Desmond Chang, whose company makes porcelain tableware for many of the top tables in Asia, tells Mavis Teo how a near-death experience changed his outlook on life completely.
Save for the corners of his eyes that crinkle when he smiles, there is nothing about his appearance that gives away the age of Desmond Chang. His affable disposition also belies the 52-year-old’s position as chief executive officer and head of creative resources at Inhesion Asia, which is headquartered in Hong Kong and the holding company of Legle and RUYI. These two high-end porcelain brands supply about 60 per cent of Michelin-starred restaurants in China and Hong Kong, and a good number of such establishments in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Thailand.
Over brunch at Claudine, the brasserie at Dempsey by Julien Royer of Odette, which Legle designs for, Chang reveals he only works five to six hours a day on average. And to the envy of most people, he gets to sleep nine hours a night – a fact he adds brightly, probably pleased at the amount of self-care he gives himself. This is no mean feat, considering that Chang has three children aged two to six with celebrated Taiwanese chef, Chen Lanshu, whom he married in 2016.
By the time the first of our sharing plates arrives, Chang would probably have given me an initial impression of being a flâneur and bon vivant thanks to his knowledge of fine cuisine and wines, if not for the fact that I know about his personal achievements and how far the company has come under his direction. Not only is he in the top management, he is also a designer of RUYI.
Born in Sri Lanka to Jeffrey Chang, the founder of Inhesion, Chang had spent his formative years in Toronto. Gifted in both the arts and numbers, the second of three boys went on to graduate with a degree in fine art from Queen’s University in Ontario, which only accepted 30 first-year students a year at that time. He had turned down offers to study chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and business at the University of Toronto.
During his formative years in Canada, Inhesion evolved from porcelain printing to trading in tableware, before moving into manufacturing with the opening of a plant in Malaysia in 1993. Although the senior Chang did not put any pressure on his sons to join the family business, an apprenticeship at Precision Studio, the printing division of Wedgewood in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, fuelled Chang’s interest in porcelain. In fact, when he was 14, his mother had arranged for him to wash dishes after school at a country club where he observed first-hand the amount of physical handling crockery had to undergo.
After graduating from university, Chang joined Inhesion’s Shenzhen outpost, where he admits he had crossed some senior staff who were not happy with taking instructions from someone they perceived to be an upstart. They were also sceptical of his efforts to revitalise the company, which had been running at a loss for two years. Within two years, Chang had turned its fortunes around.
After his pressure-cooker stint in Shenzhen, he took a year of well-deserved break, during which he indulged in practising Wing Chun and riding a motorbike while he attended a post-graduate degree course in international business at the University of California, Los Angeles. He subsequently returned to the fold in 1997 and based himself in Hong Kong, commuting between the city and Shenzhen for the next few years as he moved his porcelain printing operations to a factory in the latter. In 2000, Chang moved again – to Shanghai. In 2006, he had his first collaboration with a chef – Paul Pairet, chef-owner of Ultraviolet in Shanghai.
2009 would prove to be the next major milestone in Chang’s career. He led Inhesion to take a majority stake in Legle, a venerated French porcelain-maker founded in 1890. “We knew the fourth-generation owners like what they do a lot, and felt the small company could gain more exposure if partnered with the right company,” says Chang, who saw Asia’s potential thanks to the growing demand for fine dining and its accoutrements.
The businessman, who also works with his two brothers, was right on the money. Decorated chefs who later entered into lasting collaborative relationships with Inhesion include Umberto Bombana of 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Julien Royer of Odette (for whom he created Legle’s Espace collection in 2016), Shinobu Namae of L’Effervescence, and Chan Yan-tak of Lung King Heen at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong.
As I am wondering about the seemingly carefree attitude behind these stellar successes, Chang throws a curveball into our conversation. “I divide my life into pre-2011 and post-2011”, he offers. “In 2011, I had an aortic rupture and had only a 15 per cent chance of survival.”
Yet there were only two specialists in Shanghai who were experienced with handling a case like his. One was out of the country, while the other one who had just completed a few back-to-back surgeries was reluctant to take on another case he wasn’t confident of performing successfully. Through the personal connections of his ex-wife, Chang’s life was saved after an intensive seven-hour surgery the second doctor eventually agreed to. It took six months before the man felt fit enough to resume some daily activities and work.
This brush with death transformed Chang. Grateful for his new lease of life, he decided to cut back on excesses, which included long working hours and corporate entertainment to foster business relationships. “Pre-2011, I was too greedy,” reflects Chang, who goes on to explain that he was too ambitious, and wanted to seize all opportunities to “build the empire”.
Post-2011, Chang decided that he didn’t want to waste any more of his time doing things that he didn’t enjoy or like. “I started asking myself, if I had only so much time left, what would I want to do and I realised it wasn’t business.”
Interestingly, it was when he scaled back on work that he achieved most of his creative breakthroughs. In 2012, the Mandarin-fluent Chang, who is also very passionate about Chinese heritage, launched Ruyi Gastronomy. The objective of Ruyi Gastronomy is to educate the public, through collaborations with the top chefs, on the grandeur and history of Chinese cuisine, which seems to have been obliterated to a large extent, with most of what’s left going unnoticed and under-appreciated.
By 2018, the concept of Ruyi has evolved so much that Chang launched a separate porcelain brand under Inhesion called RUYI, which is entirely designed by him. Response to it has been so positive that a retail range is now in the works. To date, Ruyi Gastonomy has also launched nine chapters – with the current one in Chengdu. The next and 10th one will be in Hong Kong in the near future.
Pre-2011, Chang had made a conscious decision not to have children. “I was selfish. I wanted to dedicate all my time and resources to myself only,” he adds, revealing that he changed his mind in his 40s. It also helped that post-2011, he had found the woman he wanted to have a family with. Chen is one of Asia’s top chefs, who put Taiwan on the global map of fine dining with her now-defunct French restaurant Le Mout in the backwater city of Taichung.
Crediting Chen as a friend-turned-saviour during his medical crisis, Chang says that she was so deeply concerned for his well-being that she expended a lot of resources getting him the best post-operative care, and encouraging him on his road to recovery.
Now, the creative honcho lives in Taipei with Chen and their three children, professing to enjoy fatherhood – and life at large. While he says work is kept separate from their married life, food is still a common interest that takes up a large part of their conversations. “Lanshu and I spend a lot of time chatting over daily breakfast, which can easily take up three or four hours, after the nannies take away the kids.”
In the meantime, Chang is focused on getting RUYI’s first-ever retail collection right. And he’s not rushing things: “It will be available for retail in two years. We do things very slowly.”
This story first appeared in the Nov 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.