Robert Chua used to rule television, now he wants to build a food empire

Several well-meaning friends told Robert Chua to junk the plan and cut his losses. Launching a food business in the midst of a pandemic is a bad idea, they said.

"But I believed it could be done, and so I took the plunge," says the 74-year-old.

In August last year, his Joy Luck Teahouse opened in Ion Orchard. The takeaway kiosk sells egg tarts (purportedly Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat's favourite), pineapple or bolo buns and curry fishballs by three popular Hong Kong brands - Hoover Cake Shop, Kam Kee Cafe and Tak Hing Fishball Company respectively.

Business was and continues to be brisk. Over the last seven months, five more Joy Luck Teahouse outlets opened in Bugis Junction, Causeway Point, Parkway Parade, Chinatown and Sun Plaza. He owns three and franchised out the others.

In the months to come, more outlets will open in malls all over the island, including Funan, Plaza Singapura and Junction 8. He will also be introducing a new offshoot - Joy Luck Yum Sing - offering popular Hong Kong beverages like milk tea, and egg tarts.

"I want this to be the most successful Singapore-built brand," declares Mr Chua, who has plans to expand Joy Luck concept beyond Singapore.

"Malaysia and the Philippines already want it," adds the man responsible for bringing two Michelin-starred Hong Kong F&B brands here: dimsum restaurant Tim Ho Wan and roast meat specialist Kam's Roast.

From his rapid-fire speech and the torrents of ideas that tumble from his mouth, Mr Chua is obviously a man who cannot sit still. Never mind that he is a septuagenarian, or that he had two brain surgeries.

His boundless energy is what drove him to enter the F&B industry eight years ago, after a sterling career in television and broadcasting spanning half a century.

The Singaporean is a well-known name in Hong Kong's entertainment circles, and for good reason. He is most famous for being the brains behind Enjoy Yourself Tonight (EYT), a TV variety show featuring some of the city's most popular celebrities, which was broadcast live five nights a week and ran for nearly 30 years until 1994.

He also, among other things, set up Hong Kong's first independent TV production company, and produced Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee celebrations in the former British colony. His became the first media company to sell foreign TV advertising directly into China and he started a satellite TV channel as well as Asia's first 24-hour interactive channel.

Mr Chua is the eldest of three sons of a garment businessman and his wife.

"I spent my childhood in River Valley; we were very lucky and grew up with two amahs," he says.

After his parents divorced when he was 10, he was sent to St Andrew's Boarding School.

"It taught me to be self-reliant although I was very naughty," says Mr Chua who attended Anglo-Chinese School after completing his primary education at St Andrew's.

When he was barely 16, he was sent to King's College in Adelaide, Australia. After a year, he joined the state's ADS Channel 7 as a property assistant in 1964.

"My stepfather said: 'Since you like girls and entertainment, how about finding a job in television?'"

"I started out sweeping floors and moving sets before becoming a cameraman and floor manager. It was hard work but to me it was not work because I loved it and learnt a lot," he says.

His love for the medium saw him spending 15 hours daily at the station, absorbing everything around him.

He came back to Singapore two years later. By then, he had a pretty good grip of the skills needed to put a programme on air and even started directing simple shows.

He spent one year producing stage shows featuring pop acts like The Quests in theatres and stadiums in Singapore and Malaysia before joining Radio Television Singapore (now Mediacorp) as an assistant producer.

He didn't stay long.

Hong Kong was planning to launch its first wireless TV station broadcasting in colour so Mr Chua applied to join Television Broadcast Ltd (TVB) six months before its official opening.

"The general manager - Colin Bednall - was an Australian and knew the folks at Channel 7 and their reference for me was fantastic. They told him: 'Don't drop or lose him.' Frankly, I didn't have much of a resume and it was a big gamble on his part."

Then only 21, Mr Chua arrived in Hong Kong on May 24, 1967. The city was in a state of flux, still coming to grips with the fallout of China's Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976.

Mr Bednall asked if the ambitious young man - who speaks Cantonese but does not read or write Chinese - could produce a live variety show every night.

It was a huge undertaking.

"But I didn't even hesitate. I was not nervous, I just loved the business," he says.

Mr Chua with his good friend Nancy Sit, a veteran Hong Kong actress and entertainer famous for her roles in TV serials such as A Kindred Spirit (1995 to 1999), Virtues Of Harmony (2001 to 2002) and Virtues Of Harmony II (2003 to 2005). PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ROBERT CHUA

Then the youngest executive at the station, he oversaw all aspects of the programme, even signing talents including actress Liza Wang and the late comedienne Lydia Shum.

