You grew up in Hong Kong. Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was born here and lived in the city until I was 12. We then moved to Beijing, which was quite unusual back in the 1980s. At the time, most people were looking to move to Canada, the US, the UK or Australia. As my father was going to work in Beijing, he thought it would be good for me to experience life there for two or three years. I studied at a local school and began to learn Mandarin. I’m glad I did. It’s so much easier to learn a language when you’re young. In total, I spent two years studying in Beijing, then I went to boarding school in the UK.
As China is such a big country, my father believed that – in time – it would offer a huge number of business opportunities. He always encouraged my brother and I – and indeed the whole family – to travel. He was a fervent believer that the more you see, the more you learn. It’s so important to get to know different cultures and it’s a lot easier to learn by seeing, feeling and talking to people rather than just by reading books. As a result, my family travelled to more than 30 countries. We would travel every summer and every Christmas. To this day, I still love to travel.
“When the police first saw the state of the car, they assumed we were all dead”
After living in HK and Beijing, moving to the UK must have been a bit of a culture shock…
Moving from Hong Kong to Beijing, in the first place, involved a degree of culture shock. Back in the ’80s Beijing was very different to how it is now. Today, it’s quite an easy place to live. Back then, though, they had no idea about customer service for instance. They’re getting there now, though. Back in the ’80s, we had to argue with the sales staff all the time.
The UK was very different again. The way that UK people think is quite different to the way Chinese people think. In Hong Kong, for instance, academic success is very important. At boarding school in the UK, though, there was a broader approach. They believed you should not limit yourself to just one area of activity. There was a belief that you should grasp every opportunity and see what you enjoy. In truth, it’s only by trying different things you find out where your strengths lie. It ended up being a much more rounded education.
In terms of Tassels, why do you think it has become such a success in Hong Kong?
Well, we are very selective in terms of the brands we work with, all of which tend to have a considerable heritage. While most of them date back more than 100 years, they are still family-run businesses, all run by people who genuinely love shoes. Another reason is that we are all very knowledgeable when it comes to footwear. When it comes to dealing with customers, we can all talk to them about shoes and share ideas and knowledge. We have become something of a shoe gathering place. People come and see nice shoes and then discuss related issues.
Have you ever had a near-death experience?
When I was 11 years old, I was involved in a major car accident. To this day, my hand still carries the scar. I lost skin and bone so I had to have surgery. They grafted skin from my foot onto my hand and shaved half of the bone from my toe to replace my finger. It all happened when we were driving along the Tolo Highway, when my mom passed out. It was just as she was turning, so we struck a slope and rolled down a flyover. I was thrown out of the car as I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt – that was never a requirement in the ’80s. My brother was also thrown out as the car flipped upside down.
When I opened my eyes, my finger was dangling off my hand. There was blood everywhere. Luckily that was the worst injury. My brother had to have seven stitches on his head and my mother had to have stitches on her finger. All in all, though, it was a very lucky escape. The roof of the car was totally flattened. When the police first saw the state of the car, they assumed everyone had died. Luckily, though, my mother and brother were able to walk to the hospital, while I was taken in a wheelchair.
The police contacted my father to tell him we had been in an accident and advised him to come to the hospital immediately. He was expecting to find us all on stretchers. When he saw us walking out of the ambulance, he was hugely relieved.
Which profession do you consider the most overpaid?
I don’t feel any profession is overpaid. It is a free market so pay reflects the value you add. If you are indeed overpaid, the market should automatically adjust to match the value you add and the demand for your services.
What is in your wallet right now?
Some cash – although I don’t usually carry a lot – some credit cards, ID, of course, and some shareholder cards. I have a stake in several bars and restaurants – including Lilly and Bloom, Play and Studio – so I carry my shareholder cards around. Name cards of course, my joint bank account card with my wife, my Jockey Club card, some receipts and a bunch of different SIM cards for when I am travelling.
Where do you tend to travel to most often?
For business, I travel to the US, the UK and Italy. When it comes to leisure, I travel to Europe once a year for skiing, I love skiing. We try to arrange a ski trip every year to France or Austria. I also love scuba diving, preferably in Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines.
Where are your favourite diving haunts?
Sipidan is beautiful and I went to Tubbataha on a live-a-board which was amazing. It is about 16 hours from Palawan Island so you travel out on the boat overnight. The next morning, you are at the dive site and then you just dive, dive, dive for five whole days. You don’t see any land at all, just reefs and two atolls beneath the water. A scary moment came when I saw a six metre whale shark and a tiger shark swim right towards me. While not quite a near-death experience, it was one of the scariest moments I have ever had.
We were diving off a cliff and I was the one furthest out. I was looking out into the distance and suddenly I saw this Great White headed right towards me and I thought: “Hang on a minute, why am I seeing a Great White in the tropics?” I just froze, it was so big. It was not long, but hugely bulky. All I could see was teeth. All the time, I was thinking: “If it keeps on swimming towards me, what am I going to do?”
When it turned, I could see its stripes and I realised it was a tiger shark. We had been told there were sometimes tiger sharks there, but we were lucky to see one. It was clearly a curious shark and it was definitely checking us out.
“There was a Great White swimming towards me. All I could see was rows and rows of teeth…”
Do you believe in the death penalty?
I don’t. Not because no crime should be punishable by death, but because any judgement could be wrong. Someone could be innocent, wrongly convicted and executed. There is no going back after that. Okay, otherwise, they could have spent time in jail that they didn’t deserve. You can try and compensate for that. You can’t reverse the death sentence though.
How did you propose to your wife?
I proposed in Australia. We had planned a trip there over Christmas. My wife had not travelled as much as I had, so she was keen to see more of the world. As we both like the great outdoors, we decided on a caravan trip. We flew to Perth and rented a 4×4 caravan so we could drive along the trails and go off-road.
I had told myself I would propose during the trip. At first I thought I would do it in the desert, but that didn’t have the right feel and there were too many tourists around. One night, I suggested we drive out to the beach. It was a beautiful beach. We sat and watched the sunset with a bottle of wine. At the time, I thought this is just perfect.
Then, all of a sudden, the wind picked up and there was sand everywhere. It blew into our faces and into our wine glasses. I was left thinking: “This is so bad. It’s not the right time”. Despite this, my fiancée – as she then was – remarked how romantic it was. That persuaded me that it was the right moment after all. As the sun set, I popped the question. And she said yes.