Allan Zeman explains why Hong Kong is really home
The chairman of some of Hong Kong’s most famous entertainment centres talks about
becoming a naturalised Chinese businessman
The obvious question you have to ask Allan Zeman, chairman of Lan
Kwai Fong Group, as well as Ocean Park, is: What made you decide to give up your
Canadian passport and become a naturalised Chinese citizen in September?
"I woke up one day and thought to myself, this is really
home," says Zeman, "I sit on all the boards here, and do business
here. But I have no idea, really, what goes on in Canada. I couldn't
even tell you whose government it is. This is my home. I just woke up and thought:
I feel very, very local."
But, he admits, he had no idea he would have to give up his Canadian
passport because China doesn't allow dual-nationality. He also wants
to make it clear that he didn't get special help from his friend Hong Kong Chief
Executive Donald Tsang, or send an assistant to stand in lines for him.
"I just went down to the immigration department and queued up
like everyone else and asked what I had to do. That said, I have to admit
that the officials and all the workers there recognised me, and
immediately became excited, saying: 'The chairman of Lan Kwai Fong and
Ocean Park is becoming one of us.'"
It took about seven months for the paperwork to be processed back in
Canada for Zeman to officially give up his dark blue passport.
"At that point, I have to admit it was very, very strange. I was a
non-entity. I had no country."
He took his letter from the Canadian government to Hong Kong
immigration, and then had to process the application for his home
return permit, which he filed for at China Travel Services. "There I
was in my Armani suit, standing in line with mainlanders holding
newborn babies, and I stood there with them waiting for my 'return to
China' card. It was a bit surreal."
But his paperwork was approved, without a hitch, and last September he
got his three star Hong Kong identity card after living in the territory
for more than 38 years. The next surprise, though, was that Zeman forgot
that to fly to the US (as a member of the board of directors for Wynn
resorts, Zeman needs to make annual trips to Las Vegas), he now needs
a visa. So this time he traipsed down to the US Embassy, and stood in
line. He said the official who approved his visa also told him that he "approved
of Lan Kwai Fong".
Confusing others is now a pastime. He says that just about every time he
goes to the mainland these days, immigration officials protest:
"No, no, no, you're on the wrong line" when they see him queuing with
the Chinese. And they look "totally bewildered" when they see his
identity card. To the US official who said, "But you don't look
Chinese..." he answered: "It's a genetic problem".
Jokes aside, Zeman says: "I feel really very good about it. I
really feel now that I belong. My nationality is Chinese. Psychologically I feel
like I'm a real Hong Konger now. I'm not an expat."
Mr Lan Kwai Fong
In 1983, Zeman opened California Restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, which has since
become an infamous narrow street known for partying in Central, Hong Kong.
A year later he bought the entire block. He now owns roughly 65% of the district's
properties and as chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Concepts controls more than
a dozen restaurants.
Five years ago, then-Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, asked
Zeman to become the chairman of Ocean Park and fight the war against
the mighty mouse residing at the then newly built Hong Kong Disneyland.
At first the odds were against Zeman as the not-for-profit park was deemed
by many as tired and run as if it wasn't meant to make money. He brought a
business sense to the park and won local support from Hong Kongers who grew
up on the now 29-year-old park as well as curious mainlanders. It now
lures more than 4 million visitors each year, about on par with
Disneyland. And under Zeman's watch, it is undergoing a $715 million
redevelopment that includes doubling the number of rides and creating
additional sealife and mammal attractions by 2012.
Zeman is also involved in the proposed arts and cultural district in
West Kowloon, which will cost a consortium of developers roughly HK$22
billion ($2.8 billion) to develop 15 buildings.
He describes his work in Hong Kong as: "like having three kids.
Each one requires different attention. Basically, Lan Kwai Fong is a
maturing adult. Ocean Park is a growing kid -- going through a transformation
and in the next five years we're going to have a tremendous park, or adult,
if you will -- and West Kowloon is like having a newborn baby. It requires
a lot of time."
When asked which is more difficult -- building up a private business or
using public funding, he quickly answers: "Public money is much
more difficult than private money. If you lose your own money, all it was,
was your own money and you took a chance, but with public money you're
scrutinised by everyone."
And of course, right now, Lan Kwai Fong isn't performing at its most
stellar -- he said in April that it was down 5% to 10%, but he
noted that Sars was much worse. This downturn, for Lan Kwai Fong, is
more comparable to the Asian financial crisis. As for the current downturn he
says: "We're just starting to feel the effects of the slowdown, and a
lot of it is just a confidence factor."
Indeed, he sees opportunities. He still thinks the property market has
another 20% to 25% to fall but that there are buying opportunities
appearing. Zeman is in the process of buying a shopping mall in Chengdu
near the Shangri-La hotel and by the water -- he's going to develop it into
an entertainment area. And you guessed it: he's going to call it Lan
This story was initially published in the May issue of FinanceAsia