Going Global: A Visit to Lo Country
Martin Lo is just one of the leaders of the Chinese boatbuilder Cheoy Lee: The others are his seven brothers. Each brother has the word Director printed on his business card. “It works better than you might think,” Lo said during a walk through the shipyard last year. “We have surprisingly few disagreements. We all want this business to succeed, after all.”
I had come to Cheoy Lee’s Hin Lee facility in mainland China, located in Doumen, about 60 miles west of Hong Kong, to watch Marco Polo receive its finishing touches just before its delivery to Maritime Concept and Construction. Cheoy Lee (the two Chinese characters mean “profitable” and “well-run”) can build vessels in steel, aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon composite—an unusually broad range of materials for a boatbuilder. Marco Polo has a steel hull, a fiberglass composite superstructure, and carbon fiber beams and girders.
Cheoy Lee, now run by the fourth generation of the family that founded it, began in 1870 in Shanghai as a builder of steam-powered vessels. In 1936 it moved to Hong Kong, where it diversified into teak sailing yachts and motor yachts. During the 1960s it helped pioneer the use of fiberglass to manufacture boats. “My father, Lo Po, saw the trend coming,” Martin Lo said as he strolled through the yard in white overalls. “In 1975 we built the biggest fiberglass yacht in the world at the time, the 130-foot Shango II.”
In the 1980s Cheoy Lee began producing the 61- to 103-foot semicustom motor yachts for which it is best known in the United States. In 1999, after its Hong Kong site was purchased to make way for a new Disneyland, the company moved to its present site on the Pearl River in Doumen. Here, most of its 1,000-plus craftsmen live in five-story dormitories near the yard, putting in an enormous number of hours each week. Martin Lo is no exception. “In the morning I talk to Australia, in the afternoon to Europe, in the night to the United States,” he says.
Cheoy Lee builds about 25 boats per year, everything from ferries and high-powered tugboats to custom superyachts. Lo hopes that the Marco Polo expedition vessel represents another line of business, although he admits that the prospect gives him pause. “We never intended to be so busy,” he says. “Most yards in China specialize in commercial boats or in pleasure yachts, but not both at the same time.”
Cheoy Lee, 954.527.0999, www.cheoylee.com