Lighting luminary adds some sparkle to the city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2006, 12:00am

For Sonya Wu On, all roads have led to the family firm, whose work runs from illumination to investment

Most people see the Hong Kong skyline in terms of its diverse architecture, but to Sonya Wu On it's a naked stage waiting to be lit.

As managing director of Aspirations, the international lighting, construction and corporate branding firm, she thinks big - and high. Whether at Hong Kong headquarters, or branch offices in New York and Vancouver, she is focused on winning the next government tender for festival or decorative lighting here, in Canada or the United States.

For her and the 4,000 staff at the firm's Guangdong factory, Christmas and Lunar New Year begin now, as her creative teams plan how the buildings and streets of Hong Kong and other cities will be lit from December to February.

So time-sensitive is the highly competitive festive lighting industry in the Pearl River Delta that displays must be planned months ahead to ensure delivery deadlines are not thwarted by shortages of water and electricity, she says. Everyone is looking over each other's shoulder. 'Because of the supply and demand chain, different factories have developed different techniques to speed up production,' Ms Wu explains.

Aspirations is part of privately-owned family conglomerate Hong Kong & Asia Ltd, whose interests include commercial property investments in New York and Vancouver, mattress maker Prosperity and hotpot restaurants as well as lighting.

Ms Wu says her parents, Michael Wu Fook and Patsy Wu Lai Yin-tong, groomed her and her sister, financier Tania Wu Mun, to take over the family business from an early age.

Always a high achiever, she was sent from Hong Kong to school in Vancouver at the age of 12, graduating in mathematical sciences from the University of British Columbia and going on to postgraduate studies in computer graphics at Parsons School of Design in New York.

She did the Elite Exchange Programme at Harvard University, while a stint as a news editorial designer at the New York Times taught her the importance of meeting deadlines.

She returned to Hong Kong when AOL Time Warner recruited her as senior editorial designer of Time Inc's Asiaweek.

This was all grist to her major task - bringing new technologies and design ideas to the lighting business to keep it competitive.

Having a solid track record is an advantage when bidding for government work, she says, since only a few rivals have endorsed public contracts in their portfolios.

'With government tenders, all previous experience counts.'

From government projects, she has branched out into laser shows, corporate and charity events for clients such as the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce and Operation Smile, concert and backdrop lighting and even LED for catwalk work.

You name it, Aspirations will light or adorn it. 'With government property, our construction teams also do lamp post decorations. Without lighting, any place is incomplete,' she says.

It is a tremendous responsibility for someone aged 27. She is operating a company that incorporates property investment, trading, lighting, construction as well as upgrading design elements, but she demonstrates the cool demeanour and maturity of someone much older.

Yet her father and mother are always on hand with advice. While her father, now over 70, runs the overall business, her mother is managing director of Prosperity, with 80 staff in Hong Kong.

She is increasingly involved in the operations side to ensure the workforce absorbs her new design and technology ideas.

'I want full knowledge so I can assist the family business and ultimately run the whole thing,' she says. 'All the preparation I do is for that. I want to be as successful as my parents. They built it up and want to hand it to my sister and I.'

The sisters plan to run the empire together. 'My sister, who is six years older than me, has a very sound financial background. I'm the creative production side - I get my hands dirty, she's the pen pusher. I think we're quite a pair.'

Ms Wu appreciates her strict upbringing. 'My parents never thought summer holidays were a good idea. They believed my mind would go on holiday for too long.' She did internships at her father's friends' firms from an early age.

'I'm fairly grounded,' she admits, having always been focused on taking over the business. 'My parents sent me to be educated at places like Harvard to become independent.'

In addition to travelling between Hong Kong, Canada and the US for business, Ms Wu finds time to be vice-president of Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce's women executives committee, a committee member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and active in Rotary. She is also a stalwart of the Hong Kong Golf Club.

As if that is not enough, she is also a guest professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's school of hotel and tourism management.

Focused is the word. She looks out the window and points enthusiastically to a lamp post that is being decorated. 'We do that too. And we've just started doing outdoor signage - metal signs with concrete footings.'