Asia's billionaires had a tough year amid limp economic growth and a sustained slump in commodity prices. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
Wallets for holding the digital version of China's yuan currency are already being counterfeited. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Want to get super rich in Asia? You will need to live in Hong Kong, Beijing or Singapore, attend a university in the United States or the United Kingdom, and probably be involved in real estate or technology. You will also have a better chance if you are male.

There were 607 billionaires in Asia in 2016, according to the latest census by income researchers Wealth-X. That compares with 757 in Europe, 654 in North America, 169 in the Middle East, 144 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 41 in Africa and 25 in the Pacific.

China has 249 billionaire tycoons, second only to the US (620), while there are 85 in India, 72 in Hong Kong, 37 in Singapore, 31 in Japan, 25 in Thailand, 23 in South Korea, 22 in Indonesia and 21 in Taiwan.

The bad news for billionaires is that it is becoming harder to keep your place among the elite. Difficult economic times trimmed China’s pool of billionaires by 4.2% in 2016, and their wealth dropped by 0.7%.

India lost 5.6% of its super rich and 3.4% of their net worth, while Hong Kong’s number of billionaires and wealth fell by a whopping 19.1% and 19.0%, respectively.

Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing Photo: Philippe Lopez / AFP
Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing Photo:AFP/ Philippe Lopez

Japan was the only Asian country where the number of billionaire tycoons actually rose – by 14.8% – but their wealth climbed by just 1.2%. Hong Kong’s billionaires suffered the biggest loss of some US$40 billion.

Yet Hong Kong was still the most popular city in Asia for tycoons in 2016, behind only New York (102 billionaires) on a global basis. Beijing was 6th globally, with 38 billionaires, Singapore 7th, Mumbai 10th (29 billionaires), Shenzhen 15th (23) and Tokyo 16th (22).

It has been getting tougher at the top since the commodity boom began to burst. Globally, 283 people lost their cherished billionaire status in 2016, and 6.5% of these relied mostly upon the oil, gas and consumable fuels sector.

On average the newly (relative) poor lost just under 40% of their net worth. In contrast, 9.0% of the 207 new billionaires work in technology.

Based on real-time data compiled by Forbes, the richest of all are Microsoft’s Bill Gates (US$88.8 billion), Jeff Bezos of Amazon (US$84 billion), investor Warren Buffett (US$80.7 billion), Amancio Ortega of Zara (US$78.3 billion) and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (US$71.3 billion). All are Americans apart from Ortega, who is Spanish.

In Asia, the wealthiest person on record is Hui Ka Yan, chairman of China Evergrande Group, who has a net worth of US$41 billion, according to Forbes. The 14th richest person in the world, he has earned most of his money from real estate but more recently has moved into healthcare.

Alibaba Group's Jack Ma. Photo: Reuters file picture
Alibaba Group founder billionaire Jack Ma. Photo: Reuters

Jack Ma, founder of China’s digital commerce titan Alibaba Group, has a net worth of US$39.6 billion, just ahead of his sometimes rival Ma Huateng of Tencent Holdings Ltd, who has US$39.5 billion.

Others in the Asian top 10 are India’s Mukesh Ambani (US$37.3 billion), Li Ka-shing of Hong Kong (US$34.2 billion), Lee Shau Kee of Hong Kong (US$30 billion), China’s Wang Jianlin (US$29.6 billion), Masayoshi Son of Japan (US$23.3 billion), Wang Wei of China (US$21.6 billion), and Yang Huiyan of China (US$21.6 billion).

Five of their businesses are involved in real estate and four in technology and telecommunications markets. Ambani’s Reliance Industries gets most of its income from oil and gas, but also has a telecommunications offshoot; Wang Jianlin’s Dalian Wanda Group depends partly on entertainment revenues, while Wang Wei’s SF Express operates China’s leading courier and delivery service.

But even the technology business is not immune from turmoil. China’s Lei Jun saw his net worth plummet to US$2.9 billion from US$6.9 billion in 2016 after the smartphone manufacturer Xaiomi lost substantial market share to domestic competitors.

The founder of Chinese electronics company Xiaomi, Lei Jun, speaks at the Global Business Summit in the Indian capital New Delhi on March 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA
Lei Jun, founder of Chinese electronics company Xiaomi, at the Global Business Summit in New Delhi on March 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/Money Sharma

Asia’s most powerful family is the Lee clan, who have accumulated US$29.6 billion via South Korea’s Samsung Group. Thailand’s Chearavanonts, owners of agri-industrial giant Charoen Pokphand Group, are worth US$27.7 billion, while the Ambanis of India have a combined US$25.8 billion.

Then come the Kwoks of Hong Kong (US$25.2 billion), the Lee (Shau Kee) family of Hong Kong with US$24.7 billion, and Indonesia’s Budi and Michael Hartono (US$18.6 billion), according to Forbes.

Their children are probably attending schools in either the US or the UK, which turn out most uber-rich graduates (currently 2,473 worldwide). The clear leader is Harvard (134 existing billionaires), followed by Stanford (67), University of Pennsylvania (54), Columbia (43) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (31).

This didn’t apply to the pioneering generation, who mostly built their businesses from the ground up. Li Ka-shing, whose family fled from China during World War II, left school at 12 and made his money from toys and plastic flowers. Lee Shau Kee’s family were so poor that they could only eat meat or fish twice a month.

Charoen Pokphand’s Sino-Thai billionaire founder Dhanin Chearavanont often speaks of his modest roots and upbringing.

Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman and CEO of Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group, answers questions at the 16th Nikkei Global Management Forum in Tokyo on November 12, 2014. Dhanin Chearavanont spoke at Japanese businessmen during a two-day business forum. AFP PHOTO/Toru YAMANAKA / AFP PHOTO / TORU YAMANAKA
Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman and CEO of Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group, at a business forum in Tokyo on November 12, 2014. Photo: AFP/Toru Yamanaka

Having the right drive and determination is obviously critical, but what may ultimately decide whether you get rich is your gender. There were only 272 female billionaires globally in 2016 (about 16% of all the uber-rich), while their number declined by 7.5% year on year.

Woman in Asia have the lowest representation on corporate boards of any region, at just 7.8% of directors, according to Deloitte, a consultancy. In Europe, which has the best record, the figure is 22.6%.

Thailand (14.9%) leads the way in Asia, followed by the Philippines and Malaysia (12%). India and China (7.0%), Japan (4.0%) and South Korea (2.0%) have the smallest male-female ratios. Japan’s Softbank, Tencent of China, Samsung of South Korea and Dalian Wanda all notably have no women on their boards. Alibaba has one female director.

That might help explain how the region’s uber-rich chose to entertain themselves. Yachting, airshows and auto grand prix were among the favorites last year, as were horse-racing, golf, polo and watching tennis at Wimbledon.