Friday Letter Pressing the flesh

The handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was a significant historical, political and economic milestone, to say nothing of its significance as a real estate deal.  

Fitting then, that the inaugural MIPIM Asia conference, held last week in Hong Kong, took place at the same venue where the handover ceremony was performed.

The new wing of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre juts into Victoria Harbour in downtown Wan Chai, an area well-known for its red light district. But there was nothing seedy about the setting inside the building, where a mixture of developers from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Dubai, Bahrain and Russia promoted their projects to curious delegates.

All in all, the conference served to highlight two things: one, the huge scale of development activity underway across Asia; and two, the level of interest among foreign investors in the region. Though the event lacked the scale or indulgence of its sister conference in France—where more than 20,000 real estate revelers roamed among more than 2,200 exhibits and innumerable yachts—there were nonetheless some eye-catching displays on hand.

One was the Shanghai Harbour City Development, a project so large it would occupy half of Singapore. Then there was the Venetian Macao, a 40-story gaming resort that will anchor the Cotai Strip in Macau, quickly establishing itself as the Las Vegas of Asia. Nearby, South Korean developers were openly scouting for investors to help build thousands of luxury homes on JeJu Island, a popular vacation destination for Koreans and Japanese, located off the southern tip of the country.

And let’s not forget the Middle East. Bahrain Bay, a $1.5-billion development featuring a crescent of high-rise buildings around a central Four Seasons tower, held the gaze of many delegates. Even more were clustered around the exhibition for the Lagoons in Dubai, a 70-million-square-foot, $18-billion development—the largest ever in the emirate, which is certainly saying something.

But the main topic of conversation among the delegates was not mega-developments in Dubai, but the nitty-gritty of doing business in China. In between glasses of champagne, attendees lodged numerous complaints ranging from government interference in “public” auctions to outright corruption to the uncertainty of obtaining land titles.

Everyone with a presence in Hong Kong had an anecdote to tell. And all of the tales, like the one about a “friend” with a $500,000 slush fund for government officials, went to show that doing business in China is not easy.

To get around such hurdles, many foreign investors are forming alliances with local partners, which seems the most logical, efficient and perhaps only way forward. But if you came to MIPIM Asia to find a Chinese businessman with connections, you probably would have been disappointed. Either many of them don’t like paying for conferences or they’re too busy back home to attend them.