The original plan had been to meet Allan Zeman in a restaurant, but shortly before leaving I get a message telling me the venue has been changed to his office. “I’m not really a restaurateur,” he tells me later in explanation,“ so I don’t want to give that impression. I’m really a property developer. I moved beyond restaurants years ago.”
So here I am, seated in front of Zeman’s vast desk in the office he shares with a couple of assistants and an enormous, eclectic and colourful collection of art and artefacts. Windows line three sides of the space, which feels as much of a den as a workplace, on an upper floor overlooking the lower reaches of Wyndham Street in Central. We’re just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Lan Kwai Fong restaurant and entertainment area that Zeman began redeveloping in the early 1980s and with which he’s synonymous. If he swivels his desk chair, he can gaze up towards the residential towers and greenery of the Mid-Levels, though I doubt this driven individual ever has time for that.
I’m meeting Zeman to talk about his journey from a childhood in Canada, where he displayed a talent for making money at an unusually young age, to the past half century that he’s spent living in Hong Kong, a 50-year period in which he made the transition from an upstart teenage millionaire exporting garments around the world to one of this city’s most prominent business magnates, with interests in real estate, entertainment and a whole lot else. Having swapped his Canadian citizenship for a Chinese passport more than a decade ago, he’s also become an unofficial – and outspoken – advocate for Hong Kong and its future under the mainland, a subject we inevitably get on to during our hour-long chat.
Brought up in Montreal during the 1950s and ’60s, Zeman was actually born in southern Germany to refugee Polish Jewish parents who’d somehow managed to survive the Holocaust. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re German.’ No, but it was my place of birth,” he explains in a soft drawl that occasionally descends almost to a whisper. From there the family moved to Canada, though his father died when Zeman was a boy. “My memory of my father is a picture of him holding my hand. I don’t remember much more.”
Brought up by a working single mother, Zeman decided at the age of 10 that he needed money, so he took on a job delivering newspapers, which he’d do before going to school and earned him $20 a week. “It was very good money – I was living a good life!” he says, though evidently not quite good enough, because two years later he got another job, cleaning tables in a Montreal steakhouse at weekends. “Together with the newspapers I was earning about $50 a week and my teachers were only making about 35!”
Although smart enough to be in what he calls the “brain class”, which meant Latin (“Who the hell speaks Latin? Why would we want to learn that?”) as well as science, by the age of 16 Zeman had had enough of school. He wanted to be a businessman – “because that’s what I was already” – and soon found a job as a shipping clerk with a lingerie company. “I thought that lingerie sounded good [laughs], though I didn’t even know what a shipping clerk did … And that’s how I got acquainted with the garment industry. I was going to university at night, but I just loved the fact of working. I couldn’t get my head around just sitting in a class and having a teacher tell me things – my style was always to experience things for myself.”
True to form, Zeman soon realised that richer pickings were to be had elsewhere, so a year later he began trawling the classifieds again and found that the largest dress company in Canada was looking for a showroom salesman. “I had no idea about ladies’ dresses, but I thought that I’d apply for the job anyway,” which, of course, he got – along with a salary that, as he puts it, “had just gone through the roof”. He spent two years criss-crossing Western Canada on sales missions, but yet again the ambition kicked in and he decided to set up on his own, importing ladies’ garments into Canada.
“At that time,” Zeman says, “Hong Kong was the factory of the world – all the factories were in Kwai Chung and Kwun Tong – so when I was 19, somebody tied me up with a young guy in the UK called Richard Caring. Today he’s a big restaurateur in London, but then he was importing dresses and ladies’ sweaters, and we set up a company and came out to Hong Kong together.”
In that first year on his own – and remember, he was only 19 – he also made his first million, though became somewhat disillusioned when, after tax deductions, he ended up with “just” $425,000. Which, again, got him thinking.
“Our first buying office in Hong Kong was Swire & Maclaine – we were kids and we’d been told they were a good company. Lydia Dunn [now Baroness Dunn], who was the CEO at the time, took us on, and when I was on a buying trip here I asked her what the tax rate was in Hong Kong. She told me it was 15 percent. I said, ‘What?’ I thought I might as well move here, so I could keep more
of my money. When I told my mother, she looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to move to Japan?’
“I never thought I’d go back [to Canada],” says Zeman. “Even the first time, flying into Kai Tak airport and making that turn, when you felt you could put your hand out and grab the washing off the lines on the roofs … I loved the energy, the people, the can-do spirit and the feeling at that time that everything was possible. The first thing we did was to set up our own trading company, which was called Colby & Stanton – it sounded very grand and official, but we just called a lawyer and they had about about 100 names on a list. Our first office was a tiny room in Shell House on the corner of Queen’s Road, where Marks & Spencer is now.”
The business grew quickly – so quickly, in fact, that Zeman found himself owning six companies in Canada – but as he also discovered the crippling cost of renting office space, he bought his first property here, and in doing so laid the foundations of what’s now his predominant business activity. “In those days,” he says, “you could put down just 5 percent, so I thought, ‘What’s my downside? If I lose, all I lose is 5 percent.’
Although steadily building up his property holdings, Zeman stayed in the garment business for around 25 years, during which time he and partners Caring and, later, Bruce Rockowitz set up offices in 36 locations around the world, including China, which was only just opening up as a global manufacturing centre. Zeman fondly remembers travelling around the mainland on packed overnight trains and once even arguing his way on to an overbooked flight, on which he sat on a stool in the aisle for the duration. “It was a different world,” he says. “I saw the changes taking place in China at such a young age.”
“I loved the energy, the people, the can-do spirit and the feeling that everything was possible”Allan Zeman
What in retrospect was probably the second major turning point in his career took place in 1983, when he opened California restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong. I ask him what it was about this otherwise unremarkable backstreet in Central.
