It would turn out to be the first of many publicity master classes from Zeman, whose focus on raising the park’s profile while at the same time transforming it from the ground up would rake in record profits; when he stood down in 2014, visitor numbers were at 7.73 million, up from just under three million when he took over in 2003. Even Disneyland, which opened in 2005, couldn’t slow him down. “It showed that can-do spirit which is what Hong Kong is all about. We thought outside the box and weren’t intimidated by the competition,” Zeman reflects.
Like Ocean Park, or the LKF Group he founded in the 1980s, Allan Zeman has become one of the most recognisable brands in the city. But it’s one that he was developing long before coming to Hong Kong.
After the death of his father when Zeman was just seven years old, he began working to help support his family. He started his first job as a paper boy at just 10, before picking up a weekend job cleaning tables at a local steakhouse when he turned 12. A thirst for work – and money – had begun: “I was pulling in about $60 [Canadian] a week while going to school. I was earning more money at the age of 12 than my teachers.”
By 19, the real-life Richie Rich started his own fashion business. At the end of his first year, he’d earned his first million. Importing ladies’ jumpers from Hong Kong was Zeman’s first contact with the city that would soon become his home. Frustrated with the lack of informal restaurants in the city (“I wanted to get away from that colonial stuffiness”), he turned his fashion fortunes to developing, and opened California Restaurant in 1983. This started a domino effect with Zeman buying out space after space, earning the title “Father of Lan Kwai Fong”, and slowly turning the area into the nightlife district that we know today.
By the time Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa came calling in 2003, Zeman was the city’s leading entertainment mogul. Who better to take on the fearsome Disneyland that was on its way?
As Zeman now approaches his 70s and with no more Mickeys left to slay, his focus has shifted to new markets (the LKF Group has major developments in Chengdu and Shanghai) and to new blood. He is keen for young, aspiring businessmen and women to share the same ambitious vision he’s had since childhood.
Yet the new generation of wannabe tycoons faces troubling times. Getting a big break means first struggling through years of low-salaried placements or unpaid internships. Even a degree is no longer a guarantee of employment.
To top it off, the growing political and financial uncertainty in the city and across the Sham Chun River poses more questions than answers for the next generation. Could there ever be another Allan Zeman?
The response from the man himself is frank but hopeful: “There’s going to be a lot of disruption in the world and to be successful, try to fit into that changing culture. Don’t try to change it yourself. Always think of yourself as a customer, never as an owner.
“Entrepreneurs should be prepared to do whatever they need to do to make their product successful. Even if that means wearing funny costumes.”