As it celebrates its 60th anniversary, property conglomerate Chinachem is planning its next cycle of development with sustainable and community-minded projects in Hong Kong and beyond.
Chinachem’s name refers its beginnings as a small chemicals company. But in the 1960s, it shifted its focus to property, growing over the years to become one of the biggest private developers in Hong Kong.
“Our main business has been in residential developments, but we also have a very strong investment portfolio in office buildings and retail malls, so we have a balance of trading profit and recurring income,” explained Chinachem’s Executive Director and CEO Donald Choi.
As it looks to the future, Chinachem is creating residential projects that accommodate Hong Kong’s changing demographics.
“We believe that homes need to cater for the elderly segment as well as family-friendly living,” Choi said. “So in some of our developments we are building all-age facilities, so that two or three generation of families can live together.”
These homes have wider corridors and are wheelchair-friendly. Choi noted that injuries to elderly people often happen in bathrooms, where space and movement is limited. “We believe this needs to change, so our bathrooms and kitchens are more generous. And our shower installations are on the same level as the floor, as bathtubs are high-risk for elderly people.”
Chinachem aims to provide a comfortable living environment in all its homes, so it does not build “nano” flats, and its smaller units have common facilities such as clubhouses for socializing.
Choi noted that Hong Kong’s shortage of space has led to a trend for windowless bathrooms. “That is not good design,” he said. “When we design a building we want to have as much natural ventilation in the bathroom as possible, with openable windows and natural light.”
On the office side, one of Chinachem’s recent projects is One Hennessy. Its sustainable credentials have been recognized by the LEED Platinum rating, and the building’s striking external design, with the tower elevated from the podium, also has an environmental aspect.
“The purpose of this design is to allow more light and ventilation at street level,” Choi explained. “We are conscious of providing not only a good environment for the tenants in the building, but for all the users including the pedestrians outside. It is quite a sophisticated structure, so we are happy that the structural design has won an award as well.”
As part of its commitment to sustainability, the company has set a target of reducing its carbon footprint by 38% by 2030. This focus fits with the company’s “Triple Bottom Line” ethos that includes environmental and social benefits as well as economic growth.
“We hope to get a good economic return, but at the same time we want our business to make a positive impact on our community. We really want to be responsible and accountable on how we use the limited resources of the earth.”
Chinachem can take this approach because of the company’s structure: it does not have single individual shareholders and is not family-owned. “According to the will of our late founder Mrs Nina Wang, the wealth and profit created by the commercial operation will eventually go back to the community for the public good.”
Choi noted that 60 is an important anniversary in Chinese culture, marking the completion of one cycle and moving to the next. So the company is taking this opportunity to emphasis its Triple Bottom Line as it looks to the next 60 years.
“We want to communicate with our customers and the market that we are not just any routine private enterprise,” he said. “We have a higher purpose – optimising our business is not just for self-interest, but also to create a platform so that we can serve the community better. We want to be responsible corporate citizens.”
Hospitality is a relatively new segment for the company, having opened its first hotel in 2005. But it has already gained a global reputation, with three of its hotels being listed in a top 20 ranking by users of Tripadvisor.
“For a local brand, that is something we are very proud of,” Choi said. “We do not plan to rest on this success, we will continue to build this premium brand for Hong Kong, and expand overseas. Asian hospitality, especially from Hong Kong, has a lot to offer world travellers.”
At the moment, the hotels sector is struggling as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, with international travellers unable to visit. In response, Chinachem quickly changed its focus to the local tourism market and long-stay options at competitive rates. “We are pleased to say that we have seen our occupancy rate go up – some of our smaller hotels have achieved 80 to 90% occupancy.”
The company’s L’hotel Island South was also one of the first hotels to offer its facilities to returning Hong Kong people to stay during their quarantine period, Choi explained: “We believe this is part of our social responsibility: we should treat them with fairness and offer them a comfortable place to stay.”
Besides looking after its hotel guests amid the pandemic, Chinachem is also taking care of its frontline staff. The company has reorganized its service to reduce contact, provided personal safety gear, and brought in health experts to give advice. Service robots have also been introduced – this not only reduces contact but the robots have also proved very popular with guests.
Choi hopes to see technology develop further, to help Hong Kong become more competitive. “Everybody is aware of the advantages, but I think Covid-19 has really changed behaviour, and will accelerate the use of technology in our daily lives.”
Looking to the future, Chinachem plans to expand outside Hong Kong and is looking at overseas opportunities for its investment property and hospitality segment. And in terms of residential, he noted that Hong Kong’s experience can help other cities as the global urbanization trend continues.
“Hong Kong is a compact city with a lot of high-rise developments, so we have a lot of expertise in this area that we can share around the world.”
Choi started life as an architect, and he also holds a degree in Fine Arts, giving him an all-around view of the property world.
“I don’t see architecture just as creating artwork: I see architecture as a way to really improve the environment and people’s quality of life,” he said. “There is an important responsibility for the architect and the developer, that the building inspires as well as provides good living standards or working environment.”
Choi earned his architecture degree in the United States, and also is licensed in Canada. On his return to Hong Kong, he worked on the new International Airport, which was being built at Chek Lap Kok. He then worked for a private developer for 18 years before moving to Chinachem.
“I joined Chinachem because I believe it has a very unique platform,” he said. “It is a private commercial enterprise but with a higher purpose. The profits we make will be put back into the community, so we can do much more to build a better future for Hong Kong.”
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