By Lee San
Between 1995 and 1998, we managed to sail past the crises rather safely, each being a great opportunity in disguise actually. During such trying times, Apple Holidays somehow managed to emerge strong and solid. Call it luck or our unrivaled courage being new and young in the industry.
As a matter of fact, the company was born in a very turbulent and uncertain time characterized by spiraling inflation and sufferings. But, now that we had put up the company sign, how were we supposed to tackle the enormous economic gloom that descended upon us out of the blue? Should we carry on or just call it quits?
Of course I had pondered over the question whether there were still people having the mood to travel when most others were struggling to make ends meet.
Looks like this was going to be the third major crisis standing in the way along my career journey. I had no choice but to fight it fearlessly come what may.
October 2020, many economic sectors were already badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. As if that was not enough, we were soon slapped with the dreary MCO 2.0.
One morning in Yulek Taman Cheras, while having a chat with several travel buddies, one of them announced, “Even in the midst of such a terrible pandemic, weirdly there’s still this new coffee shop called Chan Hainam Kopitiam quietly opening at the corner of the market.”
It was learned that the business owners were four young members of a family. Do take note that they were not running a trendy western-style cafe but a traditional coffee shop! These young folks must have been very courageous, I was thinking, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try.
What surprised me was that customers had to line up to go into an unglamorous coffee shop. After quite some time when we finally got seated and served our breakfast, the traditional coffee milk tea and the toast were simply marvelous. And that was not all. The other food stalls at the coffee shop all boasted unmistakable traditional flavors. I couldn’t believe I would ever find my dearly missed childhood tastes right there. Among my favorite local delicacies such as shredded chicken hor fun, fried koay teow, Cantonese fried noodle, pan mee and wanton noodle were all there.
I took the opportunity to chat with one of the business owners. The young lady said frankly: We the siblings felt that we indeed got stuck by the MCO 1.0, but when we went into RMCO, we decided to open the shop for business as planned. Actually, so long as we get started, we’ll have a 50% chance of success. Don’t you think so? But if we were to give up right away, all our earlier inputs and efforts would go down the drain. Moreover, to run a traditional coffee shop, our coffee and toast have to be really good to keep the customers coming back again.
Without the slightest doubt, Chan Hainam Kopitiam did have a good start, and I believed this young lady would emerge a victor eventually.
Compare that to 25 years ago, now or future, I believe all budding entrepreneurs share almost identical attitude and operational philosophy: whatsoever business you are into, so long as you are persistent, there is always a chance for survival. Agree?
The same thing happened to renowned local architect CC. At a private dinner gathering during the RMCO, I had this rare opportunity to hear CC relate to me his experiences with the 1998 regional financial crisis.
Back then many construction projects had to be halted halfway while property buyers dropped their purchases. The RM4 million loan owed to the bank by CC’s company was due very soon. The business which they had put in so much effort to build would very soon go bust. Nonetheless, CC proposed to the other shareholders: Since the RM100,000 cash we have on hand is not enough to even service the loan interest, why not bet it on a 30-acre plot of land in Rawang? Thanks to the financial crisis, the landowner probably had to quickly dispose of the land at drastically reduced rates. CC’s bold move eventually paid off, and his real estate business was fast picking up, and soon expanded to China!
In the face of the ravaging pandemic, CC’s advice for me was this: in an emergency, put on your oxygen mask first before you go around saving other people’s lives.
So, I made up my mind. I’m not going to let the hostile environment defeat me. Lee San, “Ah Q spirit” is a kind of self-comforting spirit which scholars would call a manifestation of self-ridicule and self-delusion. Simply put, it is a form of self consolation by way of spiritual triumph. But, before you applied that “Ah Q spirit” on me, I had already employed the “going against the odds” approach in confronting my own problems. These two behaviors are not wholly the same, and when used concurrently could lead to confusion and incongruence.
July 1998, Koh San who was well versed with Japan tour routes came back to Malaysia and joined the Apple family, meaning between 1998 and 2002, the four of us in our early thirties were finally put together in total perfection, each exerting our own strengths for our common good. Naturally, I was the Big Brother in the family, but with it came the insurmountable pressure and responsibility!
After Chow and Chow Liang successfully launched the Thailand tours on chartered flights, our Hong Kong and China packages were all set to take off in a big way, especially the 7D Beijing-Tianjin-Chengde package that was selling like hot cakes. Because of that, I visited the Great Wall of China for the very first time, got to savor the unforgettable Quanjude Peking roast duck and be mesmerized in the city’s quaint labyrinthine alleys or hutongs.
Banking on the success of such initiatives, Chow started the Europe, US and Australia tours he was very familiar with. Of course. during the financial crisis, the unfavorable currency exchange rates of Western countries posed a severe test to us, the new kids on the block.
Towards the end of 1997, my family and I joined our own Apple US East Coast tour to visit an English-speaking country for the first time. The tour leader was the highly experienced and seasoned Raymond Lim who had everything about North America at his fingertips, while I was trying to learn something along the way, hopefully some day I could become a competent tour leader for our Europe, US and Australia tours.
This has reminded me of a minor event that nevertheless had far-fetching effects taking place towards the end of the Shogunate Period in Japan. Scholars like Fukuzawa Yukichi and Ito Hirobumi who believed a modern Japan of future must incorporate Western systems, traveled on their own expenses to the West. They were like country bumpkins entering the city for the first time when they arrived in Europe. Everything was so different and novel to them. Of course, they had picked up quite a good deal of new experiences during the trip.
As for me, I finally made it to the Disneyland in LA, smelling for the very first time the irresistible aroma of Starbucks coffee, and seeing for the first time the fire escape staircases behind American buildings, and what people called Chinatown as well as the year-round casino city Las Vegas.
Since my first trip to a Western country in 1997, in just around 25 years’ time I have set foot on 48 countries across Europe, and counting…
Indeed, every crisis that befalls us could be a unique opportunity to twist our fate. Of course, you have to constantly ready yourself, and be prepared to face each of the crises boldly.
If we are resolved to make the first move, we will at least have a 50% chance of success!
(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.)