Music Man

New artistic planning director of HK Philharmonic Orchestra talks about from being a nobody to making an international debut at the BBC Proms

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Ask composer Lam Fung about an thorny issue in the local classical music scene, you will get an earful. Young artists, particularly those straight out of university, feel “entitled to be picked up by top-class orchestras.” He thinks their expectation is unrealistic.

“I understand the request but it won’t be beneficial to an orchestra, or the musicians themselves, if selection is made based on ethnicity. It’s quality that counts,” he says.

“That said, there should be more opportunities for emerging composers and performers. An example is composition workshops, which allow them to rehearse and record their music with a top-class orchestra.”

Strong words from Lam, who resumed the director role of artistic planning at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in February.

Local musicians hoped that, as a Hongkonger, he would promote them.

Lam’s new position makes him a force to be reckoned with. He has a say on the hiring of conductors and performers, music selection and commissioning new works.

Many might not like Lam’s answer, but there is a reason for it. Good musicians are never produced in a greenhouse environment. They are made in the thousands of hours of practices, endless exploration, and years of lost sleep over financial security.

That was how Lam was made. His list of achievements include three BBC commissions, two from the Hong Kong Philharmonic, performances at big concert halls, and tours in China, Europe, as well as Asia next month.

Not bad for a composer who just turned 37.

The cellist, and son of former director of the Hong Kong Observatory Lam Chiu-ying, has a doctoral degree in composition. He initially wanted to go into acoustical engineering, not contemporary classical music composition.

“I was raised with the mind of a scientist and the heart of a musician,” he says. “Being an acoustics consultant was a middle-of-the-road career path as it involves physics and music. I would have become a borderline architect – a safe choice in eyes of most parents.”

Lam studied under two respected British composers: Michael Zev Gordon and Michael Finnissy. The pedigree didn’t translate into instant success, though. In the first five years, his biggest paycheck came from a stranger he met on Old Bond Street, who paid him £50 for a sheet of piano music.

Lam hopped in and out of jobs to survive in London: concert hall usher, CD seller at Tower Records, administrative coordinator at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, music arranger, to name a few. “I was even an extra in Keanu Reeves’ film 47 Ronin,” he says.

The breakthrough came in 2008. Then 29, Lam landed his first paid commission. The BBC paid him HK$100,000 for the score Unlocking. He had previously composed Illumination for the BBC unpaid in 2005.

“My musician friends joked that I got paid six-figure for a 23-minute work. But I spent two to three months to writing it,” he says. “There isn’t an obvious career path for composers. Most work freelance. Of course, financial pressure is eased when a big commission comes. But as young artists, you need to build up a portfolio and that means unpaid work.”

In 2012, Lam received another important commission from the British broadcaster. He composed Endless Forms for the BBC Proms. He was the youngest Chinese, and the first Hongkonger, to appear in the most prestigious orchestral festival in Britain.

“It was a commission every composer dreams of. My music was played by the flagship BBC Symphony Orchestra, and broadcast live to the world on Radio 3. It was a full house concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which sits almost 5,700 people,” he recalls.

“I couldn’t take credit for the attendance. People went for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. But to me, it felt like going full circle. My parents took me to a concert there at 12.”

Critics said Lam’s performance reminded them of French composers Claude Debussy, Raphael Thierry and Olivier Messiaen.

The nicest compliment he received that night was: “I didn’t expect contemporary classical music to be so enjoyable.”

His parents were in the audience. “My father didn’t tell me he was proud of me. He only said he thought my music was interesting. Neither he nor my mother are into classical music. They prefer dance,” he says. “But I am happy that they now go to my concerts regularly. Recently, my father said he sensed a hint of Buddhism in my latest work, Quintessence. It was exactly what I had intended.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 24, 2017.

Ticking All the Boxes

Walter von Kanel: an old China hand and the numbers man of Longines

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Watch veteran Walter von Kanel knows many figures by heart. But there are two numbers that he is particularly proud of.

The first, four. Longines, the label which the Swiss German manages, is the world’s fourth best-selling brand after Rolex, Omega and Cartier.

The second is number six. Longines is one of only six watch companies – the other two are Tissot and Patek Philippe – whose annual sales exceed a billion Swiss francs (HK$7.69 billion). Von Kanel helped Longines achieved that feat in 2012.

Currently, the 185-year-old Swiss label, the oldest registered trademark for a watchmaker, produces more than a million watches a year, raking in almost 1.5 billion Swiss francs in sales.

“Omega and Tissot are from my group so I know their figures,” said the president of Longines and a member of Swatch’s group management board. “We are getting very close to overtaking Cartier to become No 3. Very close.”

