Nat chan pak-cheung
Nat chan pak-cheung IF YOU'RE an expat, you're probably looking at the name on the left and murmuring, 'Who on earth is Nat Chan?' If you're Chinese, you're already groaning, 'Not Nat Chan again.' Chan, as someone told me last week, is completely overexposed, entirely full of himself, never off television or out of the Chinese magazines and deserves a media rest. He refers to himself as Number One because that's what his name means in Cantonese. I thought he sounded perfect, and paged him immediately. His account number, naturally, was one.
He suggested we meet at seven.
In the morning. Then he changed the time three times and sent his car (a purple Mercedes-Benz) to pick me up mid-afternoon to interview him between meetings in a dim sum restaurant. Although he's famous for being funny (which he is) and for winning on horses (which he does), he spends much of his time closeted in rooms talking, very seriously, about money, because he's really a businessman. Two years ago, he set up an agency called Star East which represents 80 of Hong Kong's best-known celebrities - including Jackie Chan, Alan Tam and Anita Mui - and he now plans to do a Canto version of Planet Hollywood. He is about to open six Star East restaurants round the world (one in Guangzhou opened last October, and Singapore, Malaysia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and Los Angeles will follow in the next six months) at which the stars will occasionally come out at night to croon at thrilled diners.
'Our concept is much better,' declared Chan. 'Planet Hollywood has five, maybe six, artists, they cut the ribbon, they go away. No servicing. We have 80 and every month there will be entertainment - mini-concerts, discos - to support each restaurant. We will be like McDonald's in three to five years.' He paused and briefly contemplated this comparison and evidently decided it was too paltry. 'In McDonald's, the profit margin is low, they are not our competitors. Actually, we don't have competitors because all the Asian stars are in my hands. It's a sure win.' And if there's one thing Chan believes he knows, it's a sure win. He's notorious for his gambling, an instinct which has been with him since birth. (Which was when? 'I'm 25,' he lied with a big laugh.) I made tut-tutting noises and he said, 'Gambling is an investment ... I just don't always know when I get the profit. But now I have the key, I won't lose it. When I go to the race course now, it's like [earning] my salary.' Salaries are not something upon which he has always been able to rely. He led a rackety existence in his youth, playing guitar and sax in the Vietnam-era bars of Wan Chai. In 1973, he told fellow band member Alan Tam that the best way to make money was in the garment industry and he was therefore abandoning music. Tam promptly changed the name of the band from The Losers to The Winners and became a star, while Chan boomed and went bust in three years.
In 1976, he ended up selling raincoats in Bahrain. How often does it rain in Bahrain? 'Two days a year. But I convinced them. I revised my formula so that I will never fail again. I was 25. That's why I'm always 25, it was the best year of my learning.' He went to Egypt, gambled in hotel casinos to keep himself in funds, and returned to Hong Kong in 1979 to find his old pal Tam was famous. 'And I was nothing. I told him that in three years I'd catch him up. And I did, in TV and movies. Alan is my best partner in everything, we are stayers. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.' You must have the Midas touch, I said, glancing casually at his hands. I suddenly saw that the flesh of both was corrugated. 'Burns,' said Chan quietly. 'A stupid stunt, seven gasoline bombs which blew in not out - I spent 40 days in hospital in 1982. That ended my TV life. But pain is nothing, in Chinese there is a saying that the burned place is the place to invest so I say that I'm the most lucky man after that.' Doesn't he ever feel a shiver of insecurity? 'I'm very humble within myself, but not to my enemies.' Are there many of those? 'I hope so. The strongest enemy you have is your challenge. My only hobby is winning.' Which is why when he came up with a paging company in 1992, the first in Chinese, he called it Champion Technology. There was a confusing moment when he told me about the asset value of this venture shortly after it was floated; it was worth either $6 billion or $6 trillion - he wrote down the Chinese character in my notebook and we both gazed at it for a while - but you get the picture.
No wonder he's such a good comedian, laughing all the way to the bank via the race-track and car showrooms. Horse power, of either variety, is an obsession: he has a purple Lamborghini he announced, in the middle of a sentence about something else, and he's just bought a horse in New Zealand. When I asked him why he didn't buy a decent Irish one, he said that as Hong Kong was in the southern hemisphere, he wanted to stay south. A little geography lesson ensued and he shouted 'I know, I know' a lot, explaining that it was really the volcanic soil of New Zealand that made all the difference.
He's been with the same woman, Wong Han-sau, for 25 years but he doesn't believe in marriage. Or children. 'If I had a wife or children, I couldn't gamble. I'd hesitate. And no child can be as smart as me so how will they survive?' Dear me, how sad, I said. But Chan laughed. Everything, it seems, makes him laugh. 'Even when it's a small profit, I laugh.' What about a large loss? 'I laugh. I won't suffer failure anymore, not after 1976. I keep on winning until the last laugh.'