Amuse Bouche

Lai Yuen amusement park scion wants a bite of the restaurant business

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Before smartphones transformed treasured moments into pixels to be glazed over, local businessman Deacon Chiu Te-ken dedicated himself to entertaining a generation of people, and along the way, created numerous collective memories that will last.

“My father was a man of strong character, always inventing new ideas to run his cinemas and television station,” said Duncan Chiu Tat-kun, 42, the Far East Consortium founder’s youngest of eight children. “He has been a big influence on me. I am quite like him in a way.”

Of all his entertainment ventures, an amusement park in Lai Chi Kok, known colloquially as Lai Yuen, was a source of pride to the elder Chiu. The park was demolished in 1997, but lives on as an emblem of nostalgia, evoking many cherished memories.

In 2015, the Chiu family revived Lai Yuen as a summer carnival in the Central promenade. The carnival ran for 70 days and attracted 1.2 million visitors. Sadly, the elder Chiu did not see the HK$70 million project to fruition. He died in March at the age of 90.

“We intended to bring Lai Yuen back as an one-off project, but were overwhelmed daily with requests to keep it running,” the junior Chiu said.

“That convinced me to set up a company and find new ways to re-launch the brand. We cannot rely only on selling nostalgia.”

The past year saw a new Lai Yuen emerging: a mobile theme park that has pitched camp at Asia World-Expo, and at a trade exhibition in Guangzhou.

Two weeks ago, Chiu added a cha chaan teng in Tsim Sha Tsui under Lai Yuen’s name.

The tea restaurant serves the carnival food sold at the old Lai Yuen. Classic drinks, such as cream soda with fresh milk and coconut red bean ice, are also on the menu. Paintings of the tiger cub mascot and a carousel chandelier echo the amusement park connection.

“Lai Yuen was not a full restaurant but food was part of the fun. There were many stores selling frozen pineapple slices. As kids, we would buy deep-fried chicken drumsticks after riding bumper cars,” he said.

“We’ve tried to keep up with the times by offering different cuisine, more healthy vegetable dishes and nicer presentation at the restaurant. We are not going to host a carnival this year. We have to focus on running the new cha chaan teng, which will be a permanent project.”

Although Chiu assisted his late father at work after university, assuming the chairman’s role of Lai Yuen was unintended. His full-time job is that of a tech investor. He manages a private investment firm, Radiant Venture Capital, which he co-founded in 2014.

“When I got back from the United States in 1996, the investment holding company that I looked after for the family had a bit of everything – entertainment, shops, factories in China, stocks, and a golf resort. These assets were worth some money, but they were losing money as well,” he recalled.

“In 1999, I started looking into different possible investments. I thought, as a business, the tech sector had a future. Hong Kong and China could be a start-up launchpad. Luckily enough, some of the companies I invested in survived the bust of the dot-com bubble the year later.”

His first profitable tech investment was Chinasoft International. The internet business services provider was floated in 2003, and now has a market capitalization of US$10.14 billion (HK$79.09 billion). Chiu, an early investor, sold all his shares when the company entered the main board.

Venture capital fund and amusement park are two vastly different businesses. However, they require the same taste for innovation and originality, Chiu said.

He does not intend to be only an old guard of his father’s theme park but sees himself as a business founder like his father.

“A business is easy to start, but a brand is difficult to maintain and grow. Lai Yuen is more than a theme park. It’s a homegrown label, and we intend to make it last. To do that, you cannot do away with the spirit of inventing,” Chiu said.

“That’s why, in every project, we tried to make something new based on the old elements, right down to the last decoration details. And these new ideas have to be original. Create or perish – that is the rule we have to live by in the modern world.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 23, 2017.