Cheng was born in rural Shunde District in Guangdong, the son of a tailor, and fled to Macau in 1940, ahead of the advancing Japanese occupation force. The goldsmith owner of the Chow Tai Fook store there took him on as an apprentice and he eventually married the boss's daughter. They moved to Hong Kong in 1946 and opened the company’s first store there.
He had four children, the eldest of whom, Henry Cheng, born 1946, is chairman of New World Development and related businesses.
Shortly before his death, Forbes listed him 58th wealthiest in the world and 3rd in Hong Kong with US$16.6 billion, and was at one time listed by Bloomberg as high as 34th.
He founded and owned Chow Tai Fook Enterprises, a conglomerate which operates the Sheraton Marina hotel and controls the publicly listed property developer New World group, which Cheng founded in 1970. Cheng’s wealth originated from his jewellery Business, Chow Tai Fook. Cheng’s grandson, Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, is set to inherit part of Chow Tai Fook and the Hong Kong-listed New World group, active in property and infrastructure. He also had interests in Shun Tak Holdings, and Macau casino operator Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau, owned by Stanley Ho.
Cheng spent the last four years of his life in bed after suffering a brain haemorrhage in 2012 and undergoing a major operation. He was unconscious before he died.