By - Louis Kraar

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Most Asian wealth outside Japan is in the hands of the so-called Overseas Chinese, an exceptionally enterprising people who dominate business from Indonesia to Taiwan. While their countries and businesses differ widely, they share remarkably similar beliefs in hard work, constant reinvestment, and education -- for offspring, if not for themselves. They abhor showy consumption, savoring the getting more than the spending. Says a Western investment banker who advises several: ''They take enormous pleasure in big- scale moneymaking. It's the most exciting thing in their lives.'' Generous in philanthropy, they are probably the most frugal billionaires on earth when it comes to spending on themselves. Y. C. Wang, 70, founder and chairman of the Formosa Plastics Group, has given $250 million to a private hospital. But when his staff recently spent $1,000 on a new carpet, he went into a near rage. He hates spending money on clothes. Says his wife, Bao-ju (Precious Pearl): ''I have to buy them secretly and put them in his ) closet.'' Only at her insistence has he begun flying first class across the Pacific to the U.S., where he has 15 plants. His idea of high living is to drink five beers with dinner before retiring at 9 P.M. Likewise, Li Ka-shing, 59, who has acquired a net worth of $2.5 billion trading Hong Kong real estate, hardly blinked at paying $348 million for control of Canada's Husky Oil last year. But he still wears an inexpensive Seiko watch and lives in an old, two-story house, both acquired more than two decades ago. Says Li: ''My living standard in 1962 was maybe even higher than today. A simple life is more enjoyable.'' He has no string of mansions abroad, where he usually hops a taxi to appointments. Once a collector of jade, he gave up the hobby after dropping a favorite piece and breaking it. The region's only billionaire who inherited wealth, Singapore's Lee Seng Wee, 57, keeps such a low profile that few people recognize him on the local streets. ''I suppose I enjoy a dull life,'' he says. His father prospered in rubber, pineapples, banking, and trading in Malaysia and Singapore. With an MBA from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, Lee presides over the executive committee of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp., which his family controls. He insists with characteristic modesty: ''The bank is not our private preserve.'' Lee devotes much of his energy to giving away money to educational and medical charities through a family foundation. Hong Kong-based Y. K. Pao, 68, made his bundle in shipping. By 1979 he owned the world's biggest private charter fleet -- 202 ships totaling 20.5 million tons. Then he began diversifying into real estate and banking. ''We had too many eggs in one basket,'' he says. ''The family wanted to put the money into something else.'' His timing proved excellent. By the time the industry went into a deep slump in the early 1980s, Pao had greatly reduced his tonnage. Since he has no sons, who customarily take over Chinese companies, Pao has turned to sons-in-law. Peter Woo, 41, a former banker, runs the family property and trading interests. The shipping company, along with a fledgling Hong Kong airline called Dragonair, is headed by Helmet Sohmen, 47, an Austrian-born lawyer. Shin Watari, 40, who is Japanese, is in charge of a trading operation in Tokyo. Sohmen, who joined the family business in 1970, says that being the son-in-law rather than the son of a high-powered, demanding father generates less ''filial strain.'' He notes: ''The daughters, after all, chose us.'' Pao has acquired nearly 15% of Standard Chartered Bank in Britain and is its deputy chairman. He still makes all the strategic decisions in his other companies, often over family dinners on Sunday. Says Sohmen: ''When you work for a family, there are no long weekends.'' Making the right connections never hurts. Liem Sioe Liong, 70, Indonesia's wealthiest businessman, emigrated from China's Fujian province to central Java before World War II to work for an uncle's peanut trading firm. Left with sacks of worthless Japanese currency at the end of the war, Liem vowed that his future would rest on commodities, not cash. His big break came when he befriended an army officer named Suharto, a leader of the postwar independence struggle against the Dutch. Liem kept Suharto's band of rebels supplied with food and medicine. After Suharto became Indonesia's President in 1968, Liem got an array of lucrative franchises, including a virtual monopoly of flour- milling and cement manufacturing. Suharto's relatives have stakes in other Liem enterprises, including