updated 5 Feb 2012, 14:41
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Sun, Feb 05, 2012
The Sunday Times
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The enterprising daughter
by John Lui

Yenn Wong knows better than to expect pats on the back when she does something right.

At all of 31, she runs two successful boutique hotels, one in HongKong and another in Shanghai. In that Chinese port city and in Singapore, where she grew up, she owns restaurants.

She is used to being told that what she has accomplished has been handed to her, courtesy of a wealthy father.

Typical of the things said about her is a comment posted on an AsiaOne interview with her two years ago: "Given the support from her family, she does not have to worry about money."

She laughs off such sniping.

"I don't deny that I am lucky," says the Malaysian, who is a Singapore permanent resident. "People say, 'Oh, your father is rich and you don't know what you are doing.'"

She adds cheerily: "That's fine. Whatever."

Facing naysayers - including those from within her extended family - comes with the job when your father, Danny Wong, 59, is one of the biggest names in interior construction in the region.

Turning serious, she says: "I had financial support, but you cannot create something from nothing with just money. There is foresight, commitment, passion and hard work."

Her doubters scored a point when her restaurant, Muse, at Singapore's National Museum, flopped.

The eclectic bistro she ran with a group of partners shuttered last year due to poor business after a two-year struggle. She names its closing as one of the most painful lessons she has had to learn.

Though her name was the one mentioned when the press wrote about the eatery, she was just a voice in a group of owner-partners. Though the place had changed its concept at least once, it failed to define what it wanted to be because of committee-run decision making, she says.

As she puts it, in a bleakly humorous way, "there were too many cooks".

Clad in a black dress by Balenciaga - one of her favourite brands along with Stella McCartney, Lanvin and Hermes - she speaks to Life! over lunch at her Thai eatery Kha.

Though the restaurant is doing acceptable business, she grumbles good-naturedly about the lack of promotion for its location, the HortPark gardening hub, run by the National Parks Board. It is a lovely spot, but more can be done to make Singaporeans and tourists know about it, she says.

And she knows about promotion. It was key to putting her first hotel, the Philippe Starck-designed JIA Hong Kong, on the map.

It opened in 2004 while the territory was still emerging from the grip of the Sars panic. It has not just thrived, it also chalked up a slightly better-than-average occupancy rate of 85 per cent last year.

Its sister, JIA Shanghai, performed at 75 per cent last year, she says. This is in a market where 60 per cent would be considered good, according to a recent China Post report on the room oversupply caused by anticipation over this year's World Expo, to be held in that vast Chinese city. The glut has also been made worse by last year's downturn.

"Most hotels in Shanghai are looking at 50 per cent," she says.

The JIA hotels have smaller rooms and lack some of the amenities of the larger chain hotels, but they are definitely not for the traveller clutching a Lonely Planet guidebook.

Rates start at a healthy US$200 (S$281) a night, making the hotels' popularity all the more remarkable. To put a new upscale hotel on the Hong Kong map, she tapped into the psyche of travellers who are working largely in the creative and lifestyle industries, looking for authenticity and originality rather than the faceless uniformity of a five-star experience, and are willing to pay for it.

In other words, people much like herself.

But she knew she could not plonk a swishy boutique inn on the island and expect customers to show up. In status-conscious Hong Kong, she needed star power. Through well-connected friends, she contacted and wooed Starck, the French designer.

His clients have included Microsoft and Italian firm Alessi, for whom he designed the sci-fi-looking juicer, the Juicy Salif, now a cult item.

He, along with American hotel owner Ian Schrager, also helped spark the boom in boutique hotels in 1988 with New York's Royalton Hotel, followed by the Delano in Miami and the Mondrian in Los Angeles in 1996.

He could have rejected Wong but she believes he said yes to doing his first hotel in Asia because he loved the look of the "skinny, ugly building" in Causeway Bay.

It had been a budget hotel that had seen better days and had gone under the hammer at a fire sale price of HK$120 million. Her father's only instruction to her: Do something with it.

"It was just horrible," she says of the building before its transformation. Just a notch or two above a flophouse, the 15-year-old structure had rooms that had been crudely and illegally subdivided, such that residents had to share bathrooms.

Starck visited the site and when he looked out from the old building, "he could see the rusty pipes and the local eateries and the fruit stalls and he said that this is what Hong Kong is", Wong says, explaining the Frenchman's attraction to the project.

His fee was not as expensive as she had thought it would be, she says. After buying the building, another HK$60 million was spent rebuilding it. "I think he also got a kick out of working with a girl who was so young. He thought it was fun and we also gave him a free hand. So many people want him on their projects and we were lucky to get him," she says. She was just 24 at the time.

Starck picked the name "jia" from a list Wong gave him because he liked the sound. It means "home" in Chinese.

The combination of authentically shabby chic district, brand-name designer and one-of-a-kind decor worked, and not just as measured by customer traffic.

