- At 16, he was earning more than his teachers
- At 19, he flew across the world to look for his fortune
- In a noisy factory in Kowloon, he found it
IT WAS 1968, Hey Jude was on every radio, and a tall thin teenager disembarked from a Panam flight at Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong. The boy was on a mission: he had to import ladies’ sweaters for his business, a small fashion retailer in Montreal called Jump For Charlie.
Allan Zeman was just 19 years old but was already a seasoned businessman. Three years earlier he had thought about opting for higher education, but then realized that he was already earning more money than any of the teachers. People said that you needed paper qualifications to make it these days, but he had gone into the world of work early and discovered for himself that this wasn’t true.
By the age of 16, he had a job and his own car. It was a convertible (of course) and, yes, he was very popular with girls. One young Canadian was already living the American Dream.
But he needed to keep that business going – and had heard intriguing things about “the factory of the world” on the other side of the planet. No, not China, which was an agricultural country in those days, but Hong Kong, a tiny place that produced an astonishing amount of goods for the international markets. Again, he decided that he needed to take a step of faith and see it for himself.
ACROSS THE WORLD
That summer, the skinny teenager had traveled to New York to board a Pan American Airways flight to cross to the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
He made it to Hong Kong, to the factory of the world – and what he discovered changed his life forever. Chinese people were hard workers and could produce goods of high quality at a low price—and that meant a profit margin that could make a business work really well.
While most Western expats preferred to hang out at their clubs on Hong Kong Island, Allan Zeman was a serious worker, spending his days in the factory belt of darkest Kowloon – San Po Kong, Kwun Tong, and Tai Kok Tsui. That was where he knew he would find the secret of success.
And he found it. At the end of the year, he had a meeting with the company accountant. The good news – the firm had made an astonishing US$1 million in profit. “I’m rich,” he thought. He told the accountant: “Write me a cheque for a million.”
“Not so fast,” the man replied, pointing out that this was Canada. “You have to pay tax.” The tax rate was an astonishing 50 per cent. So the teenager asked for a cheque for half a million dollars.
“Not so fast,” the tax man repeated. There were other fees to be paid, including personal tax. The cheque, when it was written out, was just US$425,000. “It was still a lot of money for a 19-year-old,” Zeman admits. But it got him thinking.
On a return trip to Hong Kong, he was told by woman named Lydia Dunn, who worked for the Swire Group, that tax in the city was just 15 per cent.
That was a bargain, but there was an even bigger idea in the back of his mind. Allan had an epiphany. If he thought of himself as a young Canadian entrepreneur, his customers included the public of Montreal, Toronto and so on. But if he became a Hong Konger, his market was the entire world.
Back home, he went to break the news to his mother. “I’m moving to Hong Kong,” he said. She replied: “Japan? Why would you want to live in Japan?” The rest, as they say, is history. The story was told to interviewer Patrick Tsang in Friday Beyond Spotlights. Click this line to watch the show.
DISREGARD THE MEDIA
The blatantly false reporting about Hong Kong and mainland China for decades has left the entrepreneur blasé about what the people of the planet are told about this part of the world. Smart people know they shouldn’t place too much store in what they read — they need to go and see things for themselves.
In 1997, the media repeatedly wrote about “the death of hong Kong” and all the “expats leaving” in advance of what was painted as the terrifying arrival of the communists.
“Everybody would be in handcuffs,” he said. “At the stroke of midnight all the tanks and the PLA would be coming across the border, and that would be the end of our freedom.”
THE OPPOSITE HAPPENED
Of course nothing like that happened. Almost every measure in Hong Kong, from the rule of law to the efficiency of business to the freedom of the press, went UP rather than down in the years following the 1997 handover.
“At the time, media would keep trashing China,” he recalled. “It’s communist! It’s bad!” And yet anyone could just go over the border and see what was really happening: a building boom that was unlike anyone had ever seen anywhere else in the world. Office blocks, homes, and other infrastructure appeared at high speed. “Even secondary and third tier cities were getting better and better,” he said. “It was really something amazing for me to see.”
Allan Zeman, of course, became famous for multiple reasons. His garment business was a huge success, he went into the restaurant business and became known as the “king of Lan Kwai Fong”, the bar district of Hong Kong Island, and many local people know him for his work with Ocean Park, the city’s oldest theme park.
There were other businesses too, and he soon became a big part of civic society.
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
The violent Hong Kong unrest of 2019 was another occasion where there was a gulf between what the world was told and what really happened. “The U.S. was dying to have ‘another Tiananmen Square’,” he said. “They thought China would come across the border and take over, but China was so smart: they didn’t.”
And what of the future? Allan Zeman is now 72 years old, and still enjoys his work. But also likes helping the members of the young generation look past what they are told and see the changes in the world for themselves.
“In the past, everyone in the east used to go west, send your kids to school in the west, do business in the west and all that,” he said. “In the future, my advice to young people? The reverse: young people in the west, look east.”
Of course, young people find it hard to make up their minds about what their best path is, but Allan is happy to report that one of the best, simplest plans is still available to everyone. “Just hop on a plane like I did and come out to Hong Kong,” he said.
Season One of Friday Beyond Spotlights is hosted by Patrick Tsang On-yip, Vice-Chairman and Executive Director of i-Cable Communications and CEO and Director of Chow Tai Fook Enterprises; and Nick Chan Hiu-fung, a lawyer and elected lawmaker serving on the National People’s Congress.
TV images from Friday Beyond Spotlights. Click here to watch the show.