Longines appeals to its customers not with a forward-looking visage, but with consistency, continuity and focus. Two of its heritage collections – Lindbergh and Flagship, first produced in 1930 and 1957, respectively – are still in production without many alterations.

However, von Kanel revealed that Longines would spring surprises at Baselworld next week. Expect a new quartz movement to mark the return of the Conquest VHP collection and a family of mechanical watches with additional features.

Whichever watches von Kanel decides to make, they are likely to become gold. “The name of the game is price segment,” he explained. Longines dominates the price bracket between 1,500 and 3,000 Swiss francs. And an entry-level piece can cost as little as 700 Swiss francs.

The pricing strategy has helped the label to buck the trend in 2008 and 2014. “It was the US shock in 2008. But thanks to our strong position in Asia, and the booming period in China, I did not lose anything,” von Kanel said.

“From 2014 onward, globally, we had a plus. China, a slight plus. Hong Kong, we lost due to the Umbrella Protest but we now do okay. Macau is improving. The disaster is Taiwan because madame le president [Tsai Ing-wen] is not kissing China. So no group tourists, no sales.”

Destiny dictated von Kanel’s career. His childhood was spent in the Saint-Imier Valley, site of Longines’ headquarters. He has worked for the company for 48 years and been president for almost two-thirds of that time.

A strong market sense and an inquisitive personality play a big part to his career longevity. He once visited the Umbrella protesters in Admiralty at 5am out of curiosity. “The tents reminded me of my military days. I wanted to see how they were organized,” he said.

The watch executive is an old China hand. When he talks about the mainland, he is akin to a professor giving a history lesson.

He can tell you about the competition between the Japanese label Citizen and Swatch’s subsidiary ETA during the quartz crisis, how he used to buy parts from a factory next to Kai Tak Airport, and about CP Wong, the Hong Kong businessman who took control of the American label Bulova in 1976.

“When I arrived at Beijing airport in 1971, an immigration officer greeted me in Swiss German. He had spent five years in the Chinese embassy in Bern. Switzerland was the first occidental country to recognize China,” he said.

“The government sent me a car. Back then, there were almost no cars on the streets, but millions of bicycles.”

At 75, von Kanel still travels to China six or seven times a year. With the business there growing over the past decade, he has all the more reason to visit a country that fascinates him. “In China, we are attractive to the workers and the common people,” he said. “I am convinced that, in my price segment, there is no saturation. There will still be big growth.”

Is he not worried about the rising sales of smart timepieces? “I didn’t lose any sales. And you have to remember I am an old schmuck in the industry. In this case, I will let you dream about those figures,” he said.

“This territory belongs to Apple and Samsung, and all those new manufacturers in China. It’s not my territory. I will not go into this business. If our group decides to do so, I think it should be Swatch and Tissot.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 17, 2017.

Feets of Joy

Jimmy Choo: designer to the well-heeled

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There are those who measure their achievements in life by the number of designer shoes they have in the wardrobe.

Then there is Jimmy Choo. Not that the celebrity footwear designer is not crazy about shoes. He has three cabinets filled with stylish shoes at home.

But Choo, a Buddhist, sees life through the lens of benevolence. The goodwill of others has made the Malaysian Chinese the world’s famous footwear icon that he is today. Choo feels obliged to reciprocate by promoting the virtue of education and bringing up young designers from Asia.

“A Chinese saying goes: a master should always have a few tricks up his sleeves, lest his apprentice outstrips him one day,” Choo said after attending a British Council award ceremony held in Hong Kong. “I don’t believe that. A true master shouldn’t be afraid that his proteges would become better than him. I teach mine everything I know. It was how I learnt the craft. My father was my master.”

Choo’s father Choo Kee Yin, an immigrant from Mei County in Guangdong, was a shoemaker. Born in Penang to a Hakka family, the junior Choo learnt about design and pattern-making at the family’s shoe factory.

At 11, Choo made his first pair of shoes: dog-patterned leather flats for his mother’s birthday. “I made that because my mother liked wearing slippers. And my childhood nickname was Doggie,” he said. “Many parents in Malaysia gave their children an animal nickname, hoping they would grow up strong like an animal even in difficult circumstances.”

Although Choo moved to London in his teens and lives there ever since, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He speaks fluent Cantonese and Hakka. And after selling his shares in his eponymous label in 2001, he started another company named after his Chinese name, Zhou Yangjie.

“I used to speak Cantonese a lot in London because there were a lot of Hongkongers there,” said the 68-year-old. “Most restaurant staff spoke Cantonese. Some spoke Hakka.”

London made Jimmy Choo famous. In 1983, he graduated with a degree in footwear design at the Cordwainers Technical College, today’s London College of Fashion. Three years later, he opened Lucky Shoes in Hackney.

Choo’s father-in-law suggested the name. Choo is married to a designer from Hong Kong.

“My father-in-law said the name would bring me good fortune so his daughter wouldn’t starve,” he recalled. “I was quite handsome when I was young. So I didn’t need much effort to court my wife. When we were dating, she often invited me to her place for dinner. She said Hongkongers are good at making soup. In return, I made her shoes.”

Good fortune didn’t come immediately – even though Choo was selling his handmade shoes at £50 (HK$472) a pair. “No one wanted my shoes because I was a nobody. My parents gave me their retirement savings to keep the business afloat,” he recalled.

To make ends meet, Choo went into making cheap sandals and uncredited pieces commissioned by theater producers and famous fashion designers. Although his creations would appear in fashion magazines, he was only paid £6 per pair sold.

Luckily, it didn’t take long for his reputation to grow. Within two years of opening Lucky Shoes, his works were featured in an eight-page spread in the UK Vogue. Then Choo went into business with society girl Tamara Mellon – and the rest was history.

Throughout the years, many celebrities and royalty have stopped by Choo’s shop – Princess Diana, the queens of Jordan and Brunei, Michael Jackson, Kylie Minogue, and Kristin Davis, to name a few.

“When Katie Holmes was in London for the premiere of Batman Begins, she visited my shop on 18 Connaught Street,” he said. “Turned out, that location really brought me good fortune.”

Choo’s niece Lucy Choi has taken over his London shop but he is still accepting bespoke orders from close friends. “I’ll never stop making shoes – not even when I am 100.”

When he is not busy entertaining clients and scouting for young footwear talents, he would fly to Kuala Lumpur to get his suits and shirts made at Lord’s Tailor. The man is, in his own right, a purveyor of fashion.

“Being a designer is not only about making fashionable shoes. It’s also about making shoes that bring joy, comfort and a sense of wholesomeness.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 10, 2017.

Let’s Talk Politics

The Trump presidency is a big test for America’s friends and foes in Asia Pacific, says Australian professor of international politics Mark Beeson

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For Mark Beeson, there is no better time to be teaching international affairs than now. Hardly a day goes by without new shocking revelations coming to light about how ideologically divided the United States is these days.

And President Donald Trump’s antagonistic positions on numerous issues are a textbook case of what a global leader should not have adopted.

But underneath the polished intellectual exterior, the professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia is deeply worried.

The unpredictability of Trump’s leadership is a big test for the rest of the world as a misguided response could bring cataclysmic consequences.

“It’s now quite a remarkably interesting time, and quite an unsettling one,” said the Australian. “The Trump administration sends out contradictory signals all the time. So it’s really hard for friends and foes to know what they are likely to do.”

The Trump presidency brings uncertainty to the already debilitated relationships of powerful nations. On the global economic front, Trump kept his election promise and ripped up his predecessor’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement on his first day in office.

The decision to kill off one of the most far-reaching and binding free trade agreements has effectively snubbed America’s closest allies, Australia, Canada and Japan, which are signatories.

“That’s been a real blow for many of the countries in Asia, particularly to Australia and Japan, which has put a lot of time and effort in trying to get that agreement up. It was a good agreement,” Beeson said.

“In fact, as far as America’s national interests go, the TPP might not have been done too badly by its multinational corporations. So you have got to wonder about whether the Trump administration really understands the nature of that agreement and global trade.”

China, America’s strongest competitor in jockeying for world dominance, is also receiving the same incoherent, and at times, contentious treatment.

Trump has yet to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports as promised, but did reiterate last week his stern stance on China. The latest rhetoric saw the new White House occupant slamming the Chinese as the “grand champions” of currency manipulation. But then immediately, his Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin softened the tone at another occasion.

In stark contrast to Trump’s protectionist “America first” policy is President Xi Jinping’s defense of a liberalized global trade system. There are several free trade initiatives already in discussion that look destined to cement China’s dominance in Asia.

For example, the ASEAN-sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. The United States was not involved in either before Trump was elected so it is highly unlikely that it will get involved now.

“They are both potentially significant if China will be the driving force behind them,” Beeson said. “Yet, there is a big debate around how serious and willing China would be about actually following through what it has implied doing.”

China’s growing influence has unnerved the China hawks in the Trump administration. Key skeptics include trade chief Peter Navarro and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They advocate a more combative rhetoric toward China economically and militarily.

“Navarro has a very old-fashioned mercantilist, zero-sum view. He turns out to be a big influence on Trump, who doesn’t seem to have a fixed position on trade. Trump is clearly open to be influenced,” Beeson said.

“Tillerson has said the United States is going to stop China from reinforcing in the South China Sea. The only realistic possibility to doing that is by military means. Trump has already said he would increase the size of the navy from 272 to 355 ships.”

“The Chinese government will find it difficult to back away from their claims and desire to remain in control of those islands. The dangerous thing on both sides now is that they are both painting themselves into a corner from which it is very difficult to retreat.”

The war of words between the two superpowers not only would end up turning Asia Pacific into a flash point for an actual war, but also hurt innocent bystanders economically as the United States has been a key importer of goods produced in the region since the East Asian miracle.

Smaller entities in this part of the world, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, regardless of where their allegiance lies, will become “the meat in the sandwich” to the transactional approach to diplomacy of the two great powers.

“It’s naive to have blind faith in any allies or alleged friends. All countries pursue what could be in their national interest to some extent. But it’s much more consequential when the country is America or China,” Beeson said. “Their ideas of pursuing their national interests have ramifications for the world.”

“So can countries trust them? Probably not in the sense of whether they are going to stick to their words if the circumstance doesn’t suit them or there is a change of administration.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 7, 2017.

Golden Dreams

Aron Harilela is a hotelier who’s all about going the extra mile

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A family gathering is a sufficient reason for celebration. But last week the Harilela clan came in unison for a hotel of symbolic significance. The Holiday Inn Golden Mile is revered in the Harilela family’s history as the soul of their hotel business.

In the crowd was Aron Harilela, chairman and chief executive of Harilela Hotels. The company owns or manages 17 properties across the globe, including the newly renovated four-star hotel on Nathan Road.

Aron Harilela is the only son of the late Hari Harilela, the patriarch of Hong Kong’s most prominent Indian family. He shares an almost umbilical link to the hotel that was opened in 1975. It was the first that Hari Harilela built.

“It feels like I am cutting the ribbon for a second time,” said the 46-year-old. “On the day the hotel opened, my grandmother passed away. So my father sent me, four years old at the time, over to cut the ribbon.”

Six years ago, Harilela acted on impulse at a momentous moment that led him to walk the golden mile. “I dropped down to my knees and proposed to my wife Laura in the lift of this hotel. There were two random guests in the same lift,” he recalled, with a smile.

Today, the name Harilela is synonymous with one of Hong Kong’s rags-to-riches tales. Hari, the son of an immigrant from Hyderabad, Sindh, founded his hotel empire after running a tailoring shop on the ground floor of the Imperial Hotel. The hotel owner later defaulted on his loan. To save his business, Hari bought the building in Tsim Sha Tsui.

That was how the family went into hotels.

In 1967, Hari and a group of shareholders bought the plot of land where the Holiday Inn Golden Mile is today. He and his wife met the Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson in the United States. They signed a deal to bring the three-star motel brand to Asia.

Hari had imagined transforming his property into a premium product, equipped with a pillarless ballroom, 24-hour room service and fine-dining restaurants.

On hindsight, it was a bold idea as Nathan Road was not a tourist area in those days.

His plan got off to a rocky start because of the riots that year. “The other shareholders were very nervous about Hong Kong’s future. They decided to sell their shares. Unfortunately, my father didn’t have that much money,” recalled Harilela. “So he went to see Michael Sandberg, then chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and asked for a HK$5 million loan. He had nothing to give as collateral. But the chairman approved the loan, taking my father’s word for it.”

The Holiday Inn Golden Mile has proven to be a successful bet. The hotel has generated enough proceeds for Hari to keep building up his hotel empire. And Aron Harilela joined the family business in 1994 after completing a doctoral degree in political philosophy.

Renovations and upgrades are a constant in the hotel industry. Harilela has recently finished renovating the 42-year-old hotel on 50 Nathan Road, removing the staircase to open up the lobby and creating a pod-like reception area to improve guest experience.

The renovation followed a slew of upgrades in two years before that, including redecorating all 621 guest rooms and expanding the executive lounge to 5,000 square feet. The hotel will restore its 7,600-square-feet ballroom in the next phase of renovations.

Harilela is building on his father’s legacy. Apart from a new hotel in New York, Joie De Vivre, which will open next month, he is starting the family’s first independent four-star hotel label called The Hari.

A prototype now exists in London after Harilela took over operations of The Belgraves and converted it in August. Construction on a second site in Wan Chai is underway with an expected launch date in 2020.

“The family has been here since the 1930s. Hong Kong has been really kind to us. And we have great faith in Hong Kong,” said Harilela.

The 210-room hotel on Lockhart Road will feature similar decor as in London but with some local touches. “For example, in London, we have an Italian restaurant that is just about to open. London has spectacular Italian food. In Hong Kong, we will certainly have dim sum.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 3, 2017.