Yu Pengnian’s journey from toilet cleaner in Hong Kong to billionaire philanthropist

By Minh Hieu   July 7, 2024 | 03:00 am PT
Late property billionaire Yu Pengnian started as a toilet cleaner in Hong Kong and became one of the top philanthropists globally, donating his entire US$1.2 billion fortune to charity.
Yu Pengnian holds his trophy at the 2009 CCTV China Economic Figures award ceremony in Beijing, China, 23 December 2009. Photo by Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

Yu Pengnian holds his trophy at the 2009 CCTV China Economic Figures award ceremony in Beijing, China, 23 December 2009. Photo by Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

Yu started from humble beginnings, having been born in a small village in China's southern Hunan province in 1922, according to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

In 1949, he left his hometown for Shanghai, where he worked multiple jobs in hopes of achieving success. However, he faced imprisonment for several years due to false accusations, leading to the confiscation of his entire savings.

Upon regaining his freedom, Yu moved to Hong Kong in 1958 and started working as a toilet cleaner for a large firm. While his colleagues often rushed their jobs, Yu was diligent and made his best efforts at work and even came to work on the weekends when others were seeking rest or entertainment.

"Although it was a low-status job, even when cleaning a toilet, I would strive to be the one who could make it the cleanest," the South China Morning Post quoted him as saying in an interview with mainland media.

Outside of his cleaner job, he found other odd jobs and spent time learning and reading newspapers.

A half-year later, his dedication drew the attention of the firm’s owner, who offered him a position at the company. His career picked up from there and in the early 1960s, he was already investing in property with some of his friends.

This was the start of a new career where he made a fortune by making astute purchases and later selling them at prices that were 20 times or more than what he initially paid.

Yu's philanthropic journey began in 1984 after visiting his hometown and witnessing the deplorable medical conditions in rural China, the Wall Street Journal reported.

He donated 10 ambulances to local hospitals but later found out that his donation was used instead to supply cars for local government officials.

This experience prompted him to establish his own charitable entity, The Yu Pengnian Foundation.

By 2010, at the age of 88, he had donated all of his assets worth 8.2 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion at the time) to charity, becoming China’s top philanthropist at the time, according to local newspaper China Daily.

"It will all be for charity, no part of it will be inherited by anyone, no part will be used to do business or for investments," he said at the time.

From 2003 to 2010, his foundation funded over 150,000 cataract removal operations across China and helped establish multiple schools in the western rural areas of China.

He topped the Hurun Philanthropy List for five consecutive years from 2005 to 2010 by donating $910 million over that period.

The property magnate was not big on retiring as he still took an active role in his business and charitable activities even at 88.

"I would like to offer help to other people rather than let other people help me. I like to offer help directly to those in need," he said.

He was listed as one of the top 14 philanthropists globally by TIME magazine in 2007.

Yu passed away in 2015 at the age of 92, at which point he was the chairman of property giant Foo Tak Development Company and the chairman of Shenzhen Panglin Hotel.

He did not leave an inheritance for his children, saying that he had made sure they grew up in comfort and allowed them to study abroad.

"If my children are smart enough, they don't need my money. And if they are not, then the money will just bring harm to them," he said.

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