Pure Grit

A rainy-day interlude led Colin Grant to start the Pure Group, a phenomenally successful fitness and yoga chain in Asia



It pays to have a hobby. And for Colin Grant, doing what he loves has also turned out to be rather profitable. Starting with two teachers and a studio in Central, his fitness and yoga chain now has outlets in Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan and New York.

“We didn’t start with 27 locations. We started with one. It was a pipe dream after taking a yoga class. The success is not my doing. It’s the yoga, and the fact that people want to stay healthy,” the co- founder and chief executive of The Pure Group said.

Grant is opening next month another 10,000-square-foot yoga studio on the ground floor of Pacific Place on premises that Burberry used to occupy. Three additional venues have also been planned to open next year in Causeway Bay, Singapore and Beijing.

The studio in Admiralty will offer yoga and meditation classes, designed for office workers. Retail stores will be included, selling cold-pressed juice, salad, smoothies, as well as athleisure wear from the group’s spin-off Nood Food and Pure Apparel label.

“What we are trying to do is to build a lifestyle awareness. People don’t just come and practise yoga. They can come an hour before their class, or stay after their practice, to meet friends and socialize,” Grant said, describing his ideas.

Grant, a tennis whiz kid, founded The Pure Group in 2002 with Bruce Rockowitz, chief executive of Li & Fung’s Global Brands Group. The pair have a long-standing friendship, dating back when Rockowitz was the teenaged Grant’s tennis coach.

Grant moved to Hong Kong when he was 11 as his father was posted to work for the MTR. The teenager was a top seed, representing Hong Kong in many international tournaments, including the Davis Cup.

He displayed an entrepreneurial spirit even when he was young. At 12, he started his first company in racket stringing. Before Pure, his most successful was video rental shop Movieland, which he started at 18. His store at the Aberdeen Marina Club is still operating today.

In 2001, a golf trip to Canada led Grant and Rockowitz to establish Pure.

“Bruce and I were exercise nuts. We could not play golf because it was raining. So someone suggested that we did a yoga class with Patrick Creelman. It was totally different from weightlifting. It felt good. The next day I practised yoga again instead of golfing,” Grant recalled. “When I came back after the holiday, my body and mind actually missed yoga. I quickly returned to Canada for another week and took more classes.”

After that week, Grant and Rockowitz decided to open their own yoga studio. It took them only five months to open their first outlet at the Centrium.

“We were the first tenant in that office building. We got there before Gilbert [Yeung, Dragon-i founder],” Grant joked.

In hindsight, the opening was incredibly risky. An investment of US$1 million (HK$7.8 million) went into the project. The pair set up a venue equipped with locker and shower facilities that no yogi would think were needed. Advertisements that featured Almen Wong Pui-ha, former model and now yoga instructor, were everywhere.

And in the days when only a few would go to the gym, let alone to yoga class, Pure’s monthly membership was HK$800, double what California Fitness charged.

“At the time, there were only three or four yoga studios in Hong Kong. Their combined area was probably about 2,000 square feet. We opened a 6,500-square-foot studio. We did not even know that it was the largest in the world,” Grant said.

Even Grant agrees that his success was an outsider getting lucky.

“I wasn’t afraid of failing because every time I went on a tennis court when I was six, seven years old, I knew that I was going to win or lose. Losing didn’t scare me. It motivated me. If I lost, I would analyze why I lost. I would go and practise and try to win,” he said.

Today, the company is phenomenally successful. In Asia, it employs 1,600 staff, and 20,000 people attend its fitness and yoga classes every day.

In Hong Kong, the studio in Langham Place is the busiest, with 1,400 check-ins every day. Encompassing a floor area of 35,000 square feet, it’s also one of the world’s largest yoga studios.

“People who want to lead a healthy life will pay a premium for quality services. But to stay competitive, we are constantly evolving, and offering new offerings. The fitness industry is not a sprint. It’s a marathon,” he said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 21, 2017.

