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Thu 18 Oct 2007 12:51 PM

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China in his hands

Owner of The World's ‘Shanghai' island Bin Hu on how he hopes to buy a whole string of islands.

They call him ‘the man who wants to paint the World red', and as far as symbolism goes, Mr Bin Hu's recent visit to Dubai left little room for misinterpretation. Planting a Chinese flag firmly into Middle East sand, the president of real estate developer Zhongzhou International Holding Group (ZIHG) made his mark on the World both literally and figuratively.

"The World project is one of the eight wonders of the world, so when I came to Dubai to look at the World, and I saw that Shanghai Island was still available for sale after four years, I immediately knew I had to take it," he reveals. "I said to Nakheel: ‘Name your price!'"

Shanghai and Dubai are very similar in that they are very multicultural cities and Shanghai Island will reflect that.

It is exactly the kind of reaction the Dubai-based property developer would have hoped for when it invited Bin Hu to join one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet. According to the company's sales strategy, each year Nakheel invites 50 people - constituted of celebrities, business elite and assorted royalty - to come and view the World project. Today, around 40% of the 300 islands that make up the World have been snapped up, and Bin Hu jumped at the chance to become involved.

"A few months ago I received an invitation from Nakheel to come and look at the World," he recalls. "It was a surprise, but I was very happy and very excited to get the invitation, and I immediately scheduled a visit to Dubai."

Such invitations act as a golden ticket to one of the most elite addresses on the planet - provided you can stump up the US$15m to US$50m just-the-basics asking price - and Bin Hu was immediately struck by the opportunity to create something truly unique on the 322,000-sq ft island. At US$28m, his purchase of Shanghai on Nakheel's man-made archipelago made headlines around the globe - and he is not finished yet.

"This project is not a normal project; it is not like any other project; it is unique and a piece of history," he says, emphasising each word with a shake of his fist. "It is one for the heart, and I am very proud that I will be able to construct Shanghai Island in Dubai."

Bin Hu's vision for ‘Shanghai Island' is a striking one, and one that will require a significant remodelling of the existing island. So much so, that ZIHG is still in negotiations with Nakheel over the project's masterplan.

"The island will be split into two parts, the first with a super-luxury hotel and resort, and the second part with super-luxury, palace-style villas," he explains. "The concept of Shanghai Island is that it will really be a ‘Mini Shanghai' in terms of its shape, and to do so we will construct a river in the shape of an ‘S', like the Huangpo River that bisects Shanghai in China."

Either side of the river, the island will represent the Puxi and Pudon districts of the province for which it is named. The two land masses will be connected by a tunnel, which will also feature an extravagant "crystal palace", to host conferences and special events under the surface of the Arabian Gulf.

"We are in negotiations with Nakheel with regards to the river, but I am not concerned because the designs are fantastic," insists Bin Hu. "The concept of this idea is to bring the Chinese culture to Dubai, and Nakheel is very keen on this."

By ‘culture', he is referring to the construction culture of the Asian nation. Indeed, a glance at the proposed plans indicates that while Shanghai Island will echo its inspiration in shape, the project is not intended as a ‘Chinatown Dubai' concept. "Shanghai and Dubai are very similar in that they are very multinational cities, and the design of Shanghai Island reflects that," Bin Hu explains. "We will absorb construction styles from all over the world, to make this project truly multinational."

Effectively, seven architectural styles will be represented on Shanghai Island - "Spanish, Mediterranean, Italian, German, British, French and American". The different districts will bear the distinctive hallmarks of their respective inspirations, from the colonial architecture of the Spanish empire, to the modernity of the US. "We will have different styles all over the island, and Nakheel is giving us excellent support with this," enthuses Bin Hu. "This is what will make the project a unique attraction, and I am very confident that we will have approval to proceed very soon."
According to ZIHG's schedule, preparation work on Shanghai Island should be completed by the end of this year, while construction work should begin "in the first half of next year", dependent on Nakheel's reclamation work finishing on time. Bin Hu politely declines to attach a figure to the overall investment that will be required to turn Shanghai Island from a detailed masterplan into a fully operational resort destination. However, it is clear that the president of China's third-largest real estate developer is prepared to spend heavily to turn his dream into a reality. If all goes well, the project will be up and running within two years.

"I am a modest man and would not want to put a value on the investment, or my company," he insists. "We are not a huge company, but my purpose is not to make money: it is to bring the Chinese culture of construction to Dubai, and to bring the Dubai culture of construction to China."

I am a modest man and would not want to put a value on the investment, or my company.

That ZIHG broke US$500m in revenues in 2006 rather undermines Bin Hu's humble protestations. The company is involved in a series of ultra high-profile developments in and around Shanghai in China, including Shanghai Dingshanhu Villas, a luxury yacht and helicopter club, Dingshanhu Gardens, and Shanghai Central Garden. Between just these three projects, ZIHG developments will cover over one million sq m in the city.

In Dubai, Bin Hu has also snapped up a less high-profile spot on the mainland at the Lagoons project.

He jokes that when he is in the Emirates, he will live on his island, and open his office at the Lagoons. However, his ambition is serious and emblematic of China's new-found desire to cement investment opportunities beyond its own borders.

"Every Chinese citizen must give his most to this ambition," he insists. "My action to invest in overseas markets such as Dubai is to follow the policy of China, because the Chinese government is always encouraging business people to invest overseas."

As a result, four Chinese developers have already bought islands on the World - in addition to ZIHG, Chinese companies have snapped up Beijing, Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, Bin Hu's ambition is to own the whole of ‘China' as it is represented on the World, and he is keen to open negotiations with the company that currently owns Beijing. The company's identity has not yet been made public. "Personally, this is just the start of my investment in Dubai," he emphasises. "We are testing the water, and if things go smoothly then I will definitely increase my investment in the emirate."

If Bin Hu has his way, then it might not be too long before he has the whole world in his hands.

One world, many rumoursSince the project's commencement, there have been a series of unconfirmed reports of celebrities who have purchased, or intend to purchase, an island.

At the end of March 2006, Richard Branson appeared at a media conference on the ‘Great Britain' island; however this was to announce direct London to Dubai flights by his Virgin Atlantic airline, and was not related to his investing in any of the islands.

Fijian golfer Vijay Singh has been linked to the archipelago, but it is not confirmed that he has bought or intends to buy an island - he is involved with another high-profile Nakheel Properties development at Jumeirah on the Dubai mainland.

In October last year, seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher was presented with one of the islands by Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, on the occasion of his final Grand Prix, in Brazil. At the time Schumacher's manager Willi Weber quipped that Schumacher should build a kart racing track on the island.

British celebrities Rod Stewart and David Beckham have also been linked with the project, as have Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and his ex-wife Pamela Anderson, and reclusive pop star Michael Jackson.