Six appeal

We ask a half dozen Hong Kong personalities what's in their portfolio and for secrets to a successful investment. Words by Tiffany Ap

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 3:54pm

Hong Kong is renowned for its materialism. The quest for personal fortune is said to be hardwired into the city's DNA thanks to its history as a trading hub that has attracted entrepreneurs, risk takers and economic refugees. So what do some of the city's recently successful individuals think about money and what are their strategies for more? We rounded up six high-profile Hongkongers from various sectors including entertainment, real estate, and food and beverage for their thoughts on what works and why.


Margaret Chung Lai-kai
You might know Margaret Chung Lai-kai from the TVB dramas she's acted in or you might recognise her as the serene face of Pure Yoga appearing on billboards all around town.

Born and raised in Toronto, Chung joined TVB at age 18 on a five-year contract.

"The pay for somebody that has never worked in their life was like, 'Wow, I'm getting paid for stuff that is pretty cool.'" She says there is no such thing as budgeting for an 18-year-old or at least not for her at the time. Without any financial commitments, Chung was spending all of what she made each month. It wasn't until she turned 21 and her father retired that she became more serious with her income. She started taking care of her parents and her brother and sister (she's the youngest of three siblings).

"My dad wasn't really that old but I didn't want him to work so hard. I was working anyway, it means I just bought less," Chung says. "That financial responsibility made me become more structured. I knew where the money was going, how much I needed, how much I'd save," she says.

Chung describes herself as a "rookie" investor. She prefers products like index funds because she's bad on following up on specific stocks. She leaves the more active investing to her husband or entrusts it to her friend who is a financial adviser.

"I'm knowledgeable about Apple because my hubby invests in Apple. He got in quite early so it's still OK for him. He's more serious about investing into things. He's like, 'OK, I should take some out' or 'I should put some in' but both of us are not too high-risk takers."

Since becoming a mother a few years ago, Chung has shifted towards conservative investments. "There's a risk obviously with everything but the risks [I take] are much lower," Chung says. "It's not just about me; it's about my daughter, my husband so I like to keep it safe in bonds."

"I'm not really striving for a yacht or a plane or anything like that. If I win the lottery that's great but I'm pretty happy with where I am now," Chung says. "It's not normal to compare yourself to Li Ka-shing's lifestyle. Some people like standing there and pressing buttons to trade stocks. If that makes you happy then cool, but if that's making you stressed then try to find something else to balance it out."


Gilbert Yeung Kei-lung
Gilbert Yeung Kei-lung seems to have inherited business savvy from his father, Emperor Group mogul Albert Yeung Sau-shing. Over the years, Yeung, 45, has established his own conglomerate of drinking and eating establishments including hotspots dragon-i, Tazmania Ballroom and reflexology spa Ten Feet Tall. His most recent best investment though, is the yen.

"I shorted it," Yeung says. "I just thought that the yen was at too high a level about a year ago so I'm very happy. I wouldn't say I'm proud but I'm quite happy that I made that investment."

Besides foreign exchange, Yeung also enjoys playing the stock market, especially the thrills of watching equities move between peaks and troughs. "Since I graduated school and came back to Hong Kong, I've always invested in the stock market," he says. "What I think is the most exciting is when you have bought at the wrong time and you sit through that period waiting for it to go up again. It could be a year or two. Let's say you buy at HK$2 per share and you have to sit around at a 30 per cent loss. I find it quite exciting just to be able to hold onto the stocks.

"Investing is also exciting because then you have to decide when you're going to realise your profits. When your stock is going up 15 per cent to 20 per cent, do you take the profits and exit or keep holding on? It's very contradictory," Yeung muses.

Yeung dispels the notion that he is into typical masculine pursuits like investing in cigars, classic cars, or wine.

"I'm not like other boys who are into car performance because I don't like to drive fast. I was never into cigars because I tried it before and I don't think I look very cool," he says. "A lot of people think I'm a big wine or liquor investor just because of my business but I don't actually drink that much."


Nicole Schoeni
Nicole Schoeni's introduction to investing happened under tragic circumstances when her father, Manfred, a prominent art dealer, gallery owner and businessman, was murdered in Boracay, in the Philippines. Schoeni who was just 23 at the time found herself appointed as the administrator of his estate. "I learned a lot because he was a very diverse investor," she says. She explains that she inherited assets ranging from stocks and bonds to property, a Shanghai restaurant and a South African vineyard.

Perhaps the most important of all was a collection of Chinese contemporary art. Over the course of two decades the collection, which includes names like Liu Dahong, Zhang Xiaogang, and Yang Yongliang has increased tremendously in value. Several of those artists are now viewed as icons of their generation and fetch prices in the millions of US dollars.

"When it comes to art, I don't care what people think," Schoeni says. "I go with my own intuition. I'm bullish. With other investments, I'm quite cautious but I'm always looking for an interesting position or special property."

She relies on her mother, who she calls her financial guru, to help manage her portfolio and she also has her fiancé, a property agent, to turn to for advice on real estate. "His love right now is Kennedy Town," she says.

Her most non-traditional way of investing however is to send artists overseas for education. She's currently raising funds to send mainland watercolour artist Chen Yongliang to school for two years at the New York Academy of Art. Called the Patch Project Initiative, Schoeni matches any donations towards Chen's education fund with a goal of raising US$50,000.

