Instead, the Singaporean TV broadcaster has recently flown back home – in the middle of a pandemic – to open Joy Luck Teahouse, a chain of kiosks serving the best of Hong Kong snacks, such as egg tarts, pineapple buns and curried fish balls.
Many would say it’s crazy to launch a new business during a global health and economic crisis, but Robert is no stranger to starting something new in troubled times. When he was hired by Hong Kong’s TVB to set up the station in 1967, the former British colony was plagued by civil unrest, fuelled by China’s Cultural Revolution.
“People thought we would fail,” Robert recalls. “Enjoy Yourself Tonight was broadcasted live, every night, from Monday to Friday. And it was the first time I did a live show. I don’t know why I was never nervous, even on the very first night.” The show became a runaway success and carried on for 28 years, making it one of the longest-running live TV programmes in the world.
That self-confidence he had at 21 years old still emanates from the veteran today. “If you’re passionate about something, everything will work out naturally,” says Robert, who also brought Michelin-starred establishments Tim Ho Wan and Kam’s Roast to Singapore. “It’s my dream to see Joy Luck Teahouse become world-famous,” he adds. “I know it’s possible because of the people I’m working with – the team has been fantastic.”
He believes that his passion – be it for food or television – led him to establish extraordinary relationships and connections. “People know my reputation, that I’m someone who’s very serious about my work,” he elaborates. “Take Tim Ho Wan, for example. Why would they award me and my brother in Singapore the franchise when we have no experience whatsoever? They gave it to us because they trust me.”
The same goes with Joy Luck, which took Robert over a year to secure partnerships with three of Hong Kong’s F&B institutions: Hoover Cake Shop (for its egg tarts), Kam Kee Cafe (for its pineapple “bolo” buns and milk tea) and Tak Hing Fishball Company (for its curried fish balls). “The owners work with me because they respect me and the work that I’ve done. We’re all friends now,” he says. “I’m very fortunate that Hong Kong and its people have been very good to me.”
Switching from broadcasting to F&B may seem dramatic, but Robert thinks both industries share more similarities than differences. “Opening a restaurant is like creating a TV show. The food is the programme. The chef is the producer. If people don’t like your food, you’ll have to change and adapt it for the market. The equivalent of prime time for television in F&B is location. You pay a lot of money for a good one. If you think about it, both are people businesses doing things that are consumed.”
While Joy Luck Teahouse, like Tim Ho Wan and Kam’s Roast, is a product of Hong Kong, Robert is determined to give back to his home country this time. Designed as a “social enterprise”, the teahouse offers those aged 60 and above a 50 per cent discount on its Milk Tea and 8 Treasures Tea when they present their Merdeka or Pioneer Generation cards.
More than that, he wants to help aspiring young entrepreneurs and retirees build something of their own. “Potential franchisees will have to be interviewed by us. They must be hands-on and passionate. We don’t want people to do it just for the money, so they can’t own more than one outlet.”
Robert had planned to open his second branch in Bugis a week or two after the August opening of the first outlet at ION Orchard (#B4-61), but there’s been some delays, as expected, due to the Circuit Breaker here. Unfazed by Covid-19, the intrepid businessman is already on to new menu items for the brand. “The next thing we’re trying to bring in is chee cheong fun. We’re also working on a Milo Yuenyeung – adding chocolate malt in Hong Kong’s famous coffee milk tea.”
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(Main image: Photography by Simon Sim; Art Direction by Ang Poh Lee)