To the Nines

Luxury food importer and restaurateur recounts how she got hooked on the business


It’s not a replica of the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo – though the venue sells fresh produce from Japan, and you can walk into any sushi bar and restaurant and ask the chefs to prepare the seafood you have picked.

The concept is really more of a “downtown seafood market, modeled after a similar one in Tuen Mun’s Sam Shing Hui,” said May Choi Shiu-ha, who opened a 50,000-square-foot specialty food market, named Nine Seafood Plaza, in Whampoa Garden last month.

“It’s a promise that I made to my father: to keep his seafood trading business going after his death, despite our family having diversified into real estate and other more lucrative industries,” said the managing director of Sun Wah Japanese Food.

The junior Choi is the eldest daughter of Choi Kai-yau, who founded the Sun Wah Group in 1957. The late businessman was born into a family of farmers in Zhongshan. Uneducated, he earned his fortune by exporting seafood to Japan after he moved to Hong Kong as a young boy.

The senior Choi saw a demand in Japan for flower and bamboo prawns that were processed and frozen in Southeast Asia. He lobbied for support from big firms to set up a wholesale channel before anyone else did.

“Japan was very affluent under the reign of Emperor Showa,” she said. “We could sell a 12-meter container filled with prawns for roughly US$300,000 in Japan.

“My family had had no local ties, and did not know Japanese or English but he managed to convince Mitsubishi and Mitsui to partner him as he would charge them only after they made a profit. This decision was risky but proved his vision right.”

The junior Choi joined Sun Wah after graduating with a literature degree from the University of Hong Kong. She helped her father with administrative, accounting and translation works, and then moved on to seafood trading and Japanese restaurants.

Her younger brother, Jonathan Choi Koon-shum, is chairman of the group, looking after the other business units.

Sun Wah is one of the largest seafood wholesalers in Hong Kong, importing tonnes of seafood from Japan every month, and selling it to more than 1,000 local restaurants. It also imports vegetables, packaged food and kitchen appliances.

“Except firearms,” she joked when asked about what she doesn’t sell. “We import everything you can imagine: aprons, cutlery, fruits and vegetables, snacks, shoes, the iron pot for cooking kamameshi (a traditional rice and meat dish), and even sushi bar counters. We have 11 freight shipments delivering perishables from Fukuoka, Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka, and Okinawa every week. We also ship hard-to-find products from South Korea, and Central and North America.”

These specialty products include abalone, conch, Kamikomi pork, Mozuku seaweed, king crab, octopus, oyster and organic blueberries.

Choi is proud of the importing unit as she persuaded her father to include it in the family’s business. She established the logistics system, as well relationships with overseas trading partners, over the past decade.

“My first air cargo weighed 12 kilograms. Three clients separately ordered a fish, a tomato and some other vegetables. My father joked that he would have bought more stuff from the supermarket in a single purchase.

“I learnt Japanese by myself so that I can talk to the vendors in fish markets.”

She also had to overcome the double stigma of being a foreigner and a woman.

“I was once invited to an old fisherman’s home to have dinner with his family. He was in his 80s, and lived in Erimo, a small town in Hokkaido famous for its salmon.

“He knew that I wanted to buy salmon from him but did not take me seriously. He challenged me to meet him the next morning at 4.15 to go on a fishing trip, saying that he would decide afterward. It was winter, but I did manage to get up in the cold after two hours of sleep. When I arrived at the pier, the old man was putting on his boots. He was amazed to see me. We eventually became business partners.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 14, 2017.

Starting with a Bang

Nobel laureate Arthur McDonald unravels mysteries that all started with a big bang

Canadian astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Arthur McDonald, center, meets The Big Bang Theory cast (Credit: Queen’s University)

Nerdy genius Sheldon Cooper from the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory would struggle to contain his jealousy if he got to meet Arthur McDonald – because McDonald won the Nobel prize and he hasn’t.

