“Are you going to disappear?”
Allan Zeman shakes his head and laughs.
“Get sawn in half?”
“I can’t imagine having two of me. What a horrible thought!” he says, beaming a big, white smile.
We’re discussing a grand entrance he filmed recently with a magician for the opening party of the newly revamped California Tower. The irrepressible businessman is no stranger to spectacle. Over the years he’s made outlandish entrances by helicopter, in costume and, at the ground-breaking ceremony for Ocean Park’s Water World, even down a water slide.
Today, though, he’s keeping shtum on the details for the event, his baby, which is at the heart of his Lan Kwai Fong entertainments empire. All he will say is this: “When they told me the idea, I told them, ‘That’s crazy.’”
Zeman loves crazy. His career is packed with it, with making the impossible possible. In 1983, and fronting a growing fashion business, Zeman sat down to dinner in a place on D’Aguilar street. A week or so later he returned, to buy it, and opened California Restaurant – and a few years after that he bought the whole block, and the one next door, creating Lan Kwai Fong.
“It has been known and loved by so many people,” he says of the tower. “So many Hong Kong people grew up with it. We’ve had every star in the world pass through.”
Two and a half decades on and a makeover was in order. Today, we’ve arranged to view the results, meeting at the tower’s 25th floor, at Cé La Vi, a ritzy restaurant/bar that has been a success in its native Bali and then at Singapore’s Marina Bay. We’re scheduled to meet on the terrace Skybar, which has a Jacuzzi as its centrepiece (another “crazy idea,” says Zeman).
Until now, November had been uncharacteristically bright and hot, but today the sky has turned a hazy grey and so the rooftop is vetoed in favour of the bar below. Still, Zeman appears as sunny as yesterday’s weather. Sliding into a booth, his navy suit and crisp white shirt – an ensemble he designed and had tailored – complements the bar’s equally well-groomed deep wood and plush blue-velvet interiors, and as a glass of warm water with a side of lemon appears, he settles down to business.
Like a proud father trying not to play favourites, he’s keen to mention all of the outlets handpicked to pack the new tower’s 27 floors. Zeman runs smoothly through many of them. Celebrity restaurants from Korean Judy Juu, it-chef-of-the-moment, and Jean-Georges Vong-erichten will entertain foodies, steak will be served at David Laris’s Porterhouse, and exotic cocktails at Townhouse. A hair salon, gym, and health-food place are among the “lifestyle” mix.
One surprise is Nest, a local start-up incubator. Zeman explains that he’s keen to foster to the next generation of business go-getters, and hopes this will provide a space. A day before the interview, he’d announced he’d joined the board of Alibaba’s new non-profit fund created to encourage start-ups, and earlier in the month he’d joined calls for the government to ban all ivory trading – a young person’s cause, he says.
His own can-do attitude seems synonymous with Hong Kong’s famed industriousness. It’s an energy that’s still around for those who want it, he says, though he understands conditions for start-ups are pressured, with lack of space and high rents. He says he’s suggested to the government a plan to allocate land on Lantau for start-up entrepreneurs. “At least then young people might feel the government is there for them, which is missing at the moment,” he says.
“It’s important that our young people continue to strive to make Hong Kong a better place because they’re the future. It’s their place,” he says.
For young entrepreneurs Zeman is a natural figurehead. His is a compelling story, of a Montreal boy who lost his father at seven years old and started work at 10. In the late ’70s, soon after arriving in Hong Kong, he spotted an opportunity to export clothes and grabbed it, grappling with the manufacturers in old Kowloon to do so. He admires creativity and says Steve Jobs is a hero, but his own success, he says, is due to him “just trudging along with my head down”.
His “trudge” is most people’s high velocity, with a schedule that would be considered rigorous even for a man half his age. He’s always busy, with business interests that see him hobnobbing with government figures across the region, and as a community figure too. Does he ever say no to anything? He thinks for a minute. “I can’t remember the last time I did,” he says, and laughs.
Yet he never begins a morning without an hour on the treadmill, even if, like yesterday, he awoke at 3.45am to catch a flight in from Manila. “I’m a very disciplined person,” he says. “And I’m very positive. You need that to make things happen.”
With this focus on the new generation, is he readying to pass on the empire – to, perhaps, retire? “Well,” he says, “I never think about that. As long as I feel I have a brain that can be useful, I just can’t imagine retiring. I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. At this moment I think I’m OK,” he says, his smile now a little strained, like he’s suffered an insult.
There’s only one moment when the Zeman shimmer fades. The photographer turns away to check images. With no focus on him, Zeman flags. His head hangs from his shoulders, his hands rest in his lap and he stares ahead, blank.
But then the photographer makes a request and Zeman snaps back. “I can do anything you want,” he says, springing up, arms wide. “I do this kind of thing every day.”
His immense will to power through means that the show, for Zeman, will always go on. Retirement? No way! Not when there’s money to be made, deals to be done, costumes to be worn and a trick or two to perform. At the opening party, I bet he gets sawn in half. There’s no way he’d simply disappear.