International Restaurant & Nightclub Holdings (國際酒樓夜總會置業)

York Lo: International Restaurant & Nightclub Holdings (國際酒樓夜總會置業

Earlier in the group, we have covered Ruby and Oceania Hawaii, two publicly listed restaurant groups from the 1970s and 1980s which had since faded into history. Another major listed restaurant group from the same era was International Restaurant & Nightclub Holdings (hereafter referred to as “IRN Holdings” to differentiate it from the International Restaurant itself), which at its peak had over 15 restaurants and living up to its name had a presence outside of HK in Canada, Paris and London. The group was also known for its property transaction and principal’s connection with the notorious police sergeant Lui Lok(呂樂, 1920-2010), leading to rumors over the years that Lui was its backer.

Building of an International Empire under Kwan Kwok-ki and Lui Kai in the 1970s

International Restaurant Image 1 York Lo

Heads of IRN Holdings at the opening of Ho Wah Restaurant in 1974. Left: Kwan Kwok-kee as managing director delivering his speech. Right: the four heads of IRN (left to right): Lui Kai, Ng Sui-wan, Tsang Pui-chiu, Kwan Kwok-ki. (KSEN, 1974-6-12)

In its first decade, IRN was led by a management team comprised of chairman Ng Sui-wan (吳瑞雲), vice chairman Tsang Pui-chiu(曾佩釗), supervisor Lui Kai(呂佳), deputy supervisor Lee Chu (李柱), managing director Kwan Kwok-ki (關國基) and deputy managing director Lui Shun(呂信) with Kwan Kwok-ki and Lui Kai being the driving force.

Little is known about Ng Sui-wan while Tsang Pui-chiu, also known as Tsang To-au (曾桃鉤), was the son of the taxi king Tsan Yung (see article) and married Li Wai-yee, niece of Li Koon-chun and Li Tse-fong, co-founders of the Bank of East Asia.

Kwan Kwok-ki was formerly an executive with the Ruby Restaurant group covered earlier but by the late 1960s he had started his own restaurants – Sui Heung Yuen Restaurant (瑞香園茶樓酒家) at 504 Canton Road next to the Jordan Road Pier in 1966, Man Yee Restaurant (萬宜酒樓) at 6-12 Sai Yeung Choi Street in 1968 andParamount Restaurant (百樂門酒樓) at 338 Hennessy Road in Wanchai in 1970. (KSEN, 1968-3-29, KSDN, 1970-3-25) His strategy for his restaurants was large volume, low price combined with good food and service quality and entertainment. His slogan was “service of the top restaurants at the price for the mass” and came up with the concept of hosting monthly senior appreciation dinners with 20-40 tables with tickets at $10 per head which included banquet, Cantonese opera entertainment and wine supplied by his business partner Lui Kai’s Koon Wo Wine. (KSEN, 1968-11-30; KSDN, 1969-10-3)

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Left: Lui Kai (third from left) and others at the 17th anniversary celebration of the HK & Kowloon Chinese Wine & Spirits Merchants Association(港九中國酒業商會) in 1973. Left to right: Chu Sai (朱細), Ho Man-cheung (何萬章), Lui, Chiu Yiu-wah (趙耀華), Mui Yim-chau (梅炎秋), Chung Cheung (鍾昌), Cheng Kwai-fun (鄭桂, see article on wines). (WKYP, 1963-4-27); Right: ad forgingseng wine from Amoy by Koon Woo Wine in 1973 (WKYP, 1973-1-22)

Lui Kai founded Koon Wo Wine (冠和酒行) in Kowloon City in the 1940s which became a leading distributor and maker of Chinese wine in HK and Lui was one of the leaders of the HK & Kowloon Wine & Spirits Merchants Association, serving as its deputy supervisor. Koon Wo also made its own sauce and preserved fruits and Lui was also the owner of Tiu Yuen Soy & Foodstuff Factory (調源醬油食品) and served as chairman of the Lui’s Clansmen Associationand director of Lok Sin Tong in the 1970s. (WKYP, 1977-5-19)

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Left: Actress Lee Ching (center) and the principals of International Restaurant (Tsang Pui-chiu to her left and Ng Sui-wan to her right) at the grand opening in 1971 (KSEN, 1971-7-17); Right: Teresa Teng in an article about singers at the International Restaurant in 1972 (KSEN, 1972-1-12)

In July 1971, Kwan, Lui, Tsang and Ng opened the International Restaurant & Nightclub at the Good Hope Building at 612 Nathan Road in Mongkok with movie actress Lee Ching as guest of honor. The 50000 sq ft restