Time for another change for Zeman about town

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 3:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 3:10am

Entertaining Hong Kong seems to be the theme behind Allan Zeman's career, earning a fortune and a wealth of respect on his way to the top.

The Canadian-born entrepreneur was famous for turning Lan Kwai Fong into an icon for Hong Kong nightlife before he was parachuted into the government-owned Ocean Park in 2003. He took over as its chairman in the midst of the Sars-induced economic doldrums.

On June 30, Zeman will leave the post after an 11-year stint that has turned the theme park's financial losses into healthy profits and seen off fears that the 37-year-old park would not survive Disney's arrival in town in 2005. At one point, Zeman was referred to as "the mouse-killer".

"There are so many unforgettable things I've done over the years," Zeman told the South China Morning Post yesterday. "It is the joy of being able to bring happiness to Hong Kong and creating something that attracts worldwide attention."

Zeman's penchant for wearing eye-catching outfits to the park's press conferences certainly helped garner attention. He's been a jellyfish, a showgirl and a bathing panda - and even flew in once by jet pack.

Zeman was aged 19 when he moved to Hong Kong and once described arriving in the city as like landing on the moon.

He started exporting clothing back to Canada but by 1983, Zeman had opened his first restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong.

Zeman said he bought California Tower and California Entertainment Building over 25 years ago for about HK$160 million. They are now worth billions. As his empire grew, he earned himself the nickname "Mr Lan Kwai Fong".

Zeman has since exported the Lan Kwai Fong model, most notably to mainland cities such as Chengdu , in Sichuan province, where local authorities are eager to replicate his success.

Zeman admits to knowing little about the theme park industry when he was installed at the helm of Ocean Park.

He oversaw a HK$5.5 billion makeover between 2006 and 2012 and it is now one of the 10 most visited theme parks in the world, consistently outperforming Disney locally.

His reputation for breaking the mould was further sealed in 2008 when, tired of being seen as a foreigner in Hong Kong, he opted to give up his Canadian passport for a Chinese one. He called it a testament to his faith in the Chinese system.

Zeman has served on the chief executive Election Committee, as well as various other government committees, boards and advisory bodies dealing with a wide range of issues.

As well as being a successful property developer in Hong Kong and beyond, Zeman has also financed film and television production, most notably as chairman of Los Angeles-based Sweetpea Entertainment.

There may be one deal he failed to pull off though. In the early '90s, he was behind a fruitless drive to have Michael Jackson kick off his Dangerous world tour in Hong Kong.