FOUNDER OF THE ORIENT OVERSEAS LINE
“The whole thing seems like a mad fantasy”, commented that doyen of British travel broadcasters Alan Whicker in November 1971.
Within two months the object of that fantasy, the largest passenger ship in the world, would be destroyed by fire in circumstances that remain a mystery. The vessel’s owner, who presided over the largest independent shipping conglomerate on the planet, was half a world away in France attending the launch of yet another new ship. When he was informed of the tragedy C.Y. Tung wept.
The ’Onassis of the East’ (a misnomer as we shall discover), was born on 28th September 1912 at Dinghai on Zhoushan Island, across the bay south from Shanghai. Chao-Yung, prophetically meaning ’heralding fame and prosperity’, was the third of five children, whose strictly disciplinarian and ambitious parents provided him and his siblings with a classical Chinese education.
Ill health significantly disrupted Chao-Yung Tung’s schooling but it didn‘t appear to hold him back. Quite apart from any parental pressures, he was a highly motivated and dedicated student, with a natural propensity for figures and an exceptional memory, who read avidly but also learnt from observation and experience. He reputedly told his parents that despite missing large swathes of school time he was always ahead of his teachers and classmates anyway. Certainly, he never lost this appetite or capacity for attaining knowledge.
Tung’s father S.C. Tung was a merchant who ran a printing shop and later a hardware store. He died in 1932 when Chao-Yung was barely twenty. By then he had adopted another name, Hao-Yun meaning ’majestic cloud’, which reflected his shift to a more idealistic, spiritualist outlook. The death of the father brought mother and son even closer together and she would remain a cornerstone of her son’s life until her own death at the age of 99 in 1981.
Understanding something of Chinese politics and Shanghai society in the 1920s and 1930s is helpful to comprehending the multiple influences on Chao-Yung Tung in these formative years and his conflicting loyalties in later life.
The city in which he grew up was a prosperous cultural melting pot, where the Shanghailanders (European and American communities) predominated, as they had since taking a foothold through the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. Perhaps inevitably with the resulting wealth concentrated in the hands of so few (Shanghailanders constituted less than 2% of the city’s 3 million inhabitants) the majority Chinese population became progressively more assertive. The city was a hotbed of political volatility where organised crime was also endemic. Ever since the 1911 revolution that replaced the Qing dynasty with a republic ultimately governed by Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang party, traditional Chinese social structures had been challenged.
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