"Sending him overseas would allow him to become a better artist, interact with other artists. Hopefully, he'll benefit from it and become a famous artist one day," she says.

It's not the first time she's done something of this nature. Six years ago, she paid for another artist Shen Hua to get a master's degree at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Art. In the last three years, prices for Shen's work have tripled, according to Schoeni. Without the master's degree which allowed him to be around other artists and specialise in a particular technique, she doubts Shen would have been nearly as successful. "When I first met him, he was in a tiny apartment and it was stacked full of paintings. Besides helping him with his master's degree, we did three solo exhibitions. When I saw him last year, he picked me up in his jeep and took me to his humongous studio."


Allan Zeman
It might surprise a few people to learn that Allan Zeman, the mastermind behind Lan Kwai Fong Group, is not a daring investor. "I'm actually quite conservative," he says. "I hate putting pressure on myself. Of course you have to take some risk but it's important that it's calculated risk. I like to sleep at night."

The seasoned businessman, who helped revamp squalid hawker lanes in Central into a nightclubbing and dining hub, says he analyses every investment opportunity in the same way.

"I always look at the downside first and how much I would lose. If I can cover the downside, then I don't worry. If you look at how much you can make on every deal, there's a good chance you will make the wrong decision. When you're looking at a deal, nobody shows you a deal that is going to lose money. It always looks very promising."

Zeman's father passed away when he was seven years old and his mother did not have much education so when it came to money and business, he was on his own. Zeman started delivering newspapers, and at the age of 12 he was bussing tables at a Montreal steakhouse. That allowed him to buy his own car at 16.

"If you follow Warren Buffett, he invests in brands that are recognisable. They might not have a lot of sex appeal but they turn in good profits day in day out," Zeman says. "If you're buying for short-term gains, you may as well go to Macau and gamble."

What's better documented is Zeman's love for property - both commercial and residential. It's an asset class where Zeman has made some of his biggest profits.

"It's an art," he says. "You add value to it. It's very beautiful. People will appreciate it and command a better price for it. Especially for Hong Kong or anywhere in the world, people who have made a lot of money, most of it comes from property."


Bonnae Gokson
Bonnae Gokson, the owner of trendy see-and-be-seen restaurant Sevva, Ms B's Cakery and C'est La B comes from a wealthy family so it wasn't until a later stage of life that she really learned about finance.

She counts Suze Orman, a well-known American personal finance author and host of her own TV show on CNBC, as an influence who helped her step into the nitty gritty of investing. "She's one of my best financial advisers and also my good friend."

Out of Gokson's portfolio, investing in anthroposophical medicine - a type of holistic treatment with elements of homeopathy and naturopathy - is one of her biggest passion projects.

"My motto is health is the best wealth," she explains. "In realistic financial gains, yes, I like high-yielding dividend-paying stocks and other things of course, like how I've invested in gold and sold at US$1,900 an ounce, but people don't understand that no matter how much money you have, you're going to give it back to doctors and hospital."

She's invested by buying stakes in biodynamic farms devoted to anthroposophical research, "usually in Europe because that's where Rudolf Steiner [founder of anthroposophical medicine] comes from and a lot of the research is being developed."

"Let me tell you," she says. "I've got billionaire friends who are super depressed. Why? Because they have way too much money and they see people taking away their money. It's reached the point where they have jet planes and are buying an island but what else is life for then? If one doesn't take care of the entire mind and body. You're going to lose out to doctors and hospitals."


Harlan Goldstein

Restaurateur Harlan Goldstein's experience investing in his first restaurant to call his own was not very typical - it was an instant success. It wasn't so clear that would be the case when he was opening the venue in 2004. Many people thought it was an odd move for the chef to open his name- sake restaurant Harlan's in a shopping mall.

"There were a lot of people whispering in my ear 'Don't open in IFC,'" he says. "They said 'It'll be a white elephant. It won't work. People won't go to a nice restaurant in a mall.' But I was very confident that it was going to work. First of all, there were 88 stories of financial whiz kids working in those buildings and I would say 50 to 60 per cent were members of the Aberdeen Marina Club who knew me. To put my name on a wall, a four minute walk away - it was a no-brainer."

Goldstein says the restaurant immediately established a positive cash flow - highly uncommon in the industry -and the original investors were paid back for their investment in eight months.

That said, not all of his ventures have been a runaway success. Over the years, the chef says he learned how to cut his losses. He once had a small private kitchen called Private H that shut down. "It was successful in the beginning but after the [financial] crisis came the market just couldn't sustain it," he says. "I decided OK, am I going to hang onto this and let it lose money every month or just bite it? So I pulled the plug. That's a risk you take."

It can be painful to exit an investment one is publicly associated with but the other alternative - feeding funds into a bad project is worse.

"I see a lot of restaurant owners who don't want to lose face by telling everybody their business failed, so they continue to feed it but it's just dying and dying," Goldstein says.

Like many Hongkongers, Goldstein is also keen on property saying it's one of the easiest incomes a person can make. He's also not convinced there's a real estate price bubble.

"Property is definitely one of the best things that I ever did in Hong Kong. I bought in strategic places and now there are MTR stations coming. People say there's a bubble or it's going to blow up but for as long as I've lived here - twenty-something years - property has never gone down. The government is trying to control all this stuff with stamp duty but there's still a lot of money coming into Hong Kong and that's what's driving the prices up."