A challenging start brought out the best in Hong Kong hotelier and restaurateur with a knack for identifying winning trends
|(Ma Xuejing / CHINA DAILY）|
It was an unexpected challenge that marked Yenn Wong’s entry into the hospitality segment.
In 2003, her father, Malaysia-based construction and real estate tycoon Danny Wong, acquired a property in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay shopping district. It was a three-star hostel with numerous illegal structures, and he asked his then 23-year-old daughter — who had just graduated from the University of Western Australia — to come up with a business model for the building.
Given her lack of hotel experience, Wong found the prospect daunting at first. The hospitality scene in Hong Kong did not offer a wide array of options at that time. Travelers either opted for swanky five-star hotels or lower-tier accommodation.
In the United States and Europe, however, idiosyncratic boutique hotels provided abundant choice for travelers in the space between luxury and lowbrow accommodation. So, Wong thought it was time Hong Kong caught up with this trend. She tapped critically acclaimed French designer Philippe Starck to give shape to her ideas.
However, the project soon faced a major setback. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, hit the city in 2003. No one seemed to know how long the epidemic would last and Wong halted construction for months.
“In hindsight, we should have completed the project, because it cost money to stop the work of contractors and insurers,” she recalled.
When Jia Hong Kong, now renamed J Plus Hotel, opened in 2004, the economy had picked up. Strong media coverage of “the city’s first boutique hotel”, coupled with Starck’s participation in the project, stirred a lot of interest.
Accolades followed, including Best Design Hotel by National Geographic. “It was one of the major highlights of my life,” Wong said. Three years later, she opened Jia Shanghai in China, another boutique hotel.
The two establishments won further international acclaim by featuring in the Conde Nast Hot List and the Travel + Leisure It List.
The hotels taught Wong many lessons, including in running restaurants — notably her first dining concept, Opia, an Australia-themed operation at Jia Hong Kong.
Another memorable experience was Issimo at Jia Shanghai where she employed chefs from Naples to deliver Italian fare including Neapolitan pizzas.
The latter inspired her to open 208 Duecento Otto in Hong Kong. And successive hits kept coming, including the tapas venue 22 Ships in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district, with Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton’s creative interpretation of Spanish fare.
Yet another outlet was Chachawan, in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district, dishing feisty Isaan fare — northeastern Thai cuisine — which won rave reviews and long queues outside its premises.
In today’s hyper-competitive dining scene, concepts must be “precise”, Wong said.
“It’s not just about the restaurants being beautiful or the food being so good, now everything has to be right,” she added. The food, music, service, ambience and lighting have to be pitch perfect.
To run a successful restaurant in Hong Kong, Asia’s crowded mecca for fine dining, is not for the faint hearted. And she runs not just one but a dozen with standout dining concepts.
Looking at some of her acclaimed establishments, you immediately realize there is a formula at work. Wong selects anchor venues in up-and-coming neighborhoods with well-conceived menus and photogenic designs.
A case in point is 208 Duecento Otto, an Italian restaurant at the tail end of Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road. It is designed in gorgeous ceramic blue and white tiles with Asian illustrations, courtesy of Turkish design outfit Autoban.
Wong also flew in builders from Naples to craft a Neapolitan-style pizza oven at the site, so chefs can craft pies as close as possible to the originals from this Italian region.
Another example is the art-hub-cum-restaurant, Duddell’s, at Shanghai Tang Mansion in Central, Hong Kong. Here, patrons can observe works by some world-famous artists while tucking into Chinese food from a kitchen that has consistently earned two Michelin stars to date.
This concept was a collaborative effort with her husband, Alan Lo, who is a cofounder of the Classified Group of restaurants.
Wong’s newest venue in Hong Kong is Commissary, at the Pacific Place mall. The Southern Californian eatery serves tuna poke tostadas and fried chicken sandwiches to a predominantly corporate crowd.
“We’re not really a mall restaurant group,” said Wong. But Pacific Place’s parent company Swire Properties approached the hospitality group operator to join the premises.
Malls are undergoing tremendous disruption — with consumers shifting their shopping online, among other factors — and operators like Swire Properties have been shuffling their tenant mix to boost foot traffic.
“Malls need a bit of a revamp, and I think whatever worked in the past is not really working now,” Wong said.
She claims malls have become more accommodating, offering reduced rents or longer leases, for example, to lure operators that will bring value to the premises. “There are opportunities that come with difficulties,” she said.
The entrepreneur noted the difficulties in the restaurant scene, from diners tightening their purse strings in the current economic climate, to the surge of players entering the industry that has resulted in a very competitive market.
“Everyone wants to be a restaurateur — they think it’s fun, cool and easy to make money ... but it’s actually one of the riskiest of businesses.”
Like the retail sector, the dining sector in Hong Kong is hurting from dampened tourism to the city. During holiday seasons, residents tend to go abroad. During these periods, venues rely on tourists. “But they are not really coming to Hong Kong anymore,” said Wong.
She hopes the government will do more to make the city attractive to travelers. One idea is more effort to preserve local food, such as more hawker centers for homegrown fish-ball and noodle purveyors.
Wong hopes the administration will do more to encourage the younger generations to pick up such trades.
“The government can invest in locations where these people can survive with minimal rents,” said Wong, adding that the city has the means — citing the HK$92 billion ($11.8 billion) budget surplus announced in February — but not the will.
“(The government) doesn’t make an effort to preserve what’s valuable about Hong Kong,” she said.
While Wong has a knack for establishing restaurants and bars that generate a staunch following among gastronomes on the hunt for the latest trends, she never envisioned this life when she was young.
Despite her father’s business background, a conventional corporate career was not initially part of Wong’s plan. She grew up in Singapore and the family encouraged her to figure things out for herself. At an early age she was an avid gymnast and squash player.
“Since youth, my father would put difficult (challenges my way), and it helped me develop quite a strong character, to make sure I’d keep progressing rather than procrastinating,” she recalled.
Not one to let her concepts go stale, Wong is switching to other things in Hong Kong. These include a hostel project in Sham Shui Po, an area better known for garments and cheap electronics than hip accommodation.
Wong enlisted high-profile British designer Thomas Heatherwick to fashion a site into a social and community-oriented space that will resonate with millennials. “That’s the future, that’s how young people network, and it explains the (rise) of coworking spaces,” she said.
A food-oriented coworking space is also in development, which will feature a licensed central kitchen for entrepreneurs to test and churn out their concepts.
“We want to move to different areas … to see what else we can do. The market is getting very difficult, so a bit of diversification doesn’t hurt,” Wong said. Bio:
Founder and CEO of Jia Group
2004 to present: CEO of Jia Group
2010 onwards: Opened 208 Duecento Otto and subsequently 11 other restaurants.
2007: Opened Jia Shanghai
2004: Launched Jia Hong Kong
2015: Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs award from the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs Network
2015: Debrett’s Hong Kong 100
2009: Top 3 finalist for Rising Star award in the RBS Coutts/Financial Times Women in Asia Awards
What do you do to recharge your batteries?
I travel and wind down by learning about new concepts abroad. (Our family) loves New York, London and other places to see new concepts and designs. It’s refreshing to see what others are doing. We love street food and exploring the local food scene too.
Who are your role models?
I don’t have a specific role model. I like to learn different things from different people.
How do you juggle multiple hotel and restaurant businesses plus family, with a second child on the way?
It’s about trying not to be the perfect mother, boss or entrepreneur. It’s about balancing everything and understanding that you can’t be everywhere, every time.
Also, having a trusting and very good team is important; they are my hands, legs, eyes, ears. Nurturing loyalty and trust (in a team) is something I try to do throughout my career.