Allan Zeman talks about why he’ll never give up on Hong Kong

March 16, 2022 10:21
"Hong Kong always bounces back,” says Allan Zeman, founder of the LKF Group.  (Photo: Reuters/supplied to Tatler)

“I’ve been through this movie many times before, in many different eras, and Hong Kong always bounces back,” says Allan Zeman, founder of the LKF Group. Here, the tycoon talks to Tatler about why he thinks Hong Kong will soon rise once again

As the chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group, Allan Zeman could pack his bags and move anywhere in the world, any time he likes. So why does the billionaire tycoon choose to stay in Hong Kong amid the ongoing pandemic? Because, in his words, “There’s no better place”. In an exclusive interview, Zeman shares his struggles with the pandemic and addresses the viral WhatsApp message he sent to chief executive Carrie Lam.

“March 11, 2022

Mentally, dealing with the pandemic has been very difficult. We’re going on three years now. Hong Kong did a very good job with the Alpha and Delta variants by closing borders internationally and with China. We were the global poster child for keeping the virus out. Then, we were two days away from opening the border with China, but Omicron came and it was a different beast altogether.

I have stayed in Hong Kong this whole time because I wouldn’t be able to handle the 21-day quarantine. I learnt to Zoom and business continued. Actually, during our zero-infection period with the first two strains of the virus, business was not bad. We learnt to open and close, and open and close again, and it was OK: we got by.

But with Omicron, Hong Kong has lagged compared to everywhere else in the world. I look at what’s going on and retail is a ghost town. It’s very difficult to do business with restaurants having a two-person per table rule. It just doesn’t work. Clubs, bars and gyms have been closed since January and every business is fighting for its life.

I’m both a landlord and an operator. I am trying to work with my tenants to keep them alive and figure out how we can help them. For our own restaurants and business, I’m trying to figure out how to survive this, because with tables capped at two people at lunchtime, it’s hard to pay the bills. We’ve had to implement some unpaid leave for staff. I don’t like doing that, but we had no choice. I’ve tried not to lay off staff and we support them as best we can. I really commend my staff. Many are working from home on Zoom, but many are frightened.

I’ve spoken to a lot of people in Hong Kong and to a lot of tycoon friends of mine, and everyone feels the same way. We’ll be happy to see the end of the virus. It’s caused a lot of problems and, of course, people are worried about the mass testing and that’s why a lot of people have left the city. People with children are worried they’d be separated from their kids if their child tests positive. The news has caused huge panic, which I understand.

I’ve been doing whatever I can to help Hong Kong. I’ve been working with the government. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they don’t. I wrote a letter to Carrie Lam which was supposed to be private and somehow got leaked. It caused a huge stir and went viral. People were happy that someone had spoken out. I wasn’t criticising the government; I was just trying to explain to [Lam] that we need one voice. The public is so confused by the mixed messages, and what we need is one voice that feels confident and assures people of what we can expect in the future.

I am thankful that China came to build extra facilities for isolation. Still, there was a lot of fake news: someone spread fake images of what the isolation facilities toilets looked like with no walls or privacy and they went viral around the world and freaked a lot of people out. That was upsetting to me.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews to try and get a positive story out about Hong Kong and dispel a lot of these rumours, because lots of places in the world have already gone through what we are now going through. The clearing of supermarket shelves was not unique to Hong Kong. I’m hoping to help Hong Kong people not to panic. We will get through this together.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Once the virus peaks which, according to the University of Hong Kong, happened on March 4, the infection rate drops very quickly. Vaccination rates have also gone up which will also help to [mitigate the virus’ impact], like it did every else in the world.
We went through this lull in 1997, when the Handover happened, and people didn’t trust the idea of Hong Kong going back to China. I’ve been through the ups and downs of Hong Kong, and many media outlets have called this pandemic the end of Hong Kong. I really don’t believe that. I think we’re in a temporary lull and Hong Kong will come back very strong once this is over, like other countries around the world.

Yes, many people have left Hong Kong. But China needs a strong, international Hong Kong. China doesn’t need another 7.5 million people-strong Chinese city. One country, two systems is important to China because Hong Kong is a super-connector for the West and the East. Of course, the future of Hong Kong is tied to China, but China is the fastest-growing economy in the world.

The 11 cities in the greater bay area [Zhaoqing, Foshan, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Huizhou, Jiangmen, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai] have an estimated population of 84 million people and, last year, had a combined GDP of US$1.67 trillion. Once those borders reopen again, a lot of people from all over the world will flock back here. This will send a positive message to the entire world and people will start trickling back into the city.

Post-pandemic, there’ll be revenge spending too. There’s pent-up demand. People have been locked up for too long. I hope that the last half of this year will be good for Hong Kong, just like it was for Europe, the US, Canada and the Middle East [when borders reopened].

I have business in many parts of the world, and I’ve travelled everywhere and, after all this time, I have not given up on Hong Kong because, to me, Hong Kong is still the best place in the world. I’ve been through this movie many times and Hong Kong always bounces back. And that’s why I haven’t given up and won’t give up on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong will only get stronger and stronger. Those people that stay here and have faith in it will be well rewarded. I am someone who can afford to leave and live anywhere in the world, but I choose Hong Kong because, to me, there is no better place. - Allan”

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