the country's largest local bank and the First Pacific Group, which owns Hibernia Bank in California. Taiwan's Y. C. Wang stands out even among Chinese billionaires. He amassed his wealth from basic manufacturing, rather than real estate speculation or trading, and he had no special political clout. His Formosa Plastics Group had sales of over $4 billion last year and a remarkable 37.5% pretax return on capital. He says he has never calculated his personal worth, adding that ''it's probably not much.'' The market value of his family's holdings in the three main public companies of the plastics group totals some $1.5 billion. And then there are Wang's extensive real estate holdings, including a mansion in Short Hills, New Jersey. Says an aide: ''Wealth for him is nothing, just figures.'' At 70, when most industrialists slow down, Wang is an energetic hands-on manager. Up before dawn, he begins every day jogging around the roof of his apartment atop the Formosa Plastics headquarters in Taiwan's capital of Taipei. Then he swims for half an hour or so in his pool, chats with his 100- year-old mother, has breakfast, and starts going over corporate papers before hopping an elevator down to his office. The highlight of every day, including Sundays, is lunch with managers of one of the group's more than 100 divisions. The food is a simple box lunch, but the real menu is Wang's relentless interrogation. ''He can smell if something is right or wrong,'' says Harry M.D. Huang, vice president of the financial division. If everything is running smoothly, the session will go quickly, but Wang will grill managers of a troubled division for several gut-wrenching hours. Evidently, Wang is still driven by memories of his hardscrabble youth in a northern Taiwan village, where only a handful of people were literate and his own formal education ended with elementary school. He quotes a Chinese proverb: ''There is no difficulty in the world that cannot be overcome if one works hard and continually at it.'' At 15 he went to work for a rice merchant for $10 a month. A year later his father, a tea seller, borrowed from everyone he knew to scrape together $200 for young Wang to start his own tiny rice shop. A turning point in his life came at 2 A.M. one rainy night when an innkeeper with unexpected guests awakened Wang to get a bag of rice. The young merchant got soaked delivering it because he owned no raincoat. Back in bed, wet and uncomfortable, Wang decided that there had to be a better way to earn a living. He soon started his own rice mill, as he puts it, ''moving one notch upward.'' Taiwan was a Japanese colony in those days, and Wang had to compete against a Japanese mill next door. He stayed open four hours longer, until 10:30 P.M. During the war American B-29s swept over his town, wiping out all the wooden buildings with incendiary bombs. His rice mill reduced to ashes, he built a bigger one. Wang launched Formosa Plastics with $500,000 in 1957. It was a courageous, if not foolhardy, move because there was little market for his output. The island's few processing plants were well supplied with cheap, competing PVC resin produced by the Japanese. Says Wang: ''It was like riding a tiger. You can't get off. You must go forward or get eaten.'' He boldly increased capacity sixfold, then became his own biggest customer by starting a second company, Nan Ya Plastics, to process the resin into plastic pipe and other products. In 1964, when Nan Ya began molding the resin into imitation leather that required a cloth backing, Wang loathed spending money on expensive imported cotton. So he started a third company to make plastic fibers. As a result, Wang's group is generally regarded as the largest producer of PVC anywhere and perhaps the largest fabricator of plastic products, most of which are exported. He has turned around money-losing operations purchased from U.S. companies, such as the plastic pipe operations of Johns-Manville. Says he: ''I think the American workers are very good, quite diligent. The problem is management.'' Wang insists that he has no hobbies (his wife jokingly chimes in, ''Just drinking'') because ''I can't afford to relax.'' Retirement is not even part of Wang's vocabulary, though management is studded with such potential successors as a younger brother, a British-educated nephew, and his son Winston, 36, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Britain. Wang cites another Chinese saying that family wealth lasts only three generations. ''Since the second generation has personally observed and been influenced by the first generation, it still knows how to work hard,'' he says. No wonder son Winston rarely takes a day off.