Born-again Chinese

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 November, 2008, 12:00am

I'm Chinese. I'm Chinese. That's what I am,' says Allan Zeman, with his trademark grin. 'I might not look Chinese, but I'm Chinese.'

The Ocean Park chairman and colourful businessman is known for his flamboyant publicity stunts - such as impersonating a Brazilian carnival dancer or a ghost - but he is also known for his passion and devotion to a cause.

This time, his cause is proving he is a Hongkonger and not just a gweilo who happens to live here. He has done so by relinquishing his Canadian citizenship and becoming officially Chinese.

'[It's] just my style, I'm committed. If I do something, I'm really committed to it wholeheartedly,' says the German-born Jewish-Canadian businessman who has lived in Hong Kong for 38 years.

A few days before this exclusive interview, Mr Zeman had expressed his wish to talk to a Chinese reporter about his new identity. So three of us - a Chinese reporter, a Chinese photographer and an expatriate multi-media journalist - arrive at his spacious and tidy office in Lan Kwai Fong.

Mr Zeman proudly shows us his new personal documents - the Hong Kong passport, the light pink home-return permit and the three-star Hong Kong identity card - and says he is happy to be 'a real local'.

'I have always considered myself a local. I understand the culture. I understand what local people want,' he says.

He understands the mainland too, he adds, having set up his first mainland office in Changsha 30 years ago and then asking a staff member to give him his Chinese name, Shing Chi-man.

'I was in China before anyone in Hong Kong was in China ... I was there doing business and so I understood the changes taking place.'

Now he has the Chinese nationality of any native Hongkonger, but just how similar is he to a native?

'There is definitely a difference in thinking. I understand two sides and wear two hats,' he says, adding that he believes travel broadens the mind. 'Many [Hongkongers] have never been outside Hong Kong so their thinking is still quite narrow.'

And what of that other barrier, language? Mr Zeman speaks some Cantonese and Putonghua, and says he will continue to learn them from everyday experience.

If his new nationality and commitment to public service are not enough to demonstrate his fondness for Hong Kong and all things Chinese, during the course of a 90-minute interview he says the words 'Hong Kong' more than 120 times, 'China' at least 60 times and 'Chinese' no less than 22.

'I love China, I love Hong Kong. This is my home,' the tycoon says, with remarkable regularity.

He is still adjusting to his changed status, he says.

Our interview had to be rescheduled for four days later than planned because his Hong Kong passport was not available for the photo shoot; he had to apply for a US visa - something he never had to do with his Canadian passport.

'When I got my passport, I then found out that, to go to the US, I needed a visa,' he says. 'The Canadian passport is very good; you can travel almost anywhere in the world without a visa, but suddenly I felt very strange ... it's like being reborn.'

It also felt strange when he received written proof from the Canadian consulate that he was no longer Canadian. He says he felt 'kind of stateless' or 'a man of no country' for a while.

At the China Travel Services he was dressed in his suit alongside a large crowd of mainlanders getting their home-return permits. Despite his many years here, it was 'really funny', he says.

Mr Zeman had better get used to standing out from the crowd. On a recent trip to Beijing, travellers at the airport thought it was crazy to seem him lining up in the queue for Chinese nationals.

But the reaction was only positive when he went to Immigration Tower to apply for his Hong Kong passport, he says

'Many of the immigration officials were very surprised, very excited to see me there ... because everybody recognises me, of course, I guess, from Ocean Park and Lan Kwai Fong. They were very excited that I was actually doing this and I could just feel they were honoured,' he says.

'And I myself felt I was doing the right thing when I saw that. I felt very welcomed by Hong Kong people.'

He said that it further confirmed to him that he had made the right decision.

Mr Zeman first came here for business when he was 19. From the moment he stepped off the plane at Kai Tak airport, Hong Kong seemed like another world. He remembers that the smell of the harbour was terrible - the absolute opposite of the city's Chinese name, which means 'fragrant harbour'. But the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, the cheung sam-wearing ladies and the expat British - 'career civil servants with pipes, short pants and polyester suits' - had all created an exciting new experience for the young entrepreneur.

'Whoa! I could be on the moon right now but this is totally divorced to anything that I have been used to,' he says he thought at the time. 'My God, I want to be part of this community.'

Unlike many expatriates who think they will return to their home country one day, Mr Zeman says he adopted Hong Kong as his home from day one and never thought of moving.

'I always said if I had to move, I would probably move to [mainland] China,' he says. 'Though they [expats] spend their whole life here, they still can't make the transition that they are living in Hong Kong and this is home.'

He says that, unlike many expatriates who never travel outside Hong Kong Island or Tsim Sha Tsui, he knows every area.

Aside from his well-known business interests, Mr Zeman is also prominent in government circles, sitting on various advisory bodies. He says it is important for him to 'give back', especially by convincing young people that Hong Kong has a bright future.

He has also become more involved at the cutting edge of Hong Kong politics, having campaigned for two Legislative Council candidates - Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Lau Chin-shek - leading up to the election in September. Mr Zeman says he does not have any plans to join a political party, including the Communist Party. But his political stance is quite obvious.

'I was quite disappointed to find out in a survey that 70 per cent of young people are pro-democrat and 30 per cent are pro-Beijing, because the government is very misunderstood,' he says.

He was not thrilled to see bananas being thrown in Legco, although he says that is the style of the League of Social Democrats. There are other ways to show one's disapproval, and such behaviour 'doesn't really teach' young people.

Asked if he is pro-government or pro-Beijing, he answers: 'I am pro-Hong Kong.'

'I understand all the sides. I understand people marching, I understand why,' he says. 'Civil servants are always protecting, or trying to protect, the public's money so sometimes they take certain decisions which seem unreasonable to the public. For both sides, they can go about it in a much simpler way.'

On universal suffrage, he thinks Hong Kong needs to study the different systems and nurture more young politicians first.

'It's not possible for it to happen overnight. Remember, 1997 is only 11 years ago. I think that we're at the point now where we are maturing, our parties are maturing,' he says, pointing to the problems in the Liberal Party.

'Even if we had a universally elected chief executive at the moment, Hong Kong would not have escaped the financial meltdown that is taking place in the world. That would not have changed anything,' he says. 'We are very lucky because we have China to back us up; China sitting on US$1.9 trillion in reserves. We are part of China now; China will do everything within its power to make sure that Hong Kong does not go down.'