The show - hosted by amiable comperes and featuring skits and musical performances - was a huge hit. Stars, he says, came to see him all the time.

"They all wanted to get on the show and be on TV," he says.

Mr Chua's clout was such that he even persuaded the late gongfu superstar Bruce Lee to jump out of a birthday cake in one episode celebrating the fifth anniversary of TVB in 1972.

"He was such a macho guy so people were surprised when he jumped out of a cake instead of a beautiful woman. He trusted my instincts," recalls the broadcasting veteran who was also responsible for producing Hong Kong's first ever live charity show, Operation Relief, in 1972, as well as the first Miss Hong Kong Pageant a year later.

In 1973, he left TVB and started his own production company. The next year, he married Peggy Jen, who was his last assistant at the TV station and who still works with him on all his businesses. The couple have no children.

Over the next two decades, Mr Chua continued to chart new territories not just in broadcasting, but also in a range of businesses.

His was the first media company to sell foreign TV advertising directly into China, securing exclusive contracts with TV stations in Guangdong, Fujian, Sichuan and Henan provinces.

To seal the deal with the TV station in Guangdong, he had to deposit HK$1 million into a Chinese bank.

"The TV stations in Hong Kong dared not do it; I did," he says.

He not only produced content - including an English learning programme hosted by his wife - but also became the first distributor of foreign TV programmes in China.

Mr Robert Chua chatting with Bruce Lee before the latter went on air in an episode of Enjoy Yourself Tonight in the early 1970s. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ROBERT CHUA

He had fingers in other pies. For instance, he financed and introduced the first closed-circuit TV on trains running between Hong Kong and mainland China. And in 1983, he opened Hoover Live Theatre in Balestier Road to stage shows and concerts by Asian and local artistes.

Not all his ventures were successful. He has also been let down by partners and investors, and betrayed by staff, but all that, he says, is par for the course.

One of his biggest failures was setting up the 24-hour China Entertainment Television (CETV) satellite family channel - with the marketing tag No Sex, No Violence, No News - in 1994.

"I should never have done it. This is for the big boys. I didn't succeed because I didn't have the funds behind me," says Mr Chua, who exited the venture when he sold his stake to AOL Time Warner in 2003.

Later acquired by media conglomerate TOM Group, CETV ceased operations in 2016.

The episode took a financial and physical toll on him. He went through surgery in 1999 to relieve pressure in the brain brought on by the stress of worrying about staff's salaries and the bottom line.

"If the doctors hadn't operated on me that night, I'd probably be half paralysed," says Mr Chua who went through surgery again in 2008 to remove a benign brain tumour.

The setback didn't suppress his indefatigable spirit. He continued launching programmes and ventures including Everybody Wins (2003), an interactive quiz show which was licensed to several countries including Singapore, and also started TIC, the world's first "cross-media" interactive channel in 2004.

Serendipity engineered his foray into the F&B industry. He had co-founded Blanc, a line of crockery fashioned from high-tech ceramic, and got to know Mr Mak Kwai Pui, the boss of Michelin-starred dimsum restaurant Tim Ho Wan.

"A year later, my brother went to Hong Kong, dined at the restaurant, liked it and said we should bring it to Singapore," he says.

They managed to get the rights to the franchise, despite not having any prior experience in the industry, and eventually opened more than 40 outlets across Asia. He sold the rights to a private equity fund more than a year ago.

Mr Chua went on to acquire the rights to Kam's Roast and also started the high-end A La French Bakery in Hong Kong which unfortunately did not quite take off.

He is philosophical about financial losses.

"I've never been one for whom money comes first. Luckily, my wife is a savvy investor, especially with properties in Hong Kong and overseas," he says with a grin.

Mr Robert Chua is is a well-known name in Hong Kong's entertainment circles. PHOTOS: ROBERT CHUA

He is full of beans about Joy Luck Teahouse.

"It's my own brand, I own it totally. What I used to do was entertainment for the masses. Now it's comfort food for the masses," he says with a grin.

Apart from his professional achievements, Mr Chua is also known for his huge collection of Chinese antiques, many of which date back to the Tang and Song dynasties.

"My wife and I have been buying pieces since the late 1970s in China. Many of them were dirt cheap when we bought them," he says.

Despite the spectacular successes and debilitating failures, Mr Chua has never lost his sense of adventure and derring-do.

Asked how he feels when he looks back on his life, he says: "I've no regrets. I leave everything to fate. I believe that in life, if you do the best that you can, the rest will come naturally."