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05/09/2021
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[Isshōkenmei] There’s a dreamer in every era (5)

By Lee San

With my buddy Koh-san at the University of Tokyo in 1992.

Today, you can see how the young people start their businesses in year 2020. Following the decline of Hong Kong-style restaurants, we see a flood of cafes, bubble milk tea shops, omakase, hot pot and other chain or direct sales stores mushrooming in our cities and towns.

This is the time that best reflects the people’s craving for good food, and many young people seem to be so keen to jump into the F&B industry. But the thing is: such investments invariably involve hundreds of thousands if not millions of ringgit. I wonder how these people get the money.

Looking back at myself 25 years ago, I was extremely careful in every cent I spent. All I had was RM120,000 only, and even that was raised through crowd-funding. For your information, the selling price of a 20-year-old single-storey terraced house in Taman Midah Cheras was RM90,000 in 1995, and its monthly rent was RM650.

My so-called crowd-funding capital was actually sourced from several tour guide friends still studying in Japan at that time, including Koh-san, my buddy from teenage years. Of course, it also came from years of savings from myself and my wife. Sure enough they had faith in my foresight, and believed I would make an excellent boss.

Unfortunately the hard earned savings they invested in me went down the drain barely a year later. I’ll talk about this some other time.

I never expected myself to fall so miserably into the business trap intentionally set up by someone I trusted. I was forced to pay an exorbitant price to pick up a lesson, but it also forced me to learn to turn a crisis into opportunity. I would say it was nevertheless well worth the price I paid!

With some best friends in 1992. First from right is Tham-san.

Taking the first step in starting a business

In the last article, I mentioned that I finally took the first step in starting my own career in mid-1995, nine months before my graduation. Flying back to Malaysia from Japan, besides studying the local business environment, I also took the opportunity to renegotiate our joint project with Mr Sunny, a senior in the travel business — minus the participation of our former Japanese-Thai boss.

For the joint venture with Sunny, as we had to take out money from our own pocket, we had to be extra cautious.

I’m quite sure people keen to start their own businesses through the years would first carry out comprehensive site studies and exercise additional caution before they actually invest in something. As for me, besides studying, I had also engaged myself in travel-related chores, especially those between Japan and Malaysia, and between Japan and Thailand, the Philippines or Indonesia. I would say I had all this at my fingertips, and believed I wouldn’t have trusted the wrong guy. Moreover, I had always remained in close contact with travel people in KL. Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Up till this point, I find it necessary to throw in an incident that had a lot to do with my travel business later on.

Before I went to Japan in 1991, I used to work as an inbound tour guide (licence number: 2079) at Mandarin Tours & Travel, one of the largest one-stop agencies back in those years. Its “Heart & Soul” brand of Japan outbound tours had been highly popular since 1985, with frequent departures. Because of that, Mandarin sent Mr Sunny to the ground arrangement partner’s office in Tokyo to better serve the travel agency’s Japan-bound customers in Malaysia. We can see from here that Mandarin’s boss Daniel was very professional in this business.

As I was mainly serving inbound tourists from Taiwan, most of whom had also visited Japan before, they somehow managed to satisfy my curiosity in both Japan and Taiwan. I wished I could travel overseas to see these countries, preferably to study there!

At that time there was this Norman-san in the travel business in KL who had just returned from Japan to be a Japanese language tour guide. He always encouraged me to go to Japan to broaden my scope of vision. He even said he would get a local good friend to help me, including job arrangement.

With my old friend of 30 years in snowy Hokkaido, Dec 19, 2011.

A mentor and friend

Indeed, after arriving in Japan, I met Norman-san’s good friend Tham, a Hong Konger who married a Japanese wife and had lived in Japan for some time. Tham-san took very good care of me, and our mentor-friend relationship has lasted for more than three decades until this day.

Although my knowledge of the Japanese language was only skin-deep, I somehow managed to get a part-time job at the trading-restaurant-travel company of his Japanese Thai boss of Chinese descent. Coincidentally, the boss also started off as a Thai language tour guide in Japan from 1970 to 1986.

He recalled that he used to work at the same GA agency as Mr Sunny from Mandarin KL, although that company had closed down before I arrived in Japan.

So I, the Japanese Thai boss and Sunny who was already back in KL at that time, were actually old colleagues who happened to know one another among ourselves.

Such a relationship was destined to sound the unannounced prelude that would eventually lead me to start my own business.

More in the Isshōkenmei series

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)

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Lee San
Apple Vacations
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