The tiny 54 guestroom project has won a clutch of awards, including the Conde Nast Traveler Hot List in 2006, and made it to the top five in the United Kingdom's The Independent newspaper's list of best boutique hotels in Greater China.

The equally pint-sized 55-room JIA Shanghai opened in 2007, but without the participation of Starck or any other superstar designer.

Wong did not want the group to be overshadowed by one personality, she explains.

"The strategy is to build the name of JIA. Ultimately, the value of the business is in the brand," she says.

In the end, she hired a multinational group of three firms to work on the 1920s building in trendy West Nanjing Road, which also attracted accolades like its sibling has, including Conde Nast's 2008 Hot List.

Her other award-winning ventures are gastronomic. In Singapore, apart from Kha in HortPark, she runs the contemporary Australian-style eatery Graze, located in a black-and-white bungalow in Rochester Park.

In Shanghai, she has Issimo, featuring an Italian menu.

She is excited about her latest project, a restaurant in Hong Kong due to open in April this year. To be called 208 after its street address in the antique-shop district of Hollywood Road, it will feature a Neapolitan menu leaning towards antipasti, pastas, pizzas and grilled meats.

She also owns and runs Game One, a Hong Kong-based online gaming company that was floundering when she bought it in 2001. Today, it has about 200,000 active users all over Asia playing 10 titles.

Users pay for virtual goods - "in one game, you can either dance a long time to make your character slim, or buy a pill and get slim instantly" - and she is optimistic enough about its prospects to hope to have it listed on the stock exchange soon.

Some passionate players have got married in the virtual world of the game and at least one couple has met and married in real life. She got into the business as an investor eight years ago and does not play the games, calling herself a "tech idiot".

In her estimation, the hotels, restaurants and her other businesses are the result of a lifetime of apprenticeship.

During university holidays, she interned at an accounting firm in Singapore to learn bookkeeping. After graduation from the University of Western Australia with a degree in marketing and international economics, she ran an interior construction and furniture firm in Bangkok owned by umbrella company PC Holdings. She and her father are directors.

"My father is self-made and he didn't want his children getting comfortable by working for someone," she says. "He wanted his kids to be entrepreneurs."

She has one brother, Kit Wong, 33, who runs his own media and entertainment arm of PC Holdings. He lives in Hong Kong.

What she learnt from her early brushes with industry was that she hated office work, especially when it involved spreadsheets. But in Bangkok, Wong, then 24, thrived on organising groups of people, making pitches and chasing deals.

"Construction is not a girl's kind of business. I was forced to make bids, go out, talk to people. I had to be thick-skinned. It trained me up," she says.

Mr Wei Tan, 32, owner of Suite Interior Design has known Wong since they were teens and he was engaged to design Muse and Kha.

He is aware that some may think she bought her success, but says these people may not be aware of how hands-on she is when she runs a project.

"She knows what she wants and is extremely decisive," he says. For example, some clients want to see many flooring samples, because they do not know what they want. Wong will need to see only around three.

"She narrows it down from the beginning. She has travelled from a young age and she knows the language of design," he says.

Her father Danny, now retired, comes from Malaysia and her mother, Jennie, 57, a housewife, from Hong Kong. They now live in Hong Kong. Her father's business took off only after she turned 10, she says.

Before that age, the former student of Methodist Girls' School lived in rented homes, with no maids, in Yio Chu Kang and Lorong Ah Soo.

The family now owns several units in a condo along River Valley Road, but to be close to her hotels, she lives mostly in Hong Kong now, in a 900 sq ft apartment in Sheung Wan, near the city centre.

Not that she has a lot of time to spend there. She flies often, for work in Asia and also farther afield for pleasure and to keep up to date with hotels and design. Paris, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and Melbourne are where she enjoys visiting.

In her leisure time, she attends the usual society dinners with Hong Konger Alan Lo, 30, a restaurant owner she has been dating for about a year. On a rare evening when there is no charity event or other social function to go to, they stay in and cook a meal.

There remains an obvious question: Why has she not brought the JIA concept to Singapore? It is because she has not been able to find the right property at the right price, she says. She explains that she was lucky to find the sites in Hong Kong and Shanghai, but so far nothing as good has come up here.

And even if such a cut-rate property were to become available, the young woman is certain that there will be no shortage of naysayers, similar to those who questioned the first JIA in 2004.

"Back then, they were telling me, 'You should price your rooms at a three-star rate because that is what people will pay for a property that looks like that,'" she recalls, laughing.

"That just motivated me to make it work."

[email protected]

This article was first published in The Sunday Times.

readers' comments
Good of her to strive out, making her own turf. However, it is nothing to applaud about as she is not a classic case of from rag to riches. When one has a strong finanical backing to fall back on, anyone can easily plunge in and take a risk in business venture. There is little to loss but more to gain. When lost, can come back to the backer and maybe try again. For those started out with little or none to fall back on, any lost can be catastropic.
Posted by bravo31 on Thu, 4 Feb 2010 at 15:31 PM

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