Frank Tsao Wen King, founder of International Maritime Carriers (IMC), has died in Singapore at 94 after a long retirement.

The shipowner was head of one of the founding exile Chinese families who fled Communism to form the postwar Hong Kong shipowning elite.

Along with the Sohmen-Pao family, the Tsaos were one of the two most prominent clans to uproot themselves again around the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Over a tenure of nearly 30 years, he expanded the group from shipowning and trading to shoreside businesses including terminals, shipyards and international real estate before passing his mantle at the age of 70 in 1994 to his son Chavalit Frederick Tsao.

But the patriarch remained actively interested in all aspects of the business until about six years ago, said group executives.

"All my life, I've been working," he told TradeWinds in an interview just after he retired.

"I never take any holidays. I work very hard from morning to night. It's become a habit."

Tsao, a native of Shanghai and a graduate of its elite St Johns University, played a key role in the revival of his native country's trading economy during the Deng Xiaoping era of reform and opening.

He remained a benefactor of several universities in China as well as Hong Kong and Singapore.

He also established close ties to the government of his adopted home of Singapore, and helped Malaysia set up its flagship Malaysian International Shipping Corp during the 1960s, for which Malaysia awarded him the honorific title of Tan Sri.

He was a former chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners' Association.