Telly vision

Robert Chua

At the entrance of the Wan Chai building in which Robert and Peggy Chua are about to be photographed, there happens to be a handwritten label stuck next to the studio's buzzer. It says 'News item'. As a coincidental reference to the Chuas it is both right and wrong. The Chuas, the couple who set up and run China Entertainment Television Broadcast, which beams programmes by satellite across the mainland, are evidently newsworthy.

The channel itself, however, is not - literally. It carries no news, no sex and no violence. To the people who have access to it, it brings wholesome entertainment of the sort with which America was once content in its own distant days of infant television. There is sentimental music, pristine humour, gentle hints on etiquette and English language lessons. There are simple magic tricks, which Chua demonstrates during a lull in the photo session. He makes a coin disappear into the slot of a plastic box - currently distributed free to viewers, although such items will later become part of CETV's merchandising plan - and reappear. Everyone applauds. Like his satellite, he beams. 'I love television,' he cries. 'Love it.' The Chua career philosophy could be summed up like this: now you see him, now you see even more of him. He has been a fixture of Hong Kong broadcasting since the 1960s when he created and produced Enjoy Yourself Tonight, the territory's longest running television show. He was responsible for the first Miss Hong Kong contest in 1973. His Robert Chua Production company then came up with RCP Ad Magazine which, while it won no prizes for creativity ('It's just a bang-bang thing,' as he once put it), also became a screen regular. Another bang-bang idea was to bring details of the Chin Chi-ming Miss ABC trial to the public via a telephone Infoline in 1991. This proved to be a lucrative service. Alas, the public was less interested to hear what the Princess of Wales had to say to a gentleman caller on the Squidgy tapes, which Chua also purchased for its delectation.

Meanwhile, he was introducing Charlie's Angels and pinball machines to the Chinese nation, and building up terrific contacts. With the first anniversary of CETV coming up in March, the former pinball wizard now has access to a huge chunk of Asia. Media writers call the sweep of a satellite's beam its footprint. But what Robert Chua has - and what the world's media barons very much covet as they cast their eyes on the land mass north of here - is even better. It is a foothold.

Whatever his detractors (of which there are a number) may say, no one can deny that Chua is successful and that his success is fuelled by genuine enthusiasm. The lurches in his moral perceptions about what is fit to be seen and heard, and a certain tendency to bear a grudge, can be laid on the altar of this devotion to the small screen. As, indeed, can his charm and accessibility to journalists. A mild query from this magazine in response to a press release from CETV, for instance, spawned five telephone calls within two days, an immediate offer of an interview, a proposal to continue the interview the following day, a phone call to apologise for the curtailment of the first interview (which had lasted a not inconsiderable hour and a half), and a suggestion of a third meeting immediately prior to the Chuas' flight to Las Vegas last Saturday for a television festival.

Despite the flat light of the CETV meeting room, he looks younger than a man who will be 50 in May. With his triangular grin, jerky hand movements and trademark black glasses, he resembles, to a remarkable extent, one of the puppets in a 1960s Gerry Anderson series; a cross, perhaps, between Thunderbirds' Brains and Joe 90. He tried changing the heavy-framed spectacles some years back. 'I had gold-rimmed ones, then silver ones but they didn't agree with me, I didn't feel comfortable. The Chinese are very superstitious ... I believe in sticking to what I know.' As a career plan, it has not failed him. Last New Year's Eve, when CETV became the first satellite television station outside China to produce a live television programme with a Chinese satellite service, it did so with 'a star-filled entertainment/variety special', which included such local Hong Kong celebrities as Lydia 'Fei Fei' Shum, Michael Lai and Lo Hoi-pang. This is exactly the kind of programme which Chua was producing 30 years ago, when he looked older and heavier than he does now. But if he's feeling frustrated, he's not going to let on. 'Going live is our biggest achievement, it's an endorsement of confidence in our station. You can imagine, one wrong word, something that is anti-communist, and you can be in big trouble. So you can't rush these things. Mine was the first foreign company in China in 1979 and I've learnt to be patient since then. We know when to push a little. But not too hard.' In the early press cuttings of the Chua career, on the other hand, life seems to have been entirely about rush and push; the usual label then was 'whizz-kid'. He was born in Singapore to a middle-class family in the fashion business with enough money to make things comfortable; he says that he and his two brothers had a maid each. Most unusually for that time and place, his parents divorced when he was, how old? 'Eight, nine, maybe 10,' he says, reluctantly. 'For me, anything that's sad, I forget ...

