Robert Chua Is Perfectly Alright With Losing Money
The creator of legendary live variety show “Enjoy Yourself Tonight” explains why he switched from television to baked goods.
I started [my career] in 1964 in Australia, at a television station. I worked there for nearly two years. It was all by chance. When I left for Australia to study, in those days people tried to become professionals, like doctors or lawyers.
I somehow went for television because Singapore was about to start its own TV channel. TV got my attention—I started watching in boarding school and I liked it. I started from the rock bottom. I swept the studio floor, I moved props, I was a cameraman, a floor manager—I did everything. I was doing what I liked best. Then I went back to Singapore to work for a TV station.
After seven months, in May 1967 I left for Hong Kong to help start up TVB, six months before it opened. They gave me a job offer before I turned 21. I started two days after my 21st birthday. Now I’ve been in the business for 52 years. I helped to train the staff, and I created “Enjoy Yourself Tonight.”
The Australian general manager [of TVB] had the idea to do a live variety show based on Australia’s “In Melbourne Tonight.” The idea was there, but I changed the format and concept to make it a family show, rather than a talk show. I made it more entertainment, less talk, and got a great cast of talent, movie stars and new stars. It became a great success. It was the first-ever live show in Hong Kong. The rest were all pre-taped. Inspiration comes from oneself. I don’t understand how I managed it—but I loved it.
I left TVB and became an entrepreneur all by chance. I never plan. At one point I wasn’t too happy. I’d just got married and I wanted to change my life. So I resigned and started my own business, a production company. Later I started [satellite TV channel] China Entertainment Television—and nearly went bust. There were a lot of problems but I got through it. It was a suicidal move for anybody who didn’t have the “corporate” money for it. I still went ahead and did it because of my passion.
“Now I’m losing money, but it’s OK. I believe that, sooner or later, we’ll make money, because good products will always win.”
I started in the food and beverage industry again by chance. The credit goes to my brother. I took him to [Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant] Tim Ho Wan to eat. He loved it and said, “let’s start one in Singapore.” I talked to the chef and owner: He’s got a Michelin star and there were more than a hundred people from the industry who had approached him already. He turned everybody down and I, with no F&B experience at all, landed it. I’m glad he gave me the opportunity to start in F&B, and it became a big success. It’s [rare that] a Hong Kong F&B brand goes overseas so successfully. Tim Ho Wan’s success got me into the industry, and that’s why I created A La Bakery.
I’ve been going to Cannes [in France] for 30 or 40 years, twice a year to the Cannes TV Festival. There at breakfast, people would get all the beautiful items, but I’d choose the baguette with butter. People would say, “This Chinese guy is crazy, eating the cheapest thing.” But cheap doesn’t mean it’s bad. I want to popularize French bakery culture. What pleases me most is that sometimes, people with low incomes come in once a fortnight for a coffee and a croissant. They may be poor but they still have a chance to enjoy a real taste of France.
Some people come to me and tell me: “You’re selling your things too cheap.” But like television, to me this is a public service. I want to do something socially responsible. Everything in this bakery is 100 percent imported from France. People say I’m crazy, the cost of it is too high. I have a much lower profit margin—you sell one and I may have to sell three to make the profit you made. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll work harder, I don’t mind. I do it better.
Now I’m losing money, but it’s OK. I believe that, sooner or later, we’ll make money, because good products will always win. People may think I’m not that smart of a businessman. When I do business, I don’t look at money as my motivation. Money will come later.
I find television and F&B very similar. The food is the TV programs, the location is the airtime, and the chef is the producer. It’s all quite relevant. Luckily I didn’t have to choose between television and F&B, but both are equally good, equally exciting and equally gratifying. I do them to see people respond to my products. Seeing people enjoy them gives me pleasure and I like to make people happy. This is something I truly enjoy.