27 Nov 2023 | 3 mins
No house, no worries: Vendors who razed their home look to smash Mosman’s record - Sydney Morning Herald
10 Nov 2023 | 5 mins
Hong Kong-based businessman and philanthropist James Chen says time spent on a Texan ranch working for an American family as a young man left an indelible imprint.
“Having been born in the city and lived all my life in a city, I thought ’wow, this is such a different life.”
The experience never left him, and was something he wanted his own three children to experience, along with his wife Su. His dream came true - although the Chens have just put their prestige rural property south of Sydney on the market after 20 years of ownership.
“I said to my wife [many years ago], ‘I hope that our children have the opportunity from a young age, not just as an adult, to have that rural experience.’
Chen’s Australian connection was forged more than 20 years ago, when he met his Malaysian-born, Sydney-schooled wife, Su Chen. Su attended Ascham girls’ school, while her brother went to The Scots College in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – attending the school’s Kangaroo Valley campus Glengarry in year nine.
“I’d never been to Australia until I’d met her, and when I arrived I instantly fell in love with Sydney, as well as her, of course,” Chen says.
In 2003, Su took James for the two-hour drive south of Sydney to explore the area where her brother was schooled. It dawned on Chen the region’s dramatic landscape was the ideal setting to realise his long-held dream.
“We drove down there, and it just happened that this property was available, so we took a look,” Chen says, speaking to the AFR Weekend from a hotel lobby in Singapore. “It ticked all the boxes, what my ideal of a farm would look like.”
Now, two decades on, the Chens have decided to put that ideal farm, now dubbed Ooralba Estate, on the prestige rural market, as time spent in Australia has dwindled now their three children are living in the United Kingdom and the United States.
The property has been listed with Forbes Global’s Ken Jacobs, with a price guide of between $24 million and $26 million. Ooralba is widely considered ‘the valley’s’ finest property and the guide, if achieved, would more than double Kangaroo Valley’s current record. That sits at $9.5 million, set by the sale of a Beaumont retreat to Pacific Equity Partners co-founder Rickard Gardell.
Veteran prestige agent Ken Jacobs says Ooralba is in a league of its own.
“It’s not just the acreage, it’s the drama of the acreage with the escarpment, the natural bush and the open view corridors” Jacobs says. “It’s just so hard to get something like that within a two-hour drive from Sydney. The calibre and design of the residence along with the world-class landscaping further compliment the rarity of this offering.”
For Chen, the towering gums and verdant hills of Kangaroo Valley couldn’t be further from his own childhood, spent in the urban environs of Shanghai, Lagos in Nigeria and later the UK and US.
“It’s such a gem because most of Australia is so arid, but Kangaroo Valley is so lush and green” Chen says. “It’s really something, the peace and quiet, it’s that escape from the hustle and bustle of our life.”
Chen is the third-generation member of the family business, global manufacturing and packaging outfit, Wahum Group Holdings. He is also CEO of the family office Legacy Advisors and chairman of the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation.
Chen’s passion project is Moonshot Philanthropy, with the twin goals of identifying and correcting poor eyesight in developing countries, along with improving early childhood literacy through reading.
“Growing up in Africa and working for a large part of my adult life in developing Asia, it struck me that very few people actually wore glasses, and I realised, oh my god, this is actually a very large issue,” Chen says.
Having been based in Hong Kong for the past two decades, the globetrotting philanthropist sums up his Kangaroo Valley escape, dubbed Ooralba Estate, in one word: “sanctuary.”
“We are flying around all the time. We are busy,” Chen says. “But when we get to Kangaroo Valley, it’s so different from our day-to-day life, and it’s good for our mental health.”
Along with the 93 hectares, Ooralba features a seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom main house which has been reimagined by interior designer Nic Graham.
Originally built as a Santa Fe-style ranch by the former American and Scottish owners, the Chens retained the superstructure but overhauled the interiors, creating a contemporary retreat.
Today Ooralba features soaring ceilings supported by beams salvaged from old Sydney Wharf and polished concrete heated floors covering 2438 square metres of internal, split-level space.
The north wing of the house features two offices and the master bedroom, complete with his and her freestanding baths and a sauna.
The property also comes with a dam, market gardens, an outdoor pizza kitchen and a sculptural ‘amoeba maze’ created by Hugh Main of Spirit Level landscape design. Beyond the gardens, Angus cattle graze the hills, while hens provide eggs for breakfast.
Part of Chen’s desire to have a rural base for his three children – aged 23, 21 and 17 – was to teach them where their food came from.
Chen says growing produce at Ooralba – which comes with beehives and a fruit and nut orchard – gave him a newfound appreciation for food producers, after a hit-and-miss attempt at growing tomatoes.
“One of the early years was very bountiful and we grew these amazing tomatoes, so delicious,” Chen recalls. “The next year we went back again the same time and we saw the tomatoes growing, and almost ready. But for the next two days it just poured. Then the third day we went out, it was really sunny, and all the tomatoes had exploded! We thought ‘oh my god,’ if we were tomato farmers!’
When Chen’s children were in primary school, they were homeschooled, allowing the family to spend about three months of the year at the farm.
During the other nine months, a management team run the property as a wedding venue and corporate retreat. Exclusive use of the estate charges about $12,500 per night for up to 14 people.
In 2017, Channel Nine presenter Sylvia Jeffreys married husband, Sky News host Peter Stefanovic at Ooralba. The much-publicised nuptials were host to a bevvy of Australian TV personalities, who celebrated against the dramatic backdrop of the Kangaroo Valley escarpment, while Jeffreys posed for wedding photos in the property’s cloud-like ‘amoeba maze.’
For Chen, celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary with wife Su just before Covid hit, has been a stand-out memory from their time at Ooralba.
“We invited around fifty of our friends, most from Hong Kong and all over the world,” Chen recalls. “We set up all these glamping tents. That really took our friends out of their comfort zone, for most of them it was the first time they’d slept in a tent!”
Chen says his friends still talk about the experience.
“It turned out to be such a fabulous several days and that happened the year before Covid. We feel so blessed we could have gone there at that time.”
While Chen is pragmatic about the logistics of keeping a farm “on the other side of the world,” the decision to sell has caused some family heartbreak.
“I told my daughter we were selling the farm, and I found her standing by the dam,” Chen recalls. “She had tears in her eyes, and I said, ‘what’s the matter?’ and she said, ‘Dad, you realise you’re selling my childhood.’”
When the Ooralba sells, the Chens will retain some ties to Australia. Those include a luxury apartment in ‘the toaster’ in Sydney’s Circular Quay, along with a special tribute to Chen’s mother located at the Art Gallery of NSW. Called Spirit House, the Chen-family funded buddhist sculpture was created by artist Lee Mingwei.
Each day a wrapped stone is placed in the buddha’s hands. If a stone is present, the visitor may take it with them. When it has served its purpose on their journey, the visitor is invited to return the stone, share their story and allow it to accompany someone else.
Now, as Ooralba has served its purpose for the Chen family, they are ready to hand it over to the next visitor.