PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 29, 2012
Mr Lan Kwai Fong
Hong Kong could have been a very different place without Allan Zeman, the man who singlehandedly reinvented the city’s nightlife 30 years ago. By Shu-Ching Jean Chen
ALLAN Zeman was born to a Jewish family in Germany to Polish parents after World War Two. His family moved to Canada shortly afterwards. Sixty-four years later, he carries with him a home-return permit, to China.
The permit was issued in 2008 by China's Public Security Bureau. Only Chinese nationals in two self-ruled former colonies, Macau and Hong Kong, can apply for the permit which gives them hassle-free passage through Chinese immigration, and the privilege does not extend to everyone.
Mr Zeman was the second high-profile westerner, and probably the first foreign-born businessman, to acquire Chinese nationality, following Mike Rowse, a former top official promoting Hong Kong to the international business community.
It's a recognition of Mr Zeman's contribution to Hong Kong, his home for 45 years, where people of all stripes - from tycoons to taxi drivers and policemen - not only know him by name, but by heart, and many of them possess two passports. While for them it was automatic, Mr Zeman had to go the extra mile of renouncing his Canadian passport.
"At this stage of my life, I feel more Chinese than western," he says, during our conversation in a VIP suite in Macau Tower. "I know China more than I know the West."
Just a few minutes earlier, he was surrounded by Hong Kong reporters, prodding him for his comments on the government's controversial proposal to enforce "patriotic" national education touting the line of history from the viewpoint of Beijing. "Maybe the government's effort to sell it to people was not done the right way, maybe the devil is in the details," he told them, wrinkles gathering on his youthful-looking face as he raised his eyebrows. "They should withdraw it now. It's too controversial. We can review it a year later, to rewrite a policy everyone would agree on. Its important that you listen to the people."
For most of his career, Mr Zeman has been all-gracious and all-smiling. He rests his hand on the table. On one wrist he sports a big black leather watch, the other is adorned with bracelets in silver and leather.
Hong Kong could have been a very different place without him. Known as the father of Lan Kwai Fong, the bustling night entertainment district at the heart of the city's prime business area, Mr Zeman singlehandedly reinvented Hong Kong's nightlife 30 years ago. He kick-started the sprawling real estate development project by accident, beginning in 1983 when he opened a top-end western restaurant called California on a street teeming with hawkers and marriage arrangers. It was a narrow street called Lan Kwai Fong, then better known informally as "marriage arrangers' lane".
Locals also fondly remember him for his spirited leadership as chairman of Ocean Park, a government-owned theme park. Nine years into the job, he turned this one-time financial embarrassment into a stunning success, lifting it to become the world's 11th largest theme park by annual guest attendance, which approached seven million last year, and No 1 in greater China, according to consultancy firm AECOM Economics.
Ocean Park has also been shortlisted among the top three finalists for the "Applause Award", organised by Liseberg Amusement Park in Sweden, the equivalent of the Oscars in the global theme park industry. The winner will be announced in November.
Mr Zeman's home-return permit greatly eases his hectic travel schedule to the mainland. Almost every week, he is on a plane to some second-tier Chinese city (it will be Qingdao the next morning). He has answered calls from local government officials in as many as 15 Chinese cities, all of whom are wooing him to develop another Lan Kwai Fong in their midst. Many top Chinese officials have experienced Lan Kwai Fong at first hand and have obviously been impressed by what they've seen.
"In the second-tier cities, people used to go quiet at night. They went to bed early. But now everyone wants to go out," says Mr Zeman. "China is ready for Lan Kwai Fong. People need entertainment. They work hard; they have houses; they buy a car. The next stage for them is to enjoy life. The thing they lack is entertainment. People have nothing to do before going to bed. Most people are looking forward to a Lan Kwai Fong."
The expansion of the leisure and entertainment business also fits in well with the changing priorities of the Chinese economy. Consumer spending accounts for only about 33 per cent of China's GDP (less than half of that in the US) and the government wants to increase it, especially given the slowdown in China's exports, which have been the main driver of economic growth.
"The government thinks LKF fits into its planning," Mr Zeman explains. "They cannot control the Western world but they will try to increase domestic demand. They are really serious about it, putting more money into the system, putting more money in people's hands."
Mr Zeman does not have to start from scratch. In Chengdu, in China's Sichuan province, he was invited to develop a Lan Kwai Fong that the local government had already set up. To tap into the local culture, he has employed a local management team and has personally trained the top manager, who previously worked for a shopping mall. "I really believe in using the locals," he says. "People are people. Everyone is the same. It's really about working with the staff and providing the leadership."
Three years on, the project has been a runaway success. "At first, I thought Chengdu was not for me," says Mr Zeman. "The lifestyle is very laid-back. Even if they have 10 renminbi, they spend 12. Everyone saves elsewhere in China, but not in Chengdu."
The original Lan Kwai Fong was conceived in Hong Kong as a venue for drinking and eating, whereas China's version will be a creative cousin, with trend-setting retail shops. It will also host some of the raucous festivals and carnivals which are held at regular intervals in China, as well as special celebrations such as Halloween and the beer festival, which are mainstays in Hong Kong.
