In 1994, when David “Mr Golf” Chu turned a patch of industrial wasteland in Shenzhen into the world’s largest golf course, it was seen as complete madness by many, including the provincial mayor. Golf was a nonentity in the country, frowned upon by the Communist Party ever since Mao Zedong declared the sport “too bourgeois”.
But David Chu’s vision paid off. Today, the Mission Hills Group dominates the golf industry in China, with huge multi-course resorts in Shenzhen, Dongguan and Hainan as well as hotels, leisure resorts, sports academies, schools, artist villages, malls and even a movie-themed theme park in Haikou called Movie Town.
But much of that expansion has been overseen by David’s son Tenniel, who works as vice chairman of the group alongside his brother Ken, the group’s chairman. Pioneering a so-called “golf and more” concept has broadened the popularity of the sport, helping to dust off the elite image it once held. Non-traditionalists might tut at the group’s more eccentric ideas – the upcoming Fantasy Course in Hainan features an island green with an 80-metre-wide bowl of noodles and 75-metre-long chopsticks serving as the lake – but the numbers don’t lie. Last year Mission Hills invested a total of 40 billion yuan in mainland China and the company is going from strength to strength.
Carmen Chu, Tenniel’s glamorous wife, is an arts enthusiast who balances being the mother of two children with her ongoing art history studies at the University of Hong Kong. She admits candidly that she decided to go back to university in order to understand more about the art world and also as a way of grounding herself against the seemingly endless series of parties and galas that come as a consequence of her husband’s jet-setting job.
We sat down with the dynamic couple in their well-appointed home to find out more.
How did you guys meet?
Carmen Chu: We met in Hong Kong, through our best friends. He asked me out to dinner – I didn’t like him at that time! I was flying to London for work and he was going elsewhere, but he actually came to London to find me there. And that’s how it all happened.
Did golf bond you two?
CC: In the early days, I used to play better than Tenniel! I only had a better score than him once but I still remember it. He has a single handicap – he’s very good – so I was thrilled to beat him on the course.
Tenniel, you come from the largest golfing dynasty in China. Did you ever feel tempted to go into any other industry growing up?
Tenniel Chu: I’m very blessed that my family and father created this platform, Mission Hills. Golf is an international language. No other sport has the means to connect with everyone in the same way. When I was younger I was a keen athlete – I had the chance to train with the Chinese national badminton team. But golf is my true love, I’ve been playing for 40 years now.
You have two children, Gwyneth and T2 – do they show natural interest in sports?
CC: Yes, they both wanted to enrol in the Barcelona soccer camp. And we all play basketball and tennis. The four of us play golf at Mission Hills when we’re all together.
How did you decide to name your kids Gwyneth and T2?
CC: T2 is actually called Tenniel junior but we call him T2 – my husband is T1! Everyone calls him T2, except in school. We chose Gwyneth because I love Gwyneth Paltrow; she’s a lady with character and style.
Tenniel, your father was a Chiuchow man, and you’ve said he was very strict. What was your upbringing like?
TC: Well, he definitely did raise us with a military style from a young age. There were six of us siblings and everyone had their own roles and duties. I recall during my upbringing in Canada, he would get me to wash his car every day, even during the winter months. I would be in the garage at 6am! When he was teaching me how to swim, he used to pick me up with all my clothes on and throw me into the pool and expect me to find a way to survive. So, he really did always throw us in at the deep end!
And do you treat your kids with the same approach?
TC: If our father was a dictator, I think our approach with our kids is more “kill them with kindness”!
Tenniel, when your late father David Chu constructed the world’s largest golf course in Shenzhen 1994, many were very doubtful it would catch on. What did you think?
TC: At that time, honestly no one really thought this was feasible. There were probably fewer than a thousand golfers in China back then. Nobody really had foresight of the true vision and plan. He felt there had to be a new medium to connect China with the world, and he felt golf was the best tool to do that. He spoke with 10 consultants, including the mayor, and none of them supported him. Not one of them thought it was a sustainable model. But nevertheless he continued.
Honestly, no one could tell the difference between a ping pong ball and a golf ball back then! We had children running into the bunkers as though they were a beach, ladies wearing all these fancy gowns and high heels to the course. We’ve been through ups and downs, but this is all part of growing the game.
You work closely with your brother Ken Chu to run the company. How is it working with him?