“Because I was so smart!” he says with a laugh, before explaining that his sizeable restaurant portfolio grew out of his need to hold on to an American-born clothes designer who was threatening to return to San Francisco, where her boyfriend worked as a chef. Desperate not to lose her, he offered a solution. “‘Why don’t you bring him out here and I’ll open a restaurant?’ And that was the brainchild behind Lan Kwai Fong!”
As for the area’s potential, he says, “I always look at things not for what they are, but for what they could be. I look beyond. The street talked to me. It was a block from Queen’s Road and though there was a slope and there were a lot of things going against it, I just looked at the buildings and I thought about a nightlife area in Montreal where all the bars and restaurants were, and I thought, ‘Why not Hong Kong?’”
He brought designers in from Japan, “because the Japanese in those days were more American than the Americans”, and soon after the restaurant’s opening he noticed that clients would drift off after 10pm to Disco Disco and 1997, both of which were just around the corner. His solution was to hire a DJ of his own. “Actually Gilbert Yeung, now of Dragon-i, was one of my first DJs. And we started to do really well, and all these stars – Faye Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat, Jacky Chan, you name it – hung out there. Lan Kwai Fong had this magic at the time – and I became known as Mr Lan Kwai Fong.”
To put the area on the map and keep customers coming back for more, Zeman also began staging a regular programme of events. “I was the first one to do Halloween,” he says. “No one knew what Halloween was, apart from a few gweilos who got dressed up – and the Chinese thought they were crazy – but the second year I saw some Chinese dressed up and the third year … and suddenly it became Chinese! And once every six weeks we had an event, beer festivals, you name it.
“I probably had about 20 restaurants, and I rented out lots of places, so there were eventually about 100. I’d had no experience running restaurants and I don’t drink – if you ask me about alcohol I know absolutely nothing. I hired people who knew. But I’d worked in the fashion business and I was always creative. But it was never really me, it was the people who made the place.”
As for his fashion interests, Zeman and his partners had intended taking Colby public at the tail end of the ’90s, but the crash of the dotcom boom put paid to that idea and they pulled the IPO at the last minute, selling out to their biggest competitor, Li & Fung, shortly afterwards. It wasn’t long after this that Zeman received a series of phone calls from Hong Kong’s then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, asking him if he’d be prepared to take over the running of Ocean Park.
“I’d never had any experience doing anything like that,” is Zeman’s by-now familiar refrain, “but he kept calling me. Disneyland was coming and the park was falling apart, the paint was peeling … I thought I’d better go and take a look – and on the cable car overlooking Deep Water Bay, I thought, ‘My God, this is amazing.’ So I said, ‘Look CH, I know nothing about theme parks, I’ll take the job but you’ve got to support me, I’ve got other businesses to run.
“I knew I had to get people in who knew something about running a park, just like I did with my restaurant businesses, so I hired a strong management team, led by Tom Mehrmann, who’d been at Knott’s Berry Farm in the States and Warner Bros Movie World – and I came up with a plan so that Ocean Park could continue to exist. We set up a blackboard and I asked, ‘What is Disney and What is Ocean Park?’ Disney’s an import and Ocean Park’s local, Disney’s about fantasy and it’s mechanical, if you go there one day, it’s exciting – if you go there the next day, it’s the same. Whereas Ocean Park’s about education, conservation, live animals, green, the ocean – all the new buzzwords – we called it edutainment. We hired designers from around the world and said: forget the cost, let’s just do the best, because we’re up against Disney.”
The HK$5.5 billion redevelopment that he set in motion expanded the park’s offering to more than attractions and revitalised its appeal: in terms of visitor numbers, Ocean Park outstripped Hong Kong Disneyland for 12 years straight. “Normally,” says Zeman, “when Disney comes to a place the local parks go down. We also won the Applause Award, which is like the academy awards of theme parks, which was really something for Hong Kong.” Playing his part like a true team member, Zeman says he even “dressed up as a jellyfish or some other crazy costume” every time there was a new event or attraction, which as he didn’t have much in the way of an advertising budget garnered plenty of free publicity.
He stepped down as chairman in 2014, though still retains a relationship with the park through his position as honorary advisor. The Lan Kwai Fong Group, of which he remains chairman (his son, Jonathan, is CEO), holds a portfolio of property, hospitality, restaurant and media interests in Hong Kong, the mainland and Thailand, while Zeman serves on the boards of numerous companies and organisations, from the Sino property group and Wynn Macau to the Hong Kong Airport Authority – not bad for a man who claims to have known very little about just about every business venture he’s ever been involved in.
And then, of course, there’s that Chinese passport, which Zeman exchanged for his Canadian citizenship some 13 years ago. “I saw the changes taking place in China,” he says. “I saw the future of Hong Kong and I really felt that this was my home, this was where I lived and it was right to have a Chinese passport.
“I believe very strongly in Hong Kong’s future – in one country, two systems – I’ve seen the changes taking place in China and I tell everybody: the future is China. OK, people criticise the Chinese system, but in 30 years it’s brought 700 million people out of poverty. It used to be the East coming to the West; the future is the West coming to the East.
“I know people are worried about the Security Law and losing our freedom, but no, it’s only going to get stronger and stronger. One country two system will remain, but the two systems that people are used to will change. Hong Kong will become more Chinafied, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
And with that affirmation of his belief in Hong Kong’s future, there’s time for just one more question. What does this man who, at the age of 71 is still a whirlwind of ideas and activity, do when he isn’t working? “I don’t work,” says Zeman with a soft laugh. “I play.”
This story first appeared on Prestige Online – Hong Kong