Mr Robert Chua left Singapore at the age of only 21 to help start Hong Kong’s TVB station in 1967 as a TV producer. Back then, there was only pre-recorded shows on TV. He broke new ground by introducing TVB’s first ever live show: Enjoy Yourself Tonight (欢乐今宵). It would become Hong Kong’s longest running variety show with more than 6,000 episodes over 27 years.
Robert also created the first Miss Hong Kong pageant, and Hong Kong’s first charity marathon live show. He went on to pioneer several TV businesses including satellite TV channel, China Entertainment Television, that promoted a philosophy of “no sex, no violence and no news”.
After semi-retiring from the TV industry, he went into the F&B business, bringing the Tim Ho Wan and Kam’s Roast restaurants to Singapore and across Asia. He also started A La Bakery, a french pastry bakery in Hong Kong.
In a wide-ranging chat over breakfast at Royal Plaza on Scotts hotel, the 71-year-old shared his secrets to success despite having no academic credentials. I thought it is timely since the Singapore government is now big on the SkillsFuture movement.
1. Work VERY hard from the bottom
Robert developed a liking for the TV industry after watching his first TV shows in Australia. He was then doing his secondary education at King’s College, Adelaide.
At only 17, Robert started working as an assistant moving props for ADS Channel 7, an Adelaide TV station. Working up to 15 hours a day, he tried his hands at any jobs. Just a few months into his work, he became a cameraman, then floor manager.
The average joe would probably just work as expected — not more, not less — and wonder why he wasn’t given promotions. Not for Robert. In just two years, he had picked up practical experience in all aspect of TV production.
He then returned to Singapore, joining the Radio Television Singapore (predecessor of Singapore Broadcasting Corporation — SBC, now MediaCorp) as a temporary assistant producer. At only 20 years old, he became the youngest TV producer in Singapore, creating more shows than the senior producers. But he was given a demotion and pay cut! The reason? He didn’t have a university degree.
In 1994, George Yeo, then Minister for Information and the Arts, highlighted Robert Chua as an example of a highly successful TV producer who was let go by SBC.
He said: “Many years ago, we had a young producer called Robert Chua. He worked for SBC, then went to Hong Kong and he produced the most successful entertainment magazine programme Hong Kong has ever known and seen, which is called Enjoy Yourself Tonight. And today, copycats are found all over the world, including Singapore.
“I met him recently because he is starting a 24-hour TV channel in Chinese over satellite. I said, would you be interested if we were to take a stake in your company from SBC. He said yes, but provided SBC doesn’t control me. Robert Chua is very proud to be a Singaporean and his production are not bad, they are not lewd, they are entertaining. But we cannot have a situation in SBC where we are so rigid, we drive out people like Robert Chua.”
Well, you see, in Singapore, companies tend to emphasise paper qualifications over work achievements. Thankfully things have changed, or at least starting to change. For Robert, it was a blessing in disguised. The fledging TVB in Hong Kong recognised his work ability, and gave him his big break.
What’s ironic is that many of his staff in the production department of TVB were university graduates. Isn’t it funny? A college kid rejected by Singapore government-led TV station, leading a group of top graduates from the finest universities in Hong Kong. I think it goes to show that academic result isn’t everything. It is not a good indicator of work and leadership success.
What advice does Robert have for young people who are starting out today?
I always say one thing: You do what you want to do, you must have a passion for it — but you must work very hard. Do not have a poor attitude like, “Why should you work so hard? Wah, the boss takes advantage of me, I work so bloody hard, you know.”
And don’t let your colleagues influence you. “Why you so stupid man? Why give your life to the boss?”
This is stupid. These people want to go down, and expect you to go down with them. Instead of being influenced by them, you should shine above them, show them how to be good, and inspire them.
I started from the rock bottom. I swept the floor, cleaned the studio floor. I’m involved in all aspects of television — I was the cameraman, did live show and everything.
I was very lucky that I met my boss, who got me to produce a live show (in TVB). I was only 21, but he let me do it anyway. This could be a suicidal decision. I was very lucky that I could make it. All the people respected me and never gave me any trouble. Maybe because I looked older than 21, more like 25 or 26. I was very serious, and the most professional at work. The former stars in Hong Kong who had worked with me knew that I was very strict.
All my life, I have been lucky. What I do, I love it. When I worked with TVB for seven years, I’d never been sick for even a single day. But nowadays, some people take up to 10 sick days in a year. And in my first 5 years with TVB, I’d never taken my annual holiday. I loved my job so much, I’d never think about it.
The only time I took medical leave it’s because of my brain surgery. One morning at home, I was supposed to have an appointment. But I was really sick, I could not make it. So my wife Peggy took me to see a doctor, I got in the operation theatre for the brain surgery.
