did he trade on inside information, launder money or run guns? It seems we shall never know. Another mysterious area is Croucher and sex. His marriage was a disaster, the result of a war-time misunderstanding. It produced one son but the couple spent a great deal of time apart. Croucher was "a hit with the ladies," but we are not told with which ladies and how far. Nor, perhaps, did he stop at ladies. It is recorded that Croucher often sailed "alone." In those days, "alone" meant accompanied only by two boat boys.

England provides fascinating insights into the life of old Hong Kong. She is a sympathetic observer of the expatriate dilemma - torn between the familiar but alien colony and the unfamiliar but idealized allures of Home. This may be the best portrait of Croucher we will have. Yet its subject remains elusive, a man of mystery with, perhaps, much to be mysterious about.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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