Star Interview: Building a New Era of China-UK relations from the ground up in Sheffield

When businessman Jerry Cheung came to Sheffield from Hong Kong as a 13-year-old in 1975, the UK was seen as, he says, '˜the superpower - probably the number one economy in the world'. Hong Kong was under British administration, work permits were easy to obtain and to villagers living in thousands of the territory's rural communities, coming to Britain to work was '˜a good thing'.

Monday, 13th November 2017, 9:38 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 4:55 am
Jerry Cheung, managing director of New Era Development, at the site near Bramall Lane. Picture: Glenn Ashley

“All the villages were empty because everyone came to the UK, and my father was one of them,” he says. “Typically they came to settle down, earn money and bring the family over gradually. In my father’s generation it was common to have maybe 10 children; you can’t afford to bring all of them in one go.”

Jerry was the sixth of seven children in his family to make the journey, and 42 years later he’s able to bring an astute perspective on how Sheffield, and the wider UK economy, has changed.

A good start is to simply step outside his office off Bramall Lane - looming over the KH Oriental Supermarket, one of his ventures, is the 21-storey Jade Tower, the focal point of his £65m New Era development, a huge scheme of student flats, shops and restaurants on course for completion next year.

Funded entirely by Chinese investment and more than 10 years in the making, it will have a large public plaza - which Jerry has talked about as being Sheffield’s answer to Times Square - and, significantly, the China-UK Business Incubator, a service that will strengthen links between the two nations and encourage enterprise.

“I classify myself as British Chinese - we know both sides of the story. That’s where our competitive edge comes in.”

Jerry, 56, can count on a strong cast of supporters, from both universities and the city council to the hospitals, Chamber of Commerce and the Local Enterprise Partnership. “We can’t do it just by ourselves. I said that from day one.”

Jerry - friendly and voluble, with a distinctive Northern accent gained from his decades spent here - is very much a self-made man, but has tasted life working for a big corporation too.

He went to work for British Steel as an engineer, a period he says ‘shaped’ him after his school days at Rawmarsh Comprehensive.

“My father was a chef, he was a farmer but during the war had a spell in the army. His generation were honest people and earned their living through hard work. But I said to my dad ‘I don’t think I want to do fried rice for the rest of my life, I’m going to study, I’m going to be an engineer’.”

As a teenager on his first-ever black cab ride up Sheffield Road, he caught his first glimpse of the steelworks, a sight that didn’t quite match his expectations of England.

“I thought I’d got on the wrong plane, to be honest, or we’d missed the stop. The picture in Hong Kong is that it’s like an English garden.”

After four years at British Steel, Jerry became demoralised by the redundancies and closures hitting the UK industry, and left to become a restaurateur, eventually owning 12 venues. He claims he was spurred on by meeting other Chinese entrepreneurs blessed with the trappings of wealth.

“All of them ran takeaways and they had loads of money, nice cars and Rolex watches. I thought ‘There’s something wrong here, if you can’t beat them, join them’.

“Every restaurant I set up was freehold. I made it into a good business then sold it on. So I built up a rental portfolio over 20 years, and by 2011 I retired.”

At this point Jerry’s vision of a Chinatown in Sheffield was well established, albeit delayed by the recession. He had noticed that Chinese restaurants were slowly bringing about a revival of London Road - “It used to be a no-go area” - and spoke to former Government minister Richard Caborn and the council’s then chief executive, Lord Bob Kerslake, about his idea.

“I said that, instead of letting it grow organically, we can manage the change,” said Jerry, who chairs the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre, also on London Road.

Kerslake told Jerry the project needed to be ‘commercially-led’, which explains why shops and flats for students of all ethnicities, not just Sheffield’s sizeable Chinese student population, have been factored in. The apartments can be switched to ordinary residential units if needed, while giving a new home to the supermarket means New Era has an anchor tenant straight away.

In the early stages a casino was talked about, but it proved controversial, and Jerry completely rules it out today, while admitting a gambling venue would bring in ‘big money’.

He also openly accepts his work schedule left little space for family time. Jerry, who is divorced, lives in Fulwood and has a daughter, Jo Yee, 24, a pianist who is studying for a PhD at the Royal Northern College of Music, and a son, Ray, 17, who’s set his sights on reading law at Oxford or Cambridge.

Jerry has a new right-hand man on the New Era development - Rongmin Qin, a young high flyer and London School of Economics graduate who spent 10 years in London and Asia in the financial sector. Rongmin, son of the first investor in New Era, will be responsible for the flats, but is keen to outline how the business incubator will operate.

“Since Brexit, the deals have slowed, and China’s domestic policy has changed,” says Rongmin. “We’re hoping to have a physical platform to help more small to medium businesses. The demand is still there, and the need to nurture a relationship, but we just want to do it from the ground up, rather than the headline-grabbing deals. We’re not talking £200 million - small deals, very practical stuff.”

This modest approach contrasts with the £1 billion promised to Sheffield over 60 years through the council’s deal with China’s Sichuan Guodong Construction Group. Last month the council’s chief executive John Mothersole vowed the agreement was still active amid doubts over a lack of visible progress.

Jerry has previously expressed surprise at the extravagance of the sum, but is no longer keen to offer an opinion. “I’m very careful about this, because it’s the council that is running the show. They’ve been very supportive of us.”

His dedication to Sheffield runs deep. “I love this place. I’m a believer that, when you can, you put something back into society. If we all did just a bit it would make society so much nicer.”