Moving Forward

How Lan Kwai Fong has changed over the years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 5:11pm

It is not just difficult, but impossible to separate the tourist hot spot Lan Kwai Fong, just up the hill from Central, from Allan Zeman. Walking with him through the narrow streets of the area, there are always tourists asking for a selfie with him or businessmen stopping to hand a name card to him.

Raised in Canada, Zeman’s father died when he was eight. His mother worked in a Montreal hospital and he started working at the age of 10, delivering newspapers and cleaning tables at restaurants. He bought his first car at 16 and earned his first C$1 million (HK$6.6 million) within three years.

He came in Hong Kong in 1970 to co-found a fashion export business called Colby, which he sold to local supply chain giant Li & Fung in 2000.

Now he is less known by his former connection to textiles and much more famous as the “father of Lan Kwai Fong”, a narrow street that, when he first came to Hong Kong in the 1970s, was just a back alley of warehouses and small stores and which had been at various times over the preceding century a flower market and a centre for marriage matchmaking.

It was in the 1980s that Zeman eyed the convenient location of Lan Kwai Fong, only five minutes on foot from the city’s business heart in Central. He has purchased properties in the area since the 1980s and turned them into restaurants and bars that are a must visit for all tourists coming to Hong Kong. While many restaurants were on street levels, Zeman was the first to move many of the restaurants upstairs for cheaper rents.

Although less mainland tourists have been coming to Hong Kong, resulting in a drop in retail sales and a rise in the number of store closures, Lan Kwai Fong has not been hit as hard as it is a place for drinking eating rather than shopping.

Zeman said many of the visitors to Lan Kwai Fong were from different parts of the world. There are also Hong Kong based professionals who go there for lunch or drinks after work.

Now the whole area of several surrounding streets, featuring over 100 bars, clubs and restaurants, has taken on the name of the small street where development began, and the area is also known for street performances and for its celebrations during major public holidays as well as its own beer festival.

But it has also been a place of tragedy. On the first day of 1993, 21 people were killed as a New Year’s celebration turned into a stampede. Thirteen of the victims were under 20 years of age and a total of 63 people were injured.