Businessman Jerry Cheung tells unLTD’s Peter Kay how an ‘entrepreneurial gene’ took him from being a migrant’s son at a Rotherham comprehensive school to leading Sheffield’s £66m ‘Chinatown’ development.
One of the more notable changes in and around Sheffield city centre in recent years has been the springing up of high-rise blocks of student accommodation.
Among those making a temporary home here have been thousands of Chinese students, reflected in the cafes and shops, complete with signs with Chinese characters, that cater for them.
Some are living in apartments in the first phase of the £66m New Era Square development at the corner of St Mary’s Gate and Bramall Lane – financed by Chinese investors.
You can’t miss it –its 21-storey Jade Tower has quickly become a landmark.
To be a Chinese student in the city, whether at the University of Sheffield or Sheffield Hallam University, is no longer out-of-the-ordinary.
It was very different in 1975 when 13-year-old Jerry Cheung arrived from a village in Hong Kong.
With his father working as a chef at a takeaway restaurant in Rawmarsh, Rotherham, Jerry went to the local comprehensive school before studying to be an engineer and taking a job with British Steel.
A Chinese pupil in school? A Chinese engineer in the steelworks? These were very different times and, for Jerry, far from easy.
Yet he was not going to be held back. Eventually steel gave way to the more traditional – and more lucrative – pursuit of running Chinese restaurants, starting to build a property portfolio at the same time.
It was this “entrepreneurial gene” that led him to become the guiding light behind the New Era complex, committed to delivering the concept of student accommodation, offices and a public plaza fringed by international restaurants, cafes and shops that continues to take shape on the edge of Sheffield city centre.
Phase one is already home to the New Era Development offices, 450 students and the KH Oriental Supermarket.
The second phase is now well underway, to include New Era Square with its 30 restaurants, cafes, food kiosks and shops, and, significantly, the China-UK Business Incubator, designed to offer practical support to both local businesses and those coming from China to the UK.
It has been described as Sheffield’s version of New York’s Times Square. Inevitably, it is also being seen as the city’s Chinatown.
Yet the aim is to fashion something much more cosmopolitan than the traditional Chinese model, much more in keeping with modern China, says Jerry.
As managing director of New Era Development Ltd, he was at the forefront of securing the Chinese investment that got the ball rolling.
Pulling together the details and, crucially, securing a collaborative agreement involving the city’s two universities, Sheffield City Council and Sheffield Chamber of Commerce may be a world away from the experiences of the teenager who arrived at the Midland Railway Station 43 years ago.
But Jerry is in no doubt about how those early days helped to forge the determination and vision of today’s businessman.
In addition, they fired his ambition to promote the type of integration between communities that did not exist when he was finding his feet. All those years later, he wants to give something back to the city that he came to love.
The sixth of seven children, he was following a familiar route out of Hong Kong.
“In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s the UK was a superpower and it needed a lot of migrant workers,” he says. “Hong Kong was under British administration, and it was customary to go to work in England and send some money back to villages in Hong Kong. Only women with babies and the elderly stayed behind.
“My dad came to work as a chef. Eventually my sister bought a takeaway in Rotherham after my father came up with the money.”
Jerry remembers his first day at Rawmarsh Comprehensive. “I was scared. The whole school had heard the rumour about a Chinese student. Kids were looking out of the window. They were so curious.”
It wasn’t that different at British Steel where he ended up after studying at Rotherham Technical College and Huddersfield Polytechnic. (He gained a masters degree in mechanical engineering in 1984 by working three nights a week for three years at Sheffield City Polytechnic while spending the day at the steelworks).
“That really shaped me for years to come. I was in the real world. You learn how to work with people. In the steel plant they were rough and ready. You had to swear with them otherwise you couldn’t communicate with them!
“But it enabled me to gain an understanding of the English mentality, English community. It removed the barriers.
“They looked on a Chinese as though they were an alien. Most of them had never seen a Chinese before. Suddenly this guy comes along and is telling them what to do. Some took notice, but some were not so nice. It wasn’t easy. But I found my way around and came out in one piece and, I think, well regarded.”
The young boy’s dream of being an engineer began to fade, though, as the reality failed to match up. It could be a chaotic place to work, and now jobs were being shed.
“I was feeling empty. It wasn’t going to be doing what I wanted to do. I started thinking: ‘I’m not earning a lot. Maybe it’s time to move on’.
