Hubert Burda Media

Looking back with Peter Cheung

Gatecrashers, global epidemics, boring parties ... branding and communications guru Peter Cheung has seen it all. He tells us about the ups and downs of a career in luxury.

Peter Cheung. Portrait: Dino Busch
Peter Cheung. Portrait: Dino Busch

This month, Peter Cheung celebrates his first anniversary as founder and CEO of Peter Cheung Asia, a company he set up after more than 20 years in multifarious business roles (society editor,PR, events, communications and strategic planning) spanning a gamut of luxury brands – and we thought it was high time we caught up with the gentleman-at-large to discuss everything under the sun, the moon and the superstars.

A society staple among the glitterati, the man needs little introduction: born in Hong Kong and educated in British Columbia, he hopscotched between the two during his formative years. He was a popular society editor (“I didn’t know anything about journalism and writing, but I knew about luxury”), who was snapped up by Sotheby’s as its deputy director of public relations, a gig that was followed by a long stint at Dior, then Versace, then Van Cleef & Arpels. Last September, at a gathering at Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, he launched his own company to an audience packed with family and friends.

Cheung’s stellar social legacy glistens in the dark, embossed with luxury brands and coated with stardust. We had to ask...

What do you love as a guest at an event?

The element of surprise. It comes down to the sense of authenticity and necessity. I’m very humbled that my own little company launch had the turnout that it had. I had nothing. It was me talking, my invite was essentially, “Come have a drink with me.” But the support I got, and at that level ... I feel it was very authentic that the people who came wanted to support and celebrate with me, which was very, very touching.

Peter Cheung with friends at the launch of Peter Cheung Asia

Peter Cheung with friends at the launch of Peter Cheung Asia

I was having a bit of an out-of-body experience at the launch because, honestly, it was all new and I can’t afford Lisa Stansfield to sing three songs, Cate Blanchett to do the red carpet, or a Korean pop star to stop in for the event.

How do you define a successful event?

It’s a combination of things. I think you know the success on the spot. You could know the editorial value and the commercial value fairly soon. Look around, is everyone having fun? Then, when it’s going well, I think there’s a huge responsibility to keep it going well. You have to drive that momentum and keep that energy up. If something’s not going well, let’s shift immediately. Let’s not wait until something goes down the toilet. Let’s be reactive and proactive. And that has happened many a time. 

Can you put that in layman’s terms?

Why are you having an event? If you were a super-brand, you might think, “I’ll host an event, people should come”. Now, that’s a little bit egotistic, not authentic. In the end, you have to appreciate the people that actually spend time and effort to come, both your commercial clients and your social ones. I think there’s a sincerity of approach, an authenticity of message and objective, for this to be planned well.

Peter Cheung with Anita Mui

Peter Cheung with Anita Mui

What has been the most challenging event you’ve done?

The Dior launch on Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui during SARS. The investment from the company was huge, they’d planned for years to build this flagship, but then SARS happened. The whole industry cancelled everything; there was a huge domino effect as everyone eradicated their plans. We were told, “OK, you guys are managing marketing and communications for Asia, you have this opportunity. You have this never-before-seen or heard-of virus that’s killing the whole market. There’s an air of defeatism and depression in the air. In adversity, there’s opportunity. Be optimistic.”

This was the advice from the Paris office?

Yes! That was the advice from Michael Burke, who was the CEO at the time. Either you buckle under pressure, cancel, do nothing – that’s safe – or you keep an open mind. We rebound. People told us we were crazy to have such a large-scale event when WHO had declared Hong Kong an unsafe zone.

What was the impetus to go ahead?

People were bored out of their minds, and thank God someone’s doing something! To top it all off, I had the really good fortune to work very closely with Anita Mui. She was passionate about defeating the haze of negativity SARS had brought to the image of Hong Kong around the world. We brought in a charity angle, and then it became bigger than just a boutique opening. It was really taking a sense of energy and spirit that was very authentic to the brand, bringing almost the same authenticity of spirit of the Hong Kong community.

Peter Cheung with Donatella Versace

I remember an (alleged!) VIP wasn’t allowed in. She had no invite and the door staff didn’t know her. How did you manage?

I’m glad I came down and dealt with it. Probably for her, I think she felt slighted. I would defend her because she had a legitimate right to feel upset. On a hospitality level, I have to absolutely apologise, rectify the situation, get her up to the VIP area. But then, on an overall event-planning level, I’m seeing the beauty of the fact that it’s such a momentous occasion that everybody wants in. Because the opposite of that is that nobody wants to go, nobody cares.

Let’s talk difficult people in general. How do you deal with them?

To me, its managing expectations. You want to be invited, sit at the VIP table, be in the red velvet rope, cordoned-off area, and yet if you aren’t happy no matter what, then I invite them to ... leave.

That’s a painfully polite method of crisis deflection.

I respect difficult people. I’m sure a lot of people think I’m difficult. What I don’t respect is when you don’t know what you want and nothing pleases you.

At your own launch there was someone plugging her product.

Yes! I remember. In my head, I was thinking, are you kidding me right now? God bless you, I just went with it. At that moment of my official launch I had greater concerns, like the packed audience and especially my guest of honour, who was my father, so some tacky person promoting their goods and wares at my launch was not going to bother me.

Does juggling events get awkward? If Dior and Chanel are having events on the same night, and they invite you ...

That will never happen! [Laughs.] That will never, ever happen. Chanel will not invite me. They never have, they never will. I’ve often represented the house I’ve worked for – I was known as “Dior’s Peter Cheung” for ages, but then I’ve represented myself at friends’ events.

A Dior event at Landmark that Cheung organised

A Dior event at Landmark that Cheung organised

When you left one brand for another, was there any minor or major resentment?

There’s a very Cantonese saying: when you start something, it’s just as important to leave well. I don’t think you should exit by burning bridges. Every single person or company I worked with attended the launch of my own company.

What’s the secret to a successful event?

I’m sort of like a conductor. A lot of things happen behind the scenes that nobody knows about. Let me give you another example. In a place like Hong Kong, great venues are few and far between. At the Landmark Dior opening, privatising Landmark for a night was a feat. The production schedule had to start at midnight, we had to build and put everything back into the ceiling at 6am for when the mall opens at 7. But we had to be on-site to witness this production from midnight onwards. I wanted reworks indoors and, of course, Hongkong Land said, “No!” We had chemical reworks, so no re or heat!

We had hotel rooms at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, so we would literally shower and sleep from 6:30am to 8:30am then go back to the o ce at Quarry Bay and work all night. And that’s a production schedule that people don’t know about. The beauty is, we make it look that easy and like there was no budget restriction. The truth is anything but.

What would you like to achieve in the future?

I really want to balance my professional and personal life. I think the first year as an entrepreneur, you go ballistic. You have no life. You take every phone call. You take every meeting. You talk to everyone. Although headquarters will still be Hong Kong, I would really love to have satellite offices around Asia Pacific. And I never thought I would do talent management, but in five years time I would love to say that one of our talents will be the next big star – it’s about time we got ready for another generation of truly global superstars representing Asia.

So if we're hosting a Prestige Party, you’d ask us ...

What’s the element of surprise? What’s the venue? What are you doing that no one else has done? And lastly, what’s the budget? But my first question is, always, what’s the purpose of your event? That’s the jumping-off point. 

To watch a behind-the-scenes video of our interview with Peter Cheung, click here.