If you love what you do, it’s like a hobby. Professional footballers don’t call it work, they feel that training is fun. So this is what I feel about my work. It gives me a lot of energy.
2. Never compromise on quality
After five decades in TV, Robert became a household name in Hong Kong. He was highly respected and known for his professionalism and ethics. It was for this reason that Chef Mak Kwai Pui of Tim Ho Wan, the Michelin-starred dim sum shop in Hong Kong chose to work with him.
Robert was quoted as saying in the Business Times: “I met (Chef Mak) before, and because of my shows, he knows who I am and that I have the same passion as he does.”
Robert sealed the deal while his brother Harry ran the business. They have since expanded Tim Ho Wan to 38 outlets in the region.
Robert also started À La Bakery, a French pastry shop in Hong Kong, that uses only the finest ingredients. For example, their mooncakes are made from flour, butter, milk and Perrier mineral water imported from France.
More recently, Robert introduced Hong Kong’s Michelin-starred Kam’s Roast to Singapore last year. Kam’s Roast Goose is founded by Hardy Kam, the 3rd generation of the founder of the famed Yung Kee Goose. The Singapore branch is named Kam’s Roast as it serves duck instead of goose. Located at Pacific Plaza, it is the first Kam’s Roast branch outside of Hong Kong.
How did Robert create his success despite having no experience in the F&B industry?
F&B and TV are the same to me. They are all about the people. Some people in Hong Kong recognise me on the street, because they remember the good old days of Enjoy Yourself Tonight. My show gave them a lot of happiness. People worked very hard in those days. (But when) they got home, they could relax and enjoy the EYT show with the children.
It’s the same for F&B, I want to create good food for the people. My number one focus is the ingredient — they must be good. You can use the cheapest rice, people don’t care as long as they get it but I don’t do that. My bakery and restaurants use only the finest ingredients. My margin maybe lower, but I don’t believe in doing business by looking at money first. I hope more people to buy so that we can keep the price affordable.
That’s what I do, I never compromise on quality. It just like for TV, content is important. You must have a social responsibility. You don’t want me to produce those cheap, low class content. Those ‘sex’ programmes are easy and cheap, because sometimes, the people don’t even need to wear costumes!
So it’s the same for F&B, I want to make sure all my food are the best. Of course, not everyone would like the taste. I can’t help it because food is very subjective, just like a TV programme, but I don’t compromise on quality.
3. See failures as lessons
When I speak to highly successful people, they all have a common habit of seeing failure as a form of feedback for future success. It’s the same for Robert.
When we touched on the topic of China Entertainment Television (CETV), a satellite TV venture that nearly bankrupted him, he was immensely proud of the TV channel even though it was a financial disaster. The 24-hour family TV channel was reaching to an estimated 33 millions households in Asia, but it nearly gone bust until it was sold to Time Warner in 2000.
When I started CETV in 1994, it was all crazy. I shouldn’t have done it. Normal people wouldn’t do it. I did it because of my passion for TV. But in life, I don’t care what people think, I just do what I think is right, it’s all I know. I don’t wait, I just put in all my money and do it.
It nearly gone bust. But Time Warner bought over to save us because they recognised what we are and what we do. Because my studio was the smallest in the world, when the Chinese investors visited us, they despised us. These people looked at it superficially, they were only impressed by what’s big and glamorous. But my studio did perfect work. Time Warner was impressed by what we produced on air. I’m proud that the smallest satellite station in the world was able to do it.
That’s one thing that I want people to believe: Money is never my aim. I don’t manage my money. What I have now is all thanks to my wife because she invested in properties in Hong Kong. When I lost money in the satellite TV, my wife was more worried than me. A lot of people didn’t know how tough it was. The company could go bust anytime because our Chinese investors disappeared at the last minute. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars.
We have to learn from mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes. I always tell my staff, I would never fire you for your mistake that was made with good intention. But when mistakes are made because you are lazy, you do things haphazardly, I will fire you for that. If you’re not sure, you can always ask. You learn from mistakes, that’s why you do it. Just like me, I’ve a lot of ups and downs.
- Do what you love, and have strong work ethics
- Ask for opportunities to learn on the job whenever possible
- Give your best, over deliver, and never compromise on quality
- Make sure either you or your partner knows how to invest and manage money well
I hope you are inspired by Robert Chua’s (left) words of wisdoms. If you support what I am doing here for Happiness Notebook — interviewing people like Robert and sharing their tips on success and happiness — share this post on Facebook using the social media button below.
[This feature is part of a collaboration with CharmaineWu.com photography. Titled For the Love of It, the project was conceived to inspire a generation of dreamers to act boldly. Through stories of individuals who are wildly successful in pursuing their passion for a living, Charmaine (right) and I hope to inspire more people to dream big and be bold in pursuing their goals.]
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