“I wanted to go back to the Far East. I had the experience and the knowledge of the steel market. I thought I could get a good job in the Far East.
“It was just before the handover (of Hong Kong to China), and people were leaving Hong Kong. My father persuaded me to stay in the UK. I didn’t want to upset my dad.
“My entrepreneurial gene kicked in. Obviously I wanted to make money. A lot of my fellow Chinese from Hong Kong were doing well, driving really nice cars. I was the only Chinese working as an engineer.
“Others were making fried rice and earning up to ten times as much as me. I thought: ‘Let’s think about this. If you can’t beat them, join them!’
Jerry ended up with around a dozen busy restaurants, crucially securing their freeholds, a move that was to allow him to build up a rental portfolio over 20 years.
The idea of a Sheffield Chinatown – complementing the nearby London Road mix of international restaurants, cafes and shops – was born as long ago as 2005.
With encouragement from the likes of then Sheffield Central MP Richard Caborn and former council chief executive Bob Kerslake, plans began to emerge for offices, shops, restaurants, a hotel, a casino and a China Trade Centre.
However, the vision was to change. In particular, the demand for student accommodation was factored in, and the China Trade Centre developed into the China-UK Business Incubator.
“It evolved because of market conditions. It stopped for a few years because of the recession, but we have now finished phase one. It hasn’t been easy, but life isn’t easy. We are well on the way with phase two. In a year and a bit it will be all done.”
The second phase is being built with the support of £27m from Barclays, adding to £7m of private investment.
The non-profit making business incubator is a significant element, offering a one-stop service to help local and Chinese businesses link up and generate business opportunities – from manufacturing to medicine.
Already up and running from a base in phase one, it provides advice and practical support on translation, business practice, cultural understanding and intelligence, able to call upon an extensive network.
Says Jerry: “The biggest selling point is the collaboration, bringing together the public and the private sectors, education, business associations, the local council … There are the resources, knowledge and synergy to be tapped into.”
He wants to give New Era Square “soul. We are 60% to 70% there. The last part is probably the hardest.”
The mix of food and drink operators around the plaza is being handled with care. “I want it to be true to our word – for it to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated. We want to welcome Italian, Japanese, Thai, French, whatever.
“Chinatown reflected my father’s generation. Forty to 50 years later we want it to be more inclusive, to reflect society, to celebrate the cultural diversity of Sheffield.
“Spiritually it is Chinatown, but it’s not the same as the ones in London or Manchester.”
Over the years, Jerry has become a leading member of the local Chinese community, and he has developed a passion for the Sheffield area, not least because it’s the place where his children were born.
Daughter, Jo Yee, 25, is studying for a PhD in music psychology at the Royal Northern College of Music and has set up a foundation to help under-privileged children to learn music, and son, Ray, 18, is studying classical civilisation at Oxford University on a path to become a lawyer.
Arrival in Sheffield in the mid-70s was a jolting experience, though.
“As a young child I had a picture of England as being very rosy, wonderful, with beautiful countryside and gardens and beautiful people with blue eyes. It was the wealthiest place on the planet.
“When I got to Sheffield I got the shock of my life. From the train station I took a taxi to Rotherham. Travelling along Sheffield Road there was a steel plant to the left, a strip mill to the right, massive sheds on either side.
“It was dark and raining. You think you haven’t got on the right plane! This isn’t England. It wasn’t as nice as the place you have come from.
“Over the years I have got to love this area. First and foremost it’s the people, easy to get on with. Even when I go back to Hong Kong after two weeks I want to come back. The love and passion has grown.
“I wanted to put something back into the community, to help the Chinese to integrate.
“The people at Rawmarsh Comp wanted to find out what the Chinese looked like. It doesn’t have to be like that. We are British Chinese and we are part of society. We should all join the party. I wanted to help the Chinese community to connect, to help people understand and celebrate Chinese culture.
“My father never had that chance. He worked unsocial hours in a takeaway. He had no chance to integrate. He was disconnected from society.”
From his office in the Jade Tower, Jerry’s motivation remains as strong as ever.
“A lot of people are coming to understand what I am trying to do. A lot of things are being developed including the China-UK Business Incubator.
“It is getting more interesting. I get up every morning at five o’clock and I am looking forward to going to work. It’s not bad for a village boy from Hong Kong!”