Soon there will be a Lan Kwai Fong in Haikou, off Hainan island's Mission Hills golf resort. In the next five years, Mr Zeman plans to create others in four cities: Ningbo, Qingdao, Wuhan, and Wuxi, at a total cost of about HK$4 billion. These will be financed by funds raised from investors. And there will be even more after that.
What would an ideal Lan Kwai Fong in China look like? Mr Zeman envisions it as an area about 25 per cent bigger than Hong Kong's, with an equal mix of food and beverages and retail. Explaining the business logic of this arrangement, he says: "Retail pays a lot higher rental income than F&B. So, in order to balance out the payback, it would need retail."
Back home in Hong Kong, he will unveil a modern 25-storey tower in the original Lan Kwai Fong early next year after having torn down the old buildings two years ago. Modelled as a lifestyle building, it will house a fitness club, his company headquarters and six floors of restaurants and bars, many making their debut in Hong Kong.
"Lifestyle" is hardly a concept one would easily associate with China, or old Hong Kong for that matter. When Mr Zeman arrived in the then British colony as a teenager in the 1960s, he was greeted by throngs of bicycle riders, topless local men wearing pyjama pants and British expatriates speaking in heavy-accented English that he could barely comprehend. "It was like landing on the moon," he jokes.
China was even more out of the loop. When he set up his first office 36 years ago in Changsha, in China's Hunan province, nightlife was non-existent. Dinner at hotels was served at 4.30pm or 5pm and there was no food to be found in the fridges after the chefs went home. The electricity was switched off at night, leaving guests to play ping-pong by candlelight.
That office, an outpost of his Hong Kong-based company, Colby International, an apparel and accessories trading company, grew rapidly with China's economic rise. Mr Zeman eventually sold it to Li & Fung, the global supply-chain company.
Steve Wynn, of Las Vegas casino fame, recognised his friend's Chinese insights and enlisted Mr Zeman as an independent board director when construction was under- way at Wynn Macau six years ago. When the company was listed in 2006, he promoted Mr Zeman to vice-chairman, his No 2 in the corporate hierarchy. (Wynn Macau has just opened a new hotel on the newly-developed Cotai Strip, part of a yet-to-be-finished mega resort.)
That is what brings Mr Zeman to Macau regularly these days. Earlier in the day, he was moderating a panel discussion to promote tourism at Macau's inaugural Global Tourism Economy Forum. "China is a totally different market. I helped (Mr Wynn) understand the Chinese mentality. Macau is a different world. It's a different culture. The food is different. The expectations of the guests are different. The kind of games they play, baccarat, everything, is different," he says.
For someone so closely associated with some of Asia's most decadent forms of entertainment, Mr Zeman leads a surprisingly sedate lifestyle himself. He does not smoke, drink alcohol, or gamble. Every morning at 6.30, he shows up at the gym, working on a daily regimen for an hour and 20 minutes. He has a personal gym at work, and a big one in his house.
"The most important thing for everyone is to exercise," he says. "You have to have balance your life; you need to take some form of relaxation, to balance the stress in your life."
At times, it seems that Mr Zeman wears too many hats, but he has a simple recipe to help himself cope. "I like to take things a day at a time," he explains. "I have a vision, I have a long-term plan, but every day, you have problems and you solve them on a daily basis.... The most important thing is that you must do things one at a time.
"I always stay ahead of the curve, just one step ahead, he adds. "And we don't put ourselves under pressure. That's why we've always been privately held. I don't like being public."
In promoting a new venture, he can be relentless, sparing no effort. For example, when he promoted Ocean Park he appeared dressed as a frog, a ghost bride, and recently donned Arctic clothing, in the midst of Hong Kong's summer heat, to promote the park's new polar adventure.
He is also meticulous about doing his homework. When he developed Ocean Park, he began by drawing up a list of the strengths of its crosstown rival, Hong Kong Disney, which was strong on castles and fantasy; and another list, of Ocean Park's strengths - concern about the environment and edutainment. "I realised there was a real difference. We could have another identity," he says.
His formula was a winner. This summer, Ocean Park attracted the highest monthly visitor numbers in its 35-year history. Mr Zeman also won a somewhat reluctant nod to extend his tenure for another two years from the new government led by C Y Leung, who won a hotly-contested election against the man Mr Zeman publicly endorsed.
In the public mind, Mr Zeman is viewed as a happy-maker, a creator of enjoyable experiences. An incurable optimist, he also enjoys what he does. "You must be very positive in your life," he counsels. "Be positive in everything you do. If you are a can-do person, you can do everything. I rarely get upset. You never hear me shout or yell at anyone. Any day can be bad. But tomorrow is going to be better."
That spirit has anchored his serial entrepreneurial successes, which began at 19, when he set up his own garment export company in Hong Kong, after working as a travelling salesman in Canada.
Ever since then, there has been no boundary separating his work from his life. "It's been all enjoyment; I've never worked in my life," he says. "From day one, I've enjoyed my work. I've always been independent, always been free."
His journey has also charted through a dramatic, extraordinary period for China, his adopted country. "It's like I've been living in a history book," he says. "My life has been like a movie."