Master of finance and wing chun with movie-making under his belt
By day Checkley Sin Kwok-lam wears a suit and tie, but by night he transforms himself into a kung fu master worthy of his hero Bruce Lee. The 49-year-old could be called a jack-of-all-trades with a career spread over banking, martial arts and movie-making. But he is certainly not a master of none.
In business, he is chairman of First Credit, a company he co-founded to grant loans to small enterprises and individuals. At night time and weekends, he swaps his office attire for a blackbelt to teach wing chun to hundreds of students at his Man Keung Martial Arts Study Centre in Wan Chai. He is also a vice-chairman of the World Wing Chun Union.
His name has been spread across the entertainment pages of newspapers in recent years as an investor in the award-winning movie Ip Man, the story of the renowned kung fu master who taught Bruce Lee. Ip became a hero during the second world war in the fight against the Japanese.
'This was a movie not just about kung fu but about how to cope with tough times during war,' Sin said from his office. 'It emphasises the values of family, friendship and brotherhood.'
While insisting that the movie accurately depict wing chun, Sin said the movie also had to be entertaining.
'Bruce Lee was so successful because he depicted the real wing chun,' Sin said. 'That is exactly why I wanted to have a movie about the master, Ip Man.'
To achieve his goal, Sin was the voluntary wing chun instructor for the movie, which starred 48-year-old actor Donnie Yen as Ip. The film was a huge success both in terms of box-office taking and awards. It made more than HK$100 million on the mainland and won the best picture award at the Hong Kong Film Awards last year.
The success of the movie boosted the popularity of wing chun, and the original production team along with Yen have filmed Ip Man 2, which will premiere this month.
Sin is not an investor this time. Instead, he and other investors have produced a lower-budget movie, The Legend is Born - Ip Man, to be launched in July. The movie tells of the story of the kung fu master's youth, with Dennis To, who at 18 became the youngest-ever world kung fu champion, playing Ip.
'I prefer to invest in movies with new faces. It is cheaper and means lower risk. A big cast is too expensive and risky,' Sin said.
Concern about controlling costs and reducing risks stems from his daily job as a banker and maybe from his upbringing. Born and bred in Hong Kong, Sin was the youngest of seven children. His father was a civil servant while his mother was a hawker who sold towels and soap.
After graduating from high school in 1980, he joined Bangkok Bank as a junior. He has been a banker for 30 years, working his way up from a clerk to senior executive of several banks before becoming director and general manager of Wing Hang Credit. He took a break in his banking career in 2005 to study for a law degree at City University in London.
Sin set up First Credit in 2007 with other investors. Three years later, the company has five branches and the business has grown at 30 to 40 per cent annually.
As a veteran banker, what made you invest in a movie?
It is related to my hobby. I started learning kung fu as a teenager. Martial arts is part of the Chinese culture that I admire the most. I have learnt several schools of kung fu, from tai chi to wing chun.
You have no experience in movie-making, so was the investment in Ip Man a big risk?
I don't think you should only do what you know. One can be successful in a new business as long as he or she does the research and study. Back in 2007, I asked people to gather a pool of investment to make the movie on Ip because I wanted to promote wing chun. We did careful cost-control planning and we did not use a top star who demanded too high a price. Yen was not so expensive back then and I voluntarily acted as action instructor without receiving a penny. The movie was a huge success and that proved that a newcomer could also be successful in the film-making industry.
Why aren't you investing in Ip Man 2? Is there a conflict with the movie you are making?
There is no conflict as Ip Man 2 is set when the master is older but mine is about his teenage period. I wanted to use my students and some new faces in the movie, including To. I do not want a big-star casting because many movies with big casts cannot earn a profit. Also, I believe we should give a chance to youngsters by using new faces on screen.
Turning to your banking career. How can your company, with only 39 people, compete with big banks?
It is like the Bible story of David and Goliath. We can win over banks because we are more focused and flexible. Since we do not collect deposits, we do not need a full banking licence from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and this allows us to be more flexible with our lending policies. For example, if someone gets a mortgage from a bank, the HKMA regulation stipulates that the bank can only lend 70 per cent of the property value. The property owner can come to my company to get the rest.
As many of your customers are rejected by banks, does that mean you have a high bad-debt ratio?
Not really. We have a reasonable bad-debt level. Those rejected by banks may not always be poor in repaying loans. Some small enterprises may not be able to get a bank loan because they don't have many property assets on hand as collateral but in fact their businesses have good prospects. This is why we have many small and medium-sized enterprises as our customers. We avoid bad debt by using our common sense to judge if a customer will fail to repay their loans.