Hotelier and restaurateur Yenn Wong on how a crisis launched her career
Hotelier and restaurateur has made some bold moves since being thrown into the deep end more than 10 years ago, writes Tracey Furniss
Hotelier and restaurateur Yenn Wong was only 23 years old and newly graduated when she helmed her first major project, designing the JIA boutique hotel in Causeway Bay.
"It wasn't something that I planned, it was more of an opportunity that happened," Wong says. It was during the 2003 Sars crisis in Hong Kong that her father, Malaysian business tycoon Danny Wong, thought it was a good time to invest. "So, he bought that little building in Causeway Bay and he basically just said, 'OK, you want to be an entrepreneur? You figure out what to do with that building'."
Yenn Wong decided to turn the building, just off Jardine's Bazaar, into Hong Kong's first designer boutique hotel.
"At that time, there were many beautiful five-star hotels in Hong Kong, but there were not any boutique hotels," she says.
"I used to travel a lot with my family and I used to love to stay in boutique hotels, so I thought Hong Kong was ready for a boutique hotel."
Reflecting on the project, Wong admits it was a bold step because of her inexperience. "I just thought, 'Oh, let's just do it' without thinking too much about it," she says.
"We looked at it from an investor point of view as well, for the building is tiny, but it is in a very interesting, bustling location in Causeway Bay. Also, financially, in order to get a better return on the investment, we felt doing something like this would be interesting."
She hired world-renowned designer Philippe Starck to work on the project, and the hotel opened to much fanfare in 2004.
Several years later, she opened JIA Shanghai and its Italian restaurant Issimo a year later. In 2006, Wong turned to her hometown of Singapore, adding her first restaurant, Graze, to the city in a black and white colonial-style house with a 5,000 sq ft garden in Rochester Park.
Next came Kha in 2008 - a casual-chic restaurant serving classic Thai cuisine with a modern twist - now located in the prestigious Martin 38 area in Singapore, where last year she also opened the paella bar Bomba.
She attributes her entrepreneurial style of business to that of her father's, and says he was her biggest influence while growing up.
"My father was an entrepreneur, and actually we did not see much of him because he was travelling most of the time. But every time we specifically spent time together, we always had a really good time," she says. "Then I learned that he was doing his own business, and how challenging and how hard it was, and I always thought that I wanted to be like him when I grew up.
"He was in construction. That's how I learned about construction, because I used to follow him to a lot of different sites and I learned from him - how [at first] there is nothing there and suddenly, over the months, something very beautiful has been built, and that interested me a lot over the years," she says.
"My parents came from a very humble background and they made their money themselves and, so, I thought that was very inspiring."
Her JIA hotels and restaurants in Shanghai and Singapore have won many accolades for food and design. Wong herself has won several awards, including 2006 Innovative Entrepreneur of the Year by Hong Kong's City Junior Chamber; Hospitality Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2006 Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards; and the Martell Rise Above Award for 2007.
She was also in Businessweek's top 26 list of Asia's Best Young Entrepreneurs in 2008, and was among the three finalists for the Rising Star Award by the Financial Times and RBS Coutts' Women in Asia Awards for 2009.
Wong has never felt any discrimination as a woman in business. "By the time I came out to work, Hong Kong was already equal in terms of men and women. It was quite good because I was young, I was a woman and it was to my advantage that a lot of people were willing to give me advice and help me from their own experiences because I think they thought that, 'Oh, you know, she's young, she's a girl'."
It's been a busy year for Wong, with multiple restaurants opening in Shanghai and Hong Kong. In Shanghai, she opened Matto Bar and Pizzeria in the Pudong district and Capo, a modern take on traditional Italian "cookhouse" food in the city's Rockbund area.
In Hong Kong, her latest projects include Duddell's, an art-focused Chinese dining venue in Central designed by Ilse Crawford, with an upper-floor bar that includes a garden terrace. New in Sheung Wan is Thai eatery and bar Chachawan, which is next to her already established 208 Duecento Otto - one of the city's hot spots.
One of her business partners is husband Alan Lo, founder of the Press Room Group of restaurants that includes The Pawn, Classified, The Principal and others. Married for nearly two years, the couple are expecting their first child.
"I am still quite a traditional Chinese woman. I do believe that family is very important," says Wong, who subscribes to a balanced life and making time for family.
"Being entrepreneurs, we are lucky ... we have a flexible timeline," she says. "As much as you have to make a lot of effort when it comes to doing business, you have to make an equal amount of effort to balance out your life and to make time for your family." Her busy schedule continues in the near future, as she intends to open two new outlets in collaboration with Michelin-star chef Jason Atherton to add to their already successful 22 Ships tapas bar in Wan Chai.
"We are opening up another two outlets with Jason Atherton. One is actually a jamon sherry bar, which is opposite 22 Ships because it's quite crowded there, and we would like to create another space so that people can enjoy post- and pre-dinner drinks.
"We are also doing a bigger restaurant project with Jason at the married police quarters on Hollywood Road, and that's happening sometime I think [in] April next year."