TONY Chi is having a good time. He enjoys being 36, commuting around the world, being in demand, and being his charming, outspoken self. ''I can't help it,'' shrugs the Taipei-born architect, flashing his mega-watt smile. ''I was born hyper.'' Chi doesn't just design restaurants like Indochine, Va Bene and Tutto Bene. He creates stories first, then designs a setting for his tale. That people spend two hours of their lives dining in them, feel warm and comfortable and want to return, translates to him as mission accomplished. ''I want to touch the core, touch hearts, not the surface of your vision,'' says Chi, his voice rising and falling, depending on the point. The speed of his conversation barely keeps pace with his brain. When necessary, he allows the listener to reel him in. ''Am I talking too much?'' When he acknowledges your dazed look, he willingly sails back to earth. Chi has the kind of mind that should be registered with the police; his energy feels like a Ferrari with the emergency brake on. His handshake envelops yours. When he wants to get serious, he removes his body from the lounge lizard position to rapt listener. Elbows are planted on the table, chin on clasped hands and he lassoes your eyes. His Zoot suit style accentuates his gangliness, a lean body drips baggy tweed and gabardine. Riding the crest of professional success, he commutes more than he likes. This trip to Hong Kong will end in Tokyo. On the American design front, he's hot hot hot and can be found on the pages of glossy magazines. His latest baby, the Harley Davidson Cafe, just opened in New York. At the opening gala, half of the thousand guests were teary-eyed. ''I touched them, really got them,'' Chi remembers, not trying to hide his pride or how good kudos feel. ''That means I did my job. ''My friends were negative. 'You're going to do a motorcycle restaurant? Awful.' I didn't create a 14,000 sq ft restaurant for a motorcycle. I created a restaurant about America.'' The third generation architect sees his profession as that of a public servant. ''When you do architecture, you work for the common man. You serve the public. ''Clients don't write me a cheque to create a monument to Tony Chi. If you spend two hours of your life at Va Bene, I want you to remember it. I want it to create a spark. That spark is my responsibility.'' His father, an architect, now retired in Taipei, considered architecture as a wonderful hobby. ''Basically, he was a developer. Architecture, he always said, teaches common sense.'' Chi always intended to be a corporate guy, a designer for a big firm. But his personality did not allow it. ''I am considerate and a team player. But companies always want their priorities to become your own.'' To date, Tony Chi & Associates in New York has created 430 restaurants. In the mid-80s, the recession forced him to down-size, from 22 to eight architects. They work from a studio on Park Avenue South and specialise in concept work. Clients such as Hyatt International and Mandarin Oriental keep him in Asia. And a 52,000 sq ft restaurant complex sends him to Osaka. A pet project, an art school in Jakarta, gives him good reason to return often to one of his favourite cities. The yin and yang philosophy underscores all good architecture, he believes, and his designs. ''Warmth. It's important,'' using Va Bene as an example. ''Good design has to do with a sense of balance. Yang is the warm colours. Yin is the breaking up of space, the scattering. I broke Va Bene up into three spaces then I used warm colours. ''When people talk about how they feel when they dine there, that's how I touch them. Those psychological things are important. People respond, I feel. ''Look at what Foster [British architect Sir Norman Foster] did it with the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank . It's an example of ying and yang. The bank looks cold from the outside. But how he composed the elements. That's yang. ''You go up [on the escalator], it becomes warm, there is a calming effect of the space. Laymen might not see or understand the details architects work with. But people feel them one way or the other. When people respond with 'I feel', that's exactly what I want. It's my job to translate the technical stuff I put on paper to laymen. To get people excited. ''When I did Indochine, I thought about a porch, the kind that would be on a colonial style home. I couldn't create a whole house. That would be hokey. But I could create a porch and the feelings you have sitting on a porch. ''I smelled the perfume, felt the breeze, saw the light coming through the blinds. I went through the experience first in my head. For every project, I have a story. I know that sounds stupid. But it perks me. ''For the Harley job I went to Milwaukee [Wisconsin, the headquarters of Harley Davidson], dozens of times. I became friends with Harley's grand-children. I ate ribs and drank beer, the kind of food they eat there. I rode every single bike [model] their grand-father ever created. I even went to the rallies; one in Florida had 400,000 bikers. ''I experienced everything. The vibrations [of the bike]. Doing Harley had nothing to do with a restaurant that seats 450 people. It was something emotional.'' With Chinese philosophy, he is at odds on certain points. ''Look at the way they construct temples. Chinese will use beautiful wood, then they cover it up with lacquer and gold leaf. They don't enhance the natural beauty. Instead, they mask it. Why?'' And on the subject of Chinese restaurants: ''I never respected any Chinese restaurant, except for the food. They neglect the total package. It's not fair to me as a patron. Chinese boast about having the finest cuisine in the world yet they do absolutelynothing with their restaurants.'' For a Szechuan restaurant in Jakarta, he envisioned a courtyard, then executed it with a gazebo, rocks, water, lily pads, the works. Chi is married to an American-Chinese marketing executive and lives with their two children outside New York City. ''It was hard to leave the city. I lived there 22 years. It taught me a lot. But New York is a tough place. We wanted to give the kids more options. And safety.'' His home is a 127-year old house, a Normandy Tudor. ''It's actually very abused. It has a wonderful porch and deck but I don't like sunlight. ''In any room I don't want any interference from God or nature. My windows are tall and skinny, only 40 centimetres wide. If you saw my kitchen, 700 sq ft, you couldn't tell what I do for a living.'' His plan for Hong Kong is to go slow. Nothing drastic. ''I want to give people a variety of tastes and flavours. I can't please everyone. I just want to touch them.'' For the Mexican restaurant he's designing for businessman Allan Zeman? ''It will be Mexico today, not one stuck in 1884.'' And the bar he's doing for the space, formerly occupied by Scotties in Lan Kwai Fong? ''It's a vampire's den. Honest. It's called Le Bar Bat. ''See, it's all about this handsome guy who happens to be a vampire. He invites you over to his place for a drink, a cosy place, you know, whimsical yet civilised. ''That's what its all about, isn't it. Whimsy. Fantasy.''