Allan Zeman explains why Hong Kong is really home

The chairman of some of Hong KongÆs 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 Kwai Fong.

This story was initially published in the May issue of FinanceAsia magazine.

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