As part of a so-called astronaut family, property developer Kevin Cheung opens up about being raised in Vancouver while his father remained in China.
The 29-year-old’s family reunited only once or twice a year after he immigrated to Canada as a toddler with his mother, Helen, who studied at McGill University and worked in the Seattle tech industry until the pair settled in Shaughnessy. A graduate of Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, Cheung earned a bachelor of commerce from UBC’s Sauder School of Business.
“Sometimes I feel bad because they were doing it for me, and they sacrificed a lot,” says the co-founder and CEO of Landa Global Properties Ltd., noting that China’s economic growth and educational opportunities in Canada for his mom, plus the draw of learning English, split the family. “I’m sure they didn’t have plans to be separated this long from the beginning, and we cherished the times we did have together as a family.”
Explaining that his dad, Frank, a developer in Shanghai, started from “zero” following the Cultural Revolution, Cheung has much respect for that generation. “They went through a lot; he was assigned to a mine where he had to go down 100 metres digging for coal and had a life expectation of 45 to 50,” he says while feasting (somewhat incongruously) on veal medallions in morel mushroom sauce at the tony Le Crocodile Restaurant in Vancouver.
Cheung followed his father into the world of property (“You just soak it up as you grow up, and I got my real estate licence when I was 19”), cutting his development teeth with Frank’s company, DaDi Real Estate Co. Ltd. However, he soon itched to mould his own towers back on this side of the Pacific. “It was challenging,” Cheung admits of the three years before founding Coal Harbour–based Landa
(originally named Xpec), with partner Scott Wang, in 2013. “The main difference between working here and there was transparency—a yes is not a yes and no not a no in China. I didn’t enjoy it.”
For Cheung, though, the bicontinental experience boosts Landa: “We grew up here and understand both cultures,” he says of the co-founders. It also prompts him to suggest that Vancouver needs to move away from its “small fishing town mentality” and embrace a new role as an attractive metropolitan city that’s a magnet for the world. Luckily for Cheung, he hopes to add “architecturally interesting” towers to the skyline, thanks to deeper pockets than many developers his age. Backed by money from his and Wang’s family (who are also in real estate in Shanghai), the
20-strong Landa team is spending $116 million to develop dual-tower Cascade City in Richmond and $30 million at its Chateau Laurier project on Oak Street. The company is also co-developing another two towers to the tune of $600 million—with a new park and rental housing, Cheung notes— on Alberni Street in the West End. (The site sold in early 2016 for about $160 million, almost twice the amount paid two years before.)
Just don’t call them offshore developers. In 2015, news reports highlighted the then-eye-popping $11 million that Landa shelled out for the former Burritt Bros. site on Vancouver’s Main Street—set to become a $30-million development of 42 new homes. Cheung wonders whether the property would have got the ink if “some local Caucasian” had bought it. “Anyway, through our projects and buildings, we are going to prove them otherwise,” he adds of critics. “I love the city—we’re heavily committed here and want to be here long-term and grow our reputation.”
Meanwhile, he’d like any future offspring to be raised in B.C. “You don’t think about how you’re growing up in an astronaut family when you’re in it,” Cheung says. “But if I had a family, I would really want us to stick together here.”
Three things about….Kevin Cheung
1. A “self-learner,” Cheung taught himself to assemble his own computer after researching and buying all the parts. “I built most of the ones in my office, in fact–nobody really knows that,” he says. “I find fiddling with computers on a Saturday morning, say, very de-stressing.”
2. He trained with a badminton coach in Shanghai and now plays at the Vancouver Lawn Tennis & Badminton Club. “He was the equivalent to a national coach standard here, so I want to keep that going,” Cheung says.
3. With Chinese culture celebrating turning 29 as Westerners might mark 30, he had family parties for the milestone birthday in Vancouver and Shanghai. “Although culturally, turning 40 or 50 means even more,” he observes.