To the Nines

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

Advertisements

47386411contentphoto1

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.

Amuse Bouche

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

47377794contentphoto1

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.

Time in a Bottle

In life, as in wine making, patience is a virtue

47361228contentphoto1

Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Christophe Salin started life with a drop of wine, thanks to his grandfather. The champagne vintner reminded his daughter-in-law: “Don’t give him too much milk. We don’t want to raise him like an animal.”

The Frenchman, born in Epernay, grew up to deviate slightly from his grandfather’s expectations. He became the president and chief executive of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), owner of world-famous wine label Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

The first-growth estate in Bordeaux has been in the Rothschild family since 1868. Banker Eric de Rothschild, now acting as chairman, is the fifth generation.

Salin joined the winemaker in 1985 after a stint in construction. Thanks to his job, he has developed a sophisticated palate for red. He only drinks good wines. His most memorable was a non-selling vintage bottled in 1959.

“Bad wines should be illegal. If you find one, you should call the police. Wines have to be good,” the Champagne native joked. “I also like to enjoy a Cuban cigar from time to time. This is my contribution to communism.”

It’s often said that the vintner’s personality has a big effect on how the wine turns out. If that is true, the richness of Lafite will come from Salin’s dry sense of humor.

“Eric de Rothschild went to engineering school. As an engineer, he likes to be precise and as a wine lover, he knows exactly the style he likes,” Salin said.

“But we did not change Lafite. Lafite changed us. You have to listen to the vineyard and follow its advice. Viticulture is a long term business. To get the best out of a vineyard, you have to wait 25 years. We are only viticulturists. God decides and we execute.”

The 30-odd years of Salin’s career has been spent building the Domaines Barons de Rothschild business and its brands. The business has expanded beyond Bordeaux, and now owns chateaux in other wine regions in France, Chile, Argentina, and China.

In those years, the industry has gone through dramatic changes, marked by the rise of China and its voracious appetite for wine. A taste for fine wine, introduced by British merchants two centuries ago to the country, has become a widespread phenomenon.

In 2000, Eric de Rothschild consigned his private collection to Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Three bottles of 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, sold at US$233,972 (HK$1.82 million) each, became the world’s most expensive wine ever auctioned. The entire lot fetched over US$8 million.

However, that fascination has evolved. “Before, people were buying labels. Now, they are drinking the wines. They are not buying to offer as business gifts. That happened in Japan and Korea. It’s a normal evolution,” Salin said.

“Hongkongers are very knowledgeable about wine. And the mainlanders are fast learners. I have seen them, especially those under 35, moving from all the top chateaux in the 1990s and 2000s to the cheaper wines.”

In 2008, Domaines Barons de Rothschild bought its first Chinese vineyard in Penglai, Shandong province, in partnership with state-owned enterprise, CITIC Group.

“We did our first harvest in September. The quality, so far, meets our standards. Hopefully, we will release our 2016 vintage next year.”

The weather conditions in the past year saw a heavenly opportunity for all Bordeaux winemakers. On the fine wine front, Salin said the 2016 vintage will be a highlight in the history of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Affordable wines from other Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s vineyards will also be carried in local restaurants and wine shops. A case in point are Chateau Duhart- Milon and Chateau Moulin de Duhart – produced in a vineyard near Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Salin has learnt to enjoy a good life through winemaking. And like making good wine, the secret is being true to yourself and having the patience to wait for plans to come to fruition.

“Be honest, be open to opportunities and be balanced,” he said of his philosophy in life. “Whatever you do, don’t be in a hurry. Think twice, and always make your plans long term.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 9, 2017.

Brilliant Tactician

Folli Follie’s numbers man has descended from Greek warrior and swapped spears for spreadsheets

47328387contentphoto1

Ioannis (John) Begietis may be known as the numbers man for FF Group, a family-run fashion company that owns the Folli Follie and Links of London labels. He’s the company’s global chief financial officer, and chief operating officer at its Asia-Pacific headquarters.

But little do people know that the Greek is, literally, a present-day Spartan warrior.

He’s descended from a historical military family that can trace its roots back to the reign under Leonidas, the Spartan king portrayed by Gerard Butler in the 2006 film, 300.

Begietis and his brother are the first generation in the family who have exchanged spears and shields for spreadsheets. “Some say my forefathers were the descendants of King Leonidas. My grandfather was an army general. My father was an admiral in the navy,” he said.

“I joined the national service right after my studies in the United States. I was in the air force as a finance officer for two years. I got to try some new anti-aircraft weapons and really cool guns,” the 50-year-old recalled.

Undergoing a different rite of passage – marked by expat assignments in the business world – Begietis relocated to Hong Kong in 2011.

He now oversees about 320 retail stores in East and Southeast Asia, and his main responsibilities include the overseas expansion of Folli Follie.

Folli Follie has been expanding rapidly in Asia, with the Asian market now contributing significant revenues to the Athens-based FF Group. Its annual sales have risen from 300 million euros (HK$2.54 billion) to 1.3 billion euros in the 11 years since Begietis climbed aboard.

In Hong Kong, the label has accelerated the pace of setting up stores in prime shopping districts. Last October, it opened a new outlet store at E-Max WearHouse in Kowloon Bay, followed by another at Florentia Village in Kwai Chung in March. This summer, it plans to add two or three regular stores in the SAR.

Including locations at Horizon Plaza in Ap Lei Chau and Plaza Hollywood in Diamond Hill, Folli Follie now has four outlet stores in Hong Kong.

In the past, brands opened such stores to liquidate unsold inventory but modern practices are changing. Outlet shops form a part of the present-day omni-channel retail strategy of top fashion labels. They stock not only past-season items, but also special collections.

An example is Japan, where Begietis has restructured the Folli Follie brand after the acquisition of a joint venture partner in 2008. A new marketing image and merchandise offers helped the label recruit young female office workers as loyal customers.

“In Japan, we have a sizable number – 16 outlet stores. They are located far away from the main cities. They have not overtaken the local market sales, but are a very profitable segment,” Begietis said. “The most successful outlet venture usually happens in a mature market. You have to have a clientele who knows what the full price items are, and can differentiate them from the special lines or discounted items.”

In the local outlet stores, past-season items account for only 15 percent of the entire catalog. They are sold at a minimum 30 percent discount. The rest are specialty products: for example, men’s watches exclusive to the outlets.

Begietis intends to use the stores to tap a new clientele, and slowly lead them into adopting the habit of purchasing full-price items.

“Everybody talks about the retail business going down, but nobody talks about the local people as a shopping power,” he said. “They are all looking at the tens of millions of travelers coming, which is fantastic. But it’s a chance business. So local customers are always our target.”

Begietis relies on his staff to keep a finger on the pulse of the market. He is one of the few expatriate managers who work at the group’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong.

“I am a tactician. Retail is like chess. You should always make the right steps to go to the top. Of course, when you play a game, you should prepare to lose. But nobody plans to lose. Everybody plans to win.

“I think you have a better chance of winning if you involve the local people. This is true, not just in Hong Kong but everywhere.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on May 12, 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

Donald Trump Addresses Republican Retreat In Philadelphia

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.