This story is part of our June 2020 cover story, a series of articles profiling internationals who have made – or are making – an impact in China. To read more fascinating profiles from this series, click here.
We know of very few people as devoted to their city as Dr. Allan Zeman. Known as Mr. Lan Kwai Fong for his role in developing one of the liveliest entertainment districts in Hong Kong, Zeman has encapsulated the invigorating entrepreneurial spirit of Hong Kong since he first arrived in the ’70s.
Born in Germany post-World War II and raised in Canada, Zeman’s early life was disrupted with the passing of his father when he was 7 years old.
“We didn’t come from a wealthy family, but I guess I was always a risk-taker, a calculated risk-taker,” he tells us over a video call, sporting his classic look – an open neck shirt with an upturned collar – from a meeting room in Hong Kong.
Zeman left school and joined the fashion industry at 16, and started his own business at the age of 19. “I always thought if someone else can do it then why can’t I?”
His first company, called Jump for Charlie, earned USD1 million in profit in its first year, with the young entrepreneur making sourcing trips to Hong Kong, which he refers to as the “factory of the world” during those days. He eventually decided to move to Hong Kong in 1975, in part due to the much lower 15% corporate tax rate at the time. But Hong Kong’s lure extended far beyond financial gains.
“Hong Kong was a place you can have a dream at night and the next day make it a reality,” Zeman says about his early days living in the city. He would go on to start a successful trading company, Colby Trading Group, opening 35 offices around the world, including an early outpost in Changsha, Hunan province. “The reason I went to Hunan was that it was the birthplace of Chairman Mao and at that time, as a young kid, I figured it was kind of the office of China,” Zeman recalls, noting how the electricity would go off in the nighttime so they’d play ping pong by candlelight. “I learned very quickly about doing business in China, and my experience at such an early stage was amazing. I love China, and even at that time the people were very innocent, very open to new ideas and they hadn’t seen many foreigners in those years.”
Zeman and longtime partner and friend Bruce Rockowitz would later go on to sell Colby Trading Group to competitor Li & Fung for HKD2.2 billion in 2000.
Zeman’s portfolio of businesses expanded greatly in the ’80s and ’90s, many of which started in Lan Kwai Fong. Under his stewardship, the area in Central became a nightlife hotspot – a concept that Zeman has exported to Chinese mainland cities like Shanghai and Chengdu.
In 2003, Zeman was appointed chairman of amusement park Ocean Park by former Chief Executive of Hong Kong Tung Chee-Hwa. He would go on to have a significant role in rejuvenating and redeveloping the park over his 11-year tenure, and effectively thwarted the big opening of Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005. “I beat Disney, which no one has ever done in the world and Forbes magazine dubbed me as ‘Mouse Killer,’ and so it was a big loss of face for Disney … that name has stuck with me.”
As chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings, Zeman continues to influence various industries both in China and Asia at large. But his contributions in the political sphere, where he sits on different committees for government and is an advisor to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, are unique. “I feel that I’m kind of a bridge between the Western and Eastern worlds, especially with China. If there are things they want to understand, or they are not sure about something going on, I get calls and try to help them understand,” he tells us.
In 2008, Zeman decided to give up his Canadian passport and become Chinese. “I’ve done so much for Hong Kong and China I just felt it’s my home and I don’t have another home now, so I feel – with my family and kids here – this is home,” he tells us, expressing he feels he “made the right decision.”
To read more fascinating profiles from this series, click here.
[Images provided by Lan Kwai Fong Group]