Chinn Ho, dubbed the Chinese Rockefeller of Hawaii by Time magazine, was a self made multi millionaire who became the first Chinese American in Hawaii to break through the all-white Hawaiian business establishment and become a leader in the business and investment leadership of Hawaii. Many believe this Chinese Horatio Alger was the inspiration behind the character Hong Kong Kee in James Michener's epic novel Hawaii.
Chinn Ho was born on February 26, 1904, one of nine children, to a store clerk father Ho Ti Yuen and mother Ho Kam Lan. His grandfather, Ho Tin Hee, came to Hawaii from China to work as a caretaker for a coconut grove and then later became a rice farmer on the island of Oahu. Chinn displayed shrewd business savvy even from an early age, raising ducks to supplement the family income and as an adolescent selling pencils door to door and using the money to buy penny stocks. He did not obtain private schooling like the leaders of the day in Hawaii did for their children but instead went to public school, McKinley High School, along side other future self made Hawaiian leaders such as Hiram Fong. While in school, he organized the Commercial Associates club which was a savings club, mutual insurance plan and investment group. Upon graduation in 1924, he got his first job working at Bishop Bank as a bank messenger. A year later, he then moved up to working at a stock brokerage house, Duisenderb, Wichman and Co and was quickly recognized as the go-to-guy customers spoke with because of his diligent study of the stock market reports. At the age of 30, Ho did his first real estate investment deal, buying a property with 3 cottages on it for $5,500 and reselling the cottages separately a year later for $16,500 while keeping the land for himself and leasing the land to the new cottage owners. In a land deal later in his career, he said, "I sold the building for $850,000 and kept the land lease. Now I pay $6,000 a year in property taxes for the ground and collect $50,000 a year from the building owner." It was a formula Chinn Ho would employ the rest of his investment life.
As Chinn Ho was just getting started in his career, during that time in Hawaiian history, the businesses, the land, the banks, the private clubs and the power on the islands was tightly controlled by a close knit intermarried web of descendants from the first white families who landed on the islands several generations prior. This "bamboo curtain" went to great lengths to keep everyone else out, especially those of Japanese and Chinese descent, since it was those original white leaders who had shipped the Chinese and Japanese over to Hawaii to work the fields with the understanding that they would return to their home country once they had made enough money. Most of those original field workers didn't return to their home country however, but instead stayed on the islands and with each new successive generation, slowly but methodically moved away from the manual labor field worker jobs and into the roles of business ownership. Chinn Ho would become the symbol of this evolution from the fields to the boardroom.
Since the all-white controlled banks would not lend to the Chinese, the Chinese took matters into their own hands by pooling their money together into what was called hui. The Chinese community saw Chinn's financial intelligence and began to put their trust in his abilities by making him manager over some of their hui. And it was from this funding source that Chinn Ho would go on to put together extraordinary business and investment deals, become fabulously wealthy and eventually break through the racial barriers created by the Hawaiian bamboo curtain. He became the first Asian American to sit on the board of directors at a "Big Five" firm, Theo H. Davies & Co, the first Asian to manage a large landed estate, the Robinson Estate, the first Asian invited to join the businessmen's Commercial Club, the first Asian president of the Honolulu Stock Exchange and the first Asian head of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau.
As a manager over the Chinese hui, the first significant moves he made included buying as much property as possible during World War II while so many other land owners were running scared due to the mayhem, taking a page from the Rothchild's book of buying when the streets were bleeding. He even acquired some of the land on Waikiki for as low as $0.40 per acre. In 1943, he left his stock brokerage job to manage the hui full time and established the Capital Investment Company. In 1947, he took one of Hawaii's conservative big five companies, Castle & Cooke, to business school, outbidding them on the Waianae Sugar Co deal and buying for $1 million. It was the largest land purchase by an Asian in Hawaii at the time, 9,000 acres of land in Makaha Valley. Over the next few years, he parceled off 40% of the land to small farmers, collecting at total of $4 million and retaining the rest for future development.
Astute and daring, Ho saw the rise of the tourism industry and in 1959, despite opposition from some of his hui investors, through a combination of land he had previously acquired along with the leasing of a few adjacent parcels, Ho developed the first commercial high rise building on Waikiki. The Ilikai Hotel would later be featured on the hit TV show Hawaii Five-O. In 1974 he sold the property to United Airlines for $35 million, realizing an $11.4 million profit for him and his investors.
And Chinn Ho was just getting started. In 1955, he outmaneuvered another established Hawaiian company, the Oaho Sugar Co, for 230 acres that it desperately wanted because that land controlled the irrigation track into the sugar company's fields and the road over which its cane-hauling trucks had to move. Rather than flatten them, Ho gave them a break. "I could really have been tough on them," he said, "I could have sold for a $500,000 profit instead of only $150,000. But they'd never speak to me again and this is a small town."
Ho followed two maxims in his business transactions: "Kill them with kindness in competition" and "Achieve success by contributing to the success of others." He also learned early on not to be overly greedy. "If you bought something for 15 cents and it went up 10 cents, that was almost doubled...That was good," he said. He had the same wife for 53 years, lived simply and his one vice the cigar that accompanied his every move and a daily drink of Scotch. "I can live comfortably on $250,000 a year," he said. "A man doesn't need much more."
On the board of directors at the Honolulu Advertiser, in 1961, Ho caught wind that the other paper in town, the Star-Bulletin, was going up for sale. Chinn wrote a check to the New York newspaper broker to initiate an offer to which the broker responded, "Who the hell is Chinn Ho?" That broker knew who he was by the time Ho successfully won the bid at $11 million and became the first Asian to be a principal owner of a major daily newspaper. Ten years later, Chinn sold out for $35 million to the Gannett Corp and remained chairman of the Gannett Pacific Corp after the sale.
Eventually, Chinn Ho's Capital Investment Company extended across the Pacific; including a 2,200 acre luxury real estate development in Marin County, California, a 166 room hotel in Hong Kong and even a minority interest in the Great Wall of China. As stadium board president, Ho also helped bring Class AAA baseball to Hawaii.
Although his 6 days per week work schedule kept him busy with business and investments, Chinn Ho found time for generosity. He served as a volunteer and director on many boards and civic organizations, including the Hawaii Visitors Bureau and the Bishop Museum Associates. He paid for the restoration of the Hawaiian temple Kaneaki Heiau and contributed to many local projects and charities. His foundation funded a reading room -- named in his honor -- at Harvard University's Harvard-Yenching Library. He also funded a California Parks Foundation study for a Chinese cultural center in Marin County. He also gave a grant to the Capital Hospital in Beijing.
Just a few years before his death in 1987, he told a reporter, "I am not a religious man but sometimes I go to a mountaintop and ask, 'Mr. Ho, how will they remember you?'"
Among other things, Chinn Ho will be remembered as an extraordinary Chinese American businessman and investor and a role model to all those facing racial inequality around the world.