I attended a business event in Beijing earlier this year, where about thirty real estate professionals from all over the world, donned in black suits, and women in body-hugging work dresses and high heels ruled. As I scanned through the room, it seemed to me I was the youngest one there. An old man in his eighties, who seemed too aged to be taking on such operational affairs–he looked like a chairman, a principal sponsor, perhaps he owned the hotel chain–walked up to our table at the end of the event. Upon finding out where I came from, Raymond began recollecting his memory of pre-war Manila. To my utter surprise, he could fondly remember the old town’s Jai Alai, Dewey Blvd., and Jones Bridge. It was because he lived in Manila for two years, and since then, moved from one part of the world to another.
From that minute on, I never left his side the whole evening. He recognized that he had much to teach, and if I were to take something home from the event, it would have been the unconventional wisdom he had much to give–as decades of experience was crammed into four hours of stories. Raymond was eager to share to anyone who would care to listen, and it seemed like none of the well-clad business people in the room, with their buzzing minds and glorious accolades, were in the mood to listen like a child the way I did that evening. Why, the old man was clearly the most successful–even the jolliest–in the room, but no one seemed to notice.
Our exchange was unusually empowering–he passed on to me a great energy which I draw from to this day. And for that, I write down vignettes from that pleasant encounter.
On dating and relationships
“Be careful about who you’re going to marry. Women are at a disadvantage. You’ve only got a short window. When you are getting older and smarter, the supply of good men diminishes because they settle down early.”
On pushing against the glass ceiling
“I prefer to have more women in the company. They’re good at most things: accounting, PR, human resources, marketing, you name it. Men are too egoistic. Pit them against each other and they’re like a flock of roosters pecking on each other.”
Citizen of the world
Raymond was walking encyclopedia of fine human experience, having explored the heights and depths of the earth. Asked about the most beautiful sights seen, he took out his iPad to show me pictures of the different species of birds he shot in Antarctica (he’d been there thrice!). He quickly shared that the performances in the Vienna State Opera are nothing compared to Carnegie Hall’s shows, where the quality of sound is pure art. In his youth, he dated a Chinese actress in Hong Kong, took girls out in a convertible in New Orleans and had a number of girlfriends in Australia. He owned flats in London, New York, Hong Kong, and probably some other places where property prices are off the roof. His penthouse in Manhattan was the only reason he went to Beijing–it was too big, he didn’t know what to do with it. He owned another swanky piece of real estate: a penthouse unit with an unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty against the Manhattan skyline. He lived in the Philippines for two years, before the war. He knew more about the Japanese occupation and American colonization than I did because he was there when it happened. When the war broke out, he moved back to Hong Kong. He had something to say about each of our hometowns–be it history, arts, culture, food, and sights.
“Men are often attracted to women so they ask them out. She either grows on you or, no matter how beautiful you found her, you just don’t see it anymore.”
(On his wife) “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for her. She was just so supportive. When I was about to refuse a big decision to open up business overseas, she said ‘No! You must do it!’”
“What is it about her that caught you?”
“It’s probably her personality. It’s so easy to open up to her.”
A treasured compliment
His life was so full of color that he had to pass on his wealth of knowledge and experience to anyone who cares to listen. I felt like the granddaughter he never had. “You look like you’re doing quite well. You’re easy with people, and that’s what matters.”
I was at a heavy crossroads at that point, but our conversations supplied me with the needed encouragement to tread on the path laid out.
He studied in MIT, worked in IBM, and left it to start a company with his colleague. In the late 80s, he sold his company, Tau Laboratories, a pioneering and leading manufacturer of photomasks, to DuPont, which allowed him an early retirement in his 40s. He had since spent his time traveling the world.
On living in New York
“Why don’t you want to live in Hong Kong?” I asked.
“You see, when you’re in NY, it doesn’t matter how rich you are. You own your privacy.”
Wealth in this world
“A very wealthy man is as wasted as a poor man. A threshold exists–he only has so much food to eat, so many clothes to try. He tends to toil more, too. I once had a friend who was so rich, he had to choose between 30 wealth managers. They each had to make a 2-day presentation so it would take him 60 days to get through all of them. He had so much money he didn’t know what to do with it.”
“I lived a very colorful life. When I die, I won’t regret it.” For a man his age, he was uniquely energetic when he shares, certain that his experience justifies his convictions, a sharp contrast from the younger men in the room. He even regarded his waning youth with cheerfulness. “It’s called gravity. As you grow older, you move closer to the ground.”
This was Raymond, a wise man whose mind refused to give in to the rigors of old age–still childlike in curiosity, warm but spirited, a keen observer, and incredibly light around people.
Forty years of wisdom was compressed to four hours of conversation. Such is the power of human connection.
From then on I learned not to rule anyone out when meeting people as I travel. Although he was a rare gem, there’s always a grand thing or two to learn from someone who has lived not necessarily an extraordinary life, but a life that’s extraordinarily different from mine.