Billionaire says he will give millions to health workers if Concord Pacific pays in epic legal battle

Singaporean-based billionaire Hong Leong Oei says a recent court order awarding him millions of dollars sends a message about the dangers of giving misleading testimony in B.C. courts — and for him, that’s worth more than the cash.

If he ever collects the $5-million award, he plans to donate it to front-line medical staff fighting COVID-19.

It marks the latest round in a battle between tycoons over the development of a prime Vancouver waterfront property: the Plaza of Nations site on Pacific Boulevard.

“When I bought this land I didn’t expect Vancouver to develop like today. So for me this is a surprise. I bought it quite cheap and for an investment for my retirement,” said Oei, in an interview from Singapore Wednesday evening.

Oei bought the site 31 years ago for a handshake and $40-million. In 2015, he almost sold it to the developer Concord Pacific, but the deal soured.

The plan to redevelop the Plaza of Nations property includes living space and a public sea walk, daycare and ice rink. (Design James Cheng Architects/Rendering Paul Nowarre for Canadian Metropolitan Properties Corp.)

Concord Pacific Acquisitions Inc. later sued Oei and his companies for allegedly acting in bad faith and breaching an agreement to sell the 4.16 hectare (10.28-acre) site. Since then he and Concord president and CEO Terry Hui have been locked in a legal death grip.

“I will never give up — we are fighting for the principle,” said Oei.

Concord alleged that Oei signed a “binding” deal. In July 2019, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Peter Voith dismissed that claim. In March 2020, Oei and his companies — Hong Kong Expo Holdings Ltd. and Canadian Metropolitan Properties Corp., filed a civil claim against Concord Pacific, Hui and others — claiming abuse of the legal process — seeking $245-million.

That suit alleged a “conspiracy” to tie up the valuable downtown property in litigation to hamper efforts to develop it.

In a decision dated Jan. 29, Justice Voith ordered Concord Pacific, the plaintiff in the initial civil suit, to pay costs to Oei because of the “egregious dishonesty” of one of their witness.

The rare special costs award is one of the highest in B.C. and sends a clear message that courts will not tolerate being misled with false claims.

But it will only be paid out if an appeal of the initial case is dismissed.

Justice Voith noted in his order that Concord’s vice-president David Ju had “misled” the court. Concord plans to appeal the rulings it says are “flawed.”

Oei said he has not seen the grounds of the appeal yet, but he is not worried.

At 72, he says he follows the business philosophy of his father who fell into debt in Indonesia in the 1940s and had to sell his wife’s wedding ring to pay it off.

The plan to develop the 10-acre Plaza of Nations site involves a 30-storey terraced building. (Design James Cheng Architects/Rendering Paul Nowarre for Canadian Metropolitan Properties Corp.)

Oei was sent to China at 12 and ended up part of the Red Guards — a mass student-led paramilitary movement — during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the ’60s.

He later rose in his father’s company which had become successful.

By 1991, the Indonesian-born man moved to Hong Kong and ended up at the helm of a company that became China Strategic Holdings Ltd., where he privatized hundreds of former state factories.

Architect James Cheng helps shepherd the Plaza of Nations redevelopment plan through the City of Vancouver’s process. The owner hopes to begin building by 2021. (Design James Cheng Architects/Rendering Paul Nowarre for Canadian Metropolitan Properties Corp.)

In his 30s, he came to Vancouver on a visit and said that he “fell in love” with the city.

“I come to Canada … I feel at home,” said Oei.

In November 1989, he bought a gated mansion at 2170 South West Marine Drive from billionaire Joseph Segal — along with all its antiques and contents — after a long philosophical discussion over scotch.

He also bought a small island off the coast of B.C.

That same year he met up with Asian’s most influential businessman, Li Ka-shing.

The Hong Kong tycoon had purchased the Expo ’86 lands for $320 million and sold Oei a portion: the Plaza of Nations parcel for $40 million.

“I bought the land from Mr. Li Ka Shing. Five minutes. Handshake. Done deal,” said Oei.

The Plaza of Nations land, marked as Canadian Metropolitan Properties on map, is one of the last pieces of waterfront property in downtown Vancouver with development potential. The owner says it’s now valued at more than $600-million. (City of Vancouver)

Oei said he was surprised his long-term gamble appreciated to a value of more than $600-million since then. He often gets offers, but says he’s cautious now.

In the meantime, architect James Cheng’s design plan is moving toward final approval with a new architect, Walter Francl, now part of the team.

If approved, there will be a daycare, a concert hall, an outdoor plaza, an ice rink and a sea walk. He hopes construction can start this year.

While Oei describes the Vancouver development process as “inefficient, bureaucratic and slow” by Singaporean standards, he says he loves the city, and he hopes to leave an iconic mark at its heart.

“The biggest capital is integrity. With integrity people trust you.”

 

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