TC: We’re only two years apart, so we’re very close, and we’ve honestly not had any arguments about work in the 15 years we’ve worked together. When it’s downtime we don’t even mention work. It’s always very well balanced. We feel that with my father’s generation it was always work, work, work. It’s like an elastic band – you can only stretch so far. Both my parents passed away relatively early, so we felt we definitely needed a change in terms of lifestyle and how we conduct our work and life.
You said Mission Hills is changing golf from a business tool to a lifestyle. What does this mean?
TC: Traditionally golf is seen as a prestigious and elite game. Our mission is to grow the game so it’s available for everyone. Each year over 25,000 juniors go through our doors – we have the world’s largest youth golfing programme. We also have three golf courses that are free to juniors globally, where they can come and access and experience golf.
Do you think it’s true that when people get together on the fairway they somehow always end up talking about business?
TC: We always joke that people talk politics and business on the golf course and talk golf in the office! We have basically created a green office, it’s an extension of the office. Many great politicians and entrepreneurs like Jack Welch do a lot of negotiations and business on the golf course, and I think it works very well.
Your brother Ken has spoken of his desire not to be seen as “second generation rich” but as a hard worker in his own right. What do you make of that?
TC: My father created a great platform, and this allows us to get on the stage and take the show further, rather than making it a pretty looking stage and simply keeping the show going.
That’s why we created the “golf and more” concept, going beyond just golf. We’re in cultural entertainment, education, wellness, MICE and more. We want a holistic kind of experience, not just the typical golf experience where the husband goes off and plays with other men. We want all three generations to be able to join in, for your grandparents to play with the grandchildren. And not only on the golf course but off it, too.
Somehow golf is a magnet to attract all different walks of life. From there it’s limitless in terms of the relationships and opportunities that can arise.
What are some of your proudest achievements at Mission Hills?
TC: At Mission Hills we are either the first to do something, or we do it the biggest. Whether it’s bringing the first international golf tournament to China (the 1995 World Cup of Golf), Tiger Woods’ first visit to China, or creating the world’s largest golf resort, we definitely showcase a new China to the whole world. That’s very rewarding.
Do you take inspiration from other courses around the world?
The beauty of golf courses is that no two are the same. We’ve visited all the most historic and well known courses, where they host international events, and we try to incorporate these kinds of concepts. In the first stage of Mission Hills’ development we invited a famous golfer from each continent to be a guest designer: Jack Nicklaus from the US, Ernie Els from South Africa, Vijay Singh from the Oceanic area, Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki from Asia and Nick Faldo from Europe. We want golfers at Mission Hills to have a whole range of golf fantasies and desires.
You’ve worked with a lot of celebrities at Mission Hills. Who has been great to work with, and who has been terrible?
TC: We enjoy working with legendary actors like Morgan Freeman, Andy Garcia, Michael Douglas, the A-class Hollywood stars. It’s wonderful that through the platform of Mission Hills we are able to entice these stars to come to China. After his accident (a car crash in 2008 left the actor fighting for his life), Morgan Freeman could only use one hand, but he could still finish an entire game of golf, all 18 holes. I was very impressed!
There are the ones who are not so keen on golf, but I admire people like Chris Evans, Ryan Reynolds, Alan Arrison – people who haven’t had a chance to learn the game of golf but are willing to participate and, of course, enjoy the parties afterwards! There is always a yin and a yang.
Carmen, you’ve just started studying art history at the University of Hong Kong. What inspired you to go back to university to study?
CC: We used to attend so many parties
and balls, meeting sponsors and so on. One day we asked ourselves, “Why are we doing all this?” We needed to calm down, and I really am happy to go back to school. Seeing this generation, people are so upset and unhappy with everything. I think that education is so important. I think you need to teach children that you have to appreciate what you have. You have to build up your self-responsibility and your social responsibility. I think studying has made me more grounded.
Are things different now in university this time around?
CC: Yes! You know what I’ve noticed – people typing loudly, instead of writing notes. I hear the tap-tap-tap and it drives me crazy. Type softly!
And Tenniel, what are your plans in terms of taking the Mission Hills business outside of China in the coming years?
TC: After we’ve finished catering to the 1.3 billion, we’ll look to other frontiers!
Photography / Olivier Yoan
Styling / Florent Thiébaut
Styling assistant / Marco Chan
hair & Make-up / Reve Ryu
Outfits / Brooks Brothers
This was the Lifestyle 2017 cover story. #ThrowbackThursday