“And my high-school sweetheart, Janet, was hot. She still is after being my wife of 50 years,” joked McDonald, the astrophysicist whose work has earned the respect of many, including a former student, David Saltzberg, science consultant of The Big Bang Theory.

The real-life science whiz at Queen’s University in Canada was awarded the prestigious award in 2015 for solving a long-standing mystery in fundamental physics: the properties of neutrinos, known colloquially as the ghost particles.

Neutrinos are one of the basic building blocks of our world. Their origin can be traced back to the period immediately after the Big Bang.

They hold the key to define how our universe evolves, how we can better observe supernova and black holes, and how the sun burns.

But neutrinos have certain unusual properties that make them extremely difficult to detect. They don’t carry electric charges so they don’t behave the way electrons do. They do not experience the strong interaction which binds quarks and protons in a nucleus.

Before McDonald’s discovery, scientists knew little about neutrinos, except that they are produced in the core of the sun, passing through the Earth in enormous quantities. In fact, hundreds of billions of them are going through your body at this moment.

“We are oblivious to their existence,” said McDonald. “For the type of neutrino – electron neutrino – we were studying, five millions go through something the size of your thumbnail every second. Maybe once in your lifetime, they’ll stop in your body.”

In 1984, a group of 16 scientists came together when a physicist, Herbert Chen Hwa-sen, at the University of California at Irvine tried to borrow C$3 million (HK$18.05 million) worth of heavy water from the Canadian government to build a neutrino detector.

No scientist had tried constructing such a facility before. The required engineering was a technological challenge. To build an effective detector, one has to first make a hole deep enough to get rid of the interference from other particles coming from outer space.

McDonald was a tenured professor at Princeton University at the time. He recalled the long journey from conception of the experiment to design, construction, commission and data analysis that ultimately led to the evidence that won him a Nobel prize.

“The cavity that we excavated was in an active nickel mine where thousands of tons of ore moved out in a day. The facility is the size of a 10-story building. No one had ever been able to dig a cavity that size at that depth before,” he said.

“We had to construct an acrylic sphere 12 meters in diameter, and five centimeters thick. The company that built it had to develop new techniques to do something no one had done before. It took us 2.5 years just to build the sphere.”

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, located in Canada, did not start operating until 1999. The facility was where McDonald and his large international team discovered that neutrinos can change identities, known as “flavors,” transforming themselves between electron-, muon- and tau-type.

The metamorphosis requires neutrinos to have mass, dispelling the long-held notion that they were mass- less. McDonald’s data have altered how scientists understand the innermost workings of neutrinos.

His measurements also verify our understanding of how the sun burns, leaving open the possibility of reproducing on Earth the nuclear fusion that powers the sun, and thus, developing a new energy source that will benefit mankind.

Scientists from Hong Kong play a substantial role in some of the latest neutrino research. There is a group from the University of Hong Kong working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, McDonald said.

Another physicist at Queen’s University, named Mak Hay-boon, worked with McDonald to develop the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. McDonald is building a new facility nearby, which will open next year, to work on neutrino double beta decay.

“A physicist named Wang Yifang, whom we shared another prize with last year, made his measurements at the Daya Bay reactor. He is doing another experiment at the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory in southern China,” he added.

McDonald has retired from teaching, but he is still active in neutrino research, including working on a paper about dark matter particles that will be published this summer. As life imitates art – or vice versa in his case – the astrophysicist is well on his way to unraveling a new mystery that all started with a big bang.

“This is what you do in basic physics. You keep track of the most important things internationally, look for opportunities where your skills and background can do something earth-shattering, and during the process, push the boundaries of technology,” he said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 11, 2017.

Know Your UV Numbers

New research shows effectiveness of sunscreen depends on the thickness of the applied layer


It’s common knowledge that exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer. And you know you should wear sunscreen when you go out in the sun. But do you also know that the effectiveness of sunscreen depends on the thickness of the applied layer?