But it helped me, it taught me to defend myself. You learn. I'm quick to adapt.' Although he had never seen a television programme until he went to Australia in 1963, he quickly decided that he loved this new medium (he particularly liked The Flintstones and variety shows). He spent 15 hours a day learning what he could at a station in Adelaide and returned to Singapore and its Broadcasting Corporation with high expectations. Three decades later, the fact that these were not met still rankles; despite claiming to forget life's sad bits, he has a tendency to brood on what he sees as its injustices. 'I have a Singaporean passport, Peggy has as well, but Singapore has not done much for me. I contributed a lot when I started, I did more than the producer, who earned three or four times the money. Which doesn't bother me at all. Not at all. But they wanted educational qualifications, they cut my pay by five dollars because I wasn't a graduate. That upset me. I left and it was a blessing in disguise.' The day after his 21st birthday, he came to Hong Kong to work for a new station called TVB. Within a year, he was producing its most popular programme, Enjoy Yourself Tonight, and had become a fixture of the gossip columns. He seems to be torn, even now, between cultivating an image of himself at this time as a sort of morally upright playboy and as a hard worker. When, for example, he is asked about his childhood, he replies unexpectedly: 'Pretty active. Lots of girlfriends, but nothing romantic. When I was young, I felt so excited holding hands with a girl. Nowadays, people would be kissing which I think is too much ... My first girlfriend broke off and you know why? I was working so damn hard, she thought I had another girl. That upset me because I was so loyal.' At the beginning of 1969, he was engaged to singer Kemmy Tam but by the end of that year he had married ex-air hostess Annette Chan; Lydia Shum was a bridesmaid. They separated in 1972 and were divorced in 1973. Two days later, Chua announced his engagement to Peggy Jen Ping-ping, who was also a producer at TVB, and Fei Fei climbed into her bridesmaid's frock again, which would suggest that Chua is not entirely constrained by superstition. The couple have just celebrated their 22nd wedding anniversary.

They have no children.

Peggy, who had popped her head in at the outset of the first interview, had been reminded by her husband that she had telephone calls to make. When she eventually reappeared about an hour later, at his suggestion, it was with some hesitation. It is clear that, unlike her ebullient partner, she would prefer to remain low-key and that the pressures of life at CETV, where she is director of programming, are not exactly palatable. Unlike Robert, she speaks perfect Putonghua, the importance of which can hardly be overstated, so the responsibility of mainland negotiations and networking, as well as programme acquisitions, falls on her unwilling shoulders. (Robert cannot read Chinese characters either. When he later pointed proudly to a carving on the wall which had been done by the same family who carved for Mao, he had to ask the receptionist what it actually said.) 'I'm not someone who ever wanted to build a career, I'm very happy watching television at home,' Peggy admits. 'All the experience I have was taught by Robert. After he left TVB and started Robert Chua Productions, I was working but also having tea with my girlfriends. But when he started CETV ... I wouldn't do it if he was not my husband. I wouldn't do it for anyone. It's a lot of hard work. I do find things a little tough but' - she glances at her husband - 'what should I say?' 'She supports me totally,' Robert replies.

