To the Nines

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

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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.

Steaming Ahead

Miele division managing director shares how he hawks luxury to the masses

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When Kenny Lam Cho-kan asked a friend whether he should accept a sales job at Miele, the answer was a resounding no. His friend had a point. The German white-goods maker, whose local office was established two decades ago, was a big fish in a small pond.

Lam, managing director of Miele Hong Kong and Macau, joined in 1999, a year after the local unit was set up. The aftermath of the Asian financial crisis could then still be felt. With everyone tightening their purse strings, selling high-ticket home appliances that few could afford was a struggle.

In those days, a washing machine from Miele could easily fetch five-digits. It may sound reasonable, given a notebook computer costs around the same, but it was rare for people to pay so much for electrical goods.

“People could not make sense of our prices. Remember, it was the time when iPhones didn’t exist. The It phone was a Nokia 8800,” Lam joked.

“And what’s called a kitchen was a counter top with a gas stove. It made no big difference whether you lived in Tregunter Towers at Mid-Levels or in public housing.”

Lam was tasked with selling dishwashers, washing machines and vacuum cleaners to retail shops. Vacuum cleaners sold best as they were a lot cheaper.

“A retailer told me that his shops would not carry our brand even if we supplied products for free,” Lam recalled. “Now it’s not uncommon to see households spending tens of thousands of dollars to install nice built-in branded cabinets and appliances in the kitchen.”

In two decades, Miele has added more than 100 retail locations in Hong Kong and Macau, and grown annual sales by nearly 50-fold.

The local unit is marking its anniversary by unveiling a two-story flagship store and experience center in Causeway Bay next week.

“The store will be our only flagship in Hong Kong and Macau. It is our biggest investment of the year,” Lam said. “We have also worked with two non-profit organizations to release a book about preserving Cantonese cuisine to deepen community connection.”

These days, property agents share a private joke: new housing projects equipped with Miele appliances can command a higher premium.

And when property developers organize show flat tours, as evidenced by the four recent residential sites in Ho Man Tin and Kai Tak, they do not shy away from highlighting the German label in their sales pitch.

“The wholesale market has grown quite substantially over the past 10 years. Residence Bel-air in Cyberport was the first large-scale, top-end project — not at The Peak, or in Clearwater Bay and Kowloon Tong — to equip their kitchens with our appliances,” Lam said.

“The Austin in Jordan set a record for installing the most Miele appliances. The developer ordered around 13,000 items for two blocks, using our full range.”

“That record will be broken by a new residential project in Macau. I cannot tell you which one as it hasn’t gone on sale. The demand in Macau is growing at an even faster pace. Developers believe that branded appliances add value to their properties.”

Despite their higher price tag, built-in home appliances are not a luxury any more. More families choose to replace the wok and microwave with a steam oven. The item is a source of pride for Lam as he helped modernize and popularize the concept in Asia.

The first generation of steam ovens, the DG160, had a steel tray on which one could put only a morsel of food. It could not meet the needs of Cantonese families for cooking a whole fish or a plate of meat patty.

Lam pressured Miele headquarters to develop one with a larger cavity. The steam ovens sold today can cook rice and several dishes simultaneously, saving time and making sure the food is still hot when served.

Lam was also the first person to introduce free-standing steam ovens to local customers whose kitchens often are not big enough to hold a built-in one. Miele now offers the most varied range of steam ovens on the market.

Lam has now two goals: to find the perfect steamed fish recipe and to grow a team to look after an expanding market.

“The team started off with eight employees. A repairman, a marketing officer who has moved to a regional managing director role, and I are still with the company. We used to do everything ourselves. But as managers, we have to know when to delegate,” he said.

“We now have 120 office staff and 50 or so front-line sales representatives. The real challenge is how to make people in a large team feel they are progressing professionally.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 30, 2017.

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.

Providing the Right Support

The Truth about Teenage Suicide – and How to Prevent it

 

A disturbing wave of suicides among students has made local headlines again. In February, six young people tried to take their own lives. Five succeeded. These recent cases add to a tally of 71 student suicides reported in the past three years.

A survey that came out last week estimates that 31.6 percent of primary school children and 40.3 percent of those in secondary school are at risk of suicide. The new findings match a number of other reports which have looked into the issue of teenage suicide.

Senior primary school children and junior secondary school pupils are more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts as they are in critical transition periods at school.

That said, academic pressure is not the only reason why youngsters decided to end their lives. Other common triggers include breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, conflict with family members, mental illness and troubled friendships.

The good news is statistics have been dropping since the peak in 2003. While there were more male than female suicide cases, the overall numbers are lower than what were recorded in developed countries.

Suicide is preventable but requires everybody’s effort to recognize the importance of mental well-being, said Leesa Tinney, psychologist and lecturer at Monash University in Australia.

“Friends and teachers are in a good position to know whether a young person is in distress because they know the person really well. They can see small changes. Parents do too. But parents sometimes can be too close,” she added. “Noticing depression is key to picking up suicide.

“For depression, you will be looking for signs, such as a person wanting to be on his own, not doing fun things that he used to like doing, and withdrawing from his friends. Other indicators include teary eyes, and changes in sleeping and eating habits. Sometimes, kids come across as agitated or angry. But it’s usually about feeling sad or losing hope. Take note of comments like ‘there is no future’ or ‘there is no point.’ ”

Timely intervention can save lives. Three out of four victims will seek help either implicitly or explicitly before actual suicide attempts, a report submitted to the Education Bureau in November found.

Another local study in 2006 pinpointed the golden hour of intervention, with 16 percent dying within 24 hours of showing suicidal tendencies, 14 percent within a week, 10 percent within a month, 11.3 percent in two months, and 23.3 percent for two months or more before the act.

Based on experiences, Tinney concludes that the types of therapeutic technique used, while all are effective, make a small difference in the counseling outcomes. A large part depends on the young person and his or her relationship with a confidant.

Young people who are more willing to seek help and believe their initiative will help tend to benefit more from a counseling session.

And an adviser who is able to build rapport and a genuinely trusting relationship is more effective than a stranger to talk someone out of suicide.

“You don’t need to have special skills. You just need to be calm, be open, be ready to listen, and be logical to figure out what to do next,” she said.

“Asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is not going to put the idea into their heads. They are already thinking about it. Asking that question says you are brave enough to have this conversation and hear all the stuff that they are going through.”

“One thing that you should not do is ignore it. Being left alone is pretty awful. And the longer an at-risk young person is left alone is not going to be good.”

If you don’t know how to do a risk assessment, begin with simple questions, such as: “Are you okay?”

Avoid phrasing a question jokingly – such as “Don’t do anything silly,” – because that will put a young person down, Tinney said.

If you feel clumsy doing it, inform a family friend, the child’s school, a counsellor or a family doctor to have that conversation. But that person should be someone the child is familiar with.

With older adolescents, their personalities are already well-formed. They have developed their own set of coping skills to deal with adverse situations. Some children see cutting a wrist or suicide as a way to cope and it’s normal.

Even so, building resilience is possible. A confidant’s role is to create lots of different coping options when a young person feels awful, Tinney said.

Establishing a connection beyond academia, giving a young person a sense of belonging and purpose, helping them structure their daily lives, assisting them to learn how to make good choices, and teaching them to laugh can shield a young person from negative experiences.

An online resource compiled by Australian clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller is a good starting point for parents and teachers to learn more about building resilience in children.

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