Many studies have shown that we typically apply sunscreen at a layer thinner than the recommended two milligrams per square centimeter. This results in a significant reduction of the sun protection factor, or SPF, that a product promises, and increases the likelihood of associated health problems.

A recent study observed 40 subjects applying an SPF 50+ lotion at a thickness of 0.75 milligrams per square centimeter, which is typical of how much consumers use, and found that they were only getting an SPF of about 20.

“You will get protection from DNA damage even if you apply at a lower concentration than the SPF tested by manufacturers. But the thicker the application is always better,” said Antony Young, the study author and experimental photobiologist at King’s College London.

The study also looked at molecular changes in the dermis. The subjects were exposed to simulated solar radiation at two intensity levels that mimic the amount of sunlight that one receives in a normal day, and spending a day at a beach or in a tropical environment.

It was found that when people wore sunscreen at the recommended thickness, they would get a quarter of the damage to their skin under the most extreme condition.

“People tested were Caucasians with skin types which are most sensitive to sunburn. It means they have the greatest risk of skin cancer. If they receive that dose without sunscreen, it will burn their skin. So it’s a very significant reduction of damage,” Young said.

Inadequate protection from the sun can cause health problems not only for Caucasians, but those with a darker complexion. Ultraviolet light from the sun is one of the proven causes of skin cancer. And the incidence rate of the disease has been rising rapidly worldwide.

While the reported cases of skin cancer were lower in Hong Kong than in the West, the numbers are increasing, possibly because of increased participation in outdoor activities and an aging population.

Data of the Hospital Authority’s Hong Kong Cancer Registry show that new patients almost doubled between 1997 and 2007, rising from 430 to 815. Non-melanoma skin cancer, which is linked to sun exposure and artificial tanning, is the most common type of skin cancer.

“The sun causes many effects to the skin – sunburn, tanning, immunosuppression, inflammation, and molecular changes and damage to DNA. They are the reasons that sun exposure has a long-term health effect, such as skin cancer and photoaging,” Young said.

“While some may regard photoaging as a cosmetic problem, a lot of evidence suggests that it plays a role in skin cancer. A factor that causes the majority of skin cancers is damage to DNA, resulting in a particular type of lesion called cyclobutane pyrimidine dimer.”

Most people, except xeroderma pigmentosum patients, have a natural capacity to repair these lesions. But it takes time as it has a half-life of 33 hours, and can accumulate under repeated sun exposure. If our body has to repair 100 such lesions, it means you have to stay shielded from the sun for roughly 13 days.

“People with xeroderma pigmentosum lack the ability to repair DNA. The consequence of this is their incidence of skin cancer is thousands of times greater than normal. They will get skin cancer at about 10, possibly die at about 30, if they do not avoid the sun,” Young said.

“In normal cases, our cells can efficiently repair DNA damage caused by the sun. However, this ability declines with age, and is not 100 percent foolproof. When the fail-safe mechanism fails, you only need one failed repair to cause a problem.”

Skin cancer has a low mortality rate. It can be spotted and treated early but the most important first step is prevention. Sunscreen is a cheap and effective choice.

“Use a high SPF product even if you don’t theoretically need SPF 50 or 70. Do a couple of applications within a space of 20 minutes. That way you are building up the thickness to get the real SPF,” Young said.

“And if you miss a gap, you are more likely to cover that up.”

Be careful when you use certain products that claim to have specific protection against ultraviolet A or UVA or UVB. UVA is more abundant in the atmosphere and goes deeper into the skin, resulting in more cell damage; UVB is much more effective in causing sunburn.

While a product that only blocks UVA might be suitable for inactive people who wear sunscreen to avoid their complexion from getting darker, it is not appropriate for outdoor use. And the product that only blocks UVB can take away the burning effect but you will still get high doses of UVA.

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 11, 2017.