What was he like when they first met at TVB, all those years ago? Peggy considers for a moment. 'Very terrifying. But he was the most important person there. We didn't like his guts but we knew he was doing very good programming.' Robert interjects: 'I'd rather be respected than loved. I believe if you are loved by everybody you are not doing your job.' He need have no fear on this account. He made headlines in his early days for sacking three pop stars for being 'prima donnas' and he tells the story of an unnamed 'movie king' who was fired for being late on set: 'He was making personal phone calls for a mahjong game that night. Using one's time to do personal things is something I can never accept.' He has a stubborn (and Taurean, according to Peggy) litigious streak. In 1988, a writer called Bryan Leving, to whom he owed $55,000, sued him for non-payment. Chua countersued, saying that the work had not been up to scratch. After a 10-day trial, the court decided otherwise, an experience which cost Chua about 10 times the disputed amount in costs. In 1981, he went to court in order to have Conic TV, in which he then had a 7.5 per cent interest, wound up after a disagreement. 'Yes, I wish you would write about this point,' he says, urgently, when the subject is raised. 'It was a matter of principle. Conic was started by me, I got people in to run the company, they conspired between them and they reduced my shares from 30 per cent. We settled out of court.' The number of interests in which he has dabbled is comprehensive. There was the lamination business, the wedding video business and the sale of pinball machines (for which he also made now-redundant tokens which he is hoping to market as 'highly sought-after collectors' items'). In 1985, he bought the worldwide franchise for a robot called Vicki, a character in the children's television series Small Wonder. That was the year he made a pilot for an English-language sit-com called Guess Who's Coming To Yum Cha? starring, among others, one Stuart Wolfendale. It was so comprehensively savaged by the critics that Chua felt obliged to write a letter to this newspaper defending himself and, 12 years on, the hostile response to that venture still niggles. 'I feel that the loss is Hong Kong's loss. I made an attempt with my own money. The way it was panned was unwarranted.' Does he have any regrets? 'No, no regrets at all. In what sense, regrets?' Well, the Squidgy tapes ... 'I would say - yes. It's not very nice. I didn't create it, I bought the copyright. I hope now we avoid all this kind of stuff.' So no more ventures like Le Club, the soft-core video venture which he launched in 1989 and which seemed to be a variation on enjoying yourself tonight? 'No. But that was not pornography, just to make sure you understand that. It was very educational, housewives were buying it. It was a concept like Playboy. The thing is, it's fun, showing what men do, going to Bangkok. And it did very, very well. Until other people came in and ripped off Japanese pornography style and then it spoiled the whole thing ... Yes, I have been doing a lot of projects, but this is the final one. This is the ultimate.' He had originally planned to have three channels on CETV - sports, music and entertainment - but now he is concentrating on just one, because he wants it to be perfect ('And I'm best at entertainment anyway'). At the moment, six hours of programmes go out across Asia; he hopes to raise this to eight. It's not always easy to fill the slot, the ban on news, sex and violence effectively reducing the amount of available material, but Chua sees this as a spur to true creativity. 'And we have National Geographic, which we're very proud of, it's another endorsement.' It is, perhaps, not surprising that he finds it hard to relax and his one hobby - collecting antiques - verges on the obsessive. So crowded did the Chuas' residence become at one point that they opened a shop in Harbour City to sell off the residue, a scheme which came to grief when Robert decided that some of the staff were being dishonest. 'I have literally thousands of antiques. I've got a couple of hundred dinosaurs' eggs, I have a nest of 10, a nest of eight and so on.' A psychologist might ponder what lies behind this need to possess. When he is asked to name his favourite piece, he says: 'I have too many favourites. It's just like kids. I can't say I'd love my eldest son best. It's not fair.' Later, he muses: 'I have three passions. In my wife's presence I always say that she is number one. Number two is television, number three is antiques. But, really, television is number one, wife is number two, antiques is three. She understands this. It's our joke.' At last week's convention in Las Vegas, the couple were planning to buy more programmes for CETV (and Peggy, as she remarked longingly, was planning to catch up on her sleep on the flight out). Last year, at the same gathering, Robert Chua met Rupert Murdoch, a man who would dearly like to increase his media presence in China. They happened to be in a casino together. 'He sat next to me, playing baccarat,' Chua recalls. 'We were both playing very small amounts and I respect him for that. He's so big, a giant. We're very, very small, but focused. He played five games against me and I won all five. Then he left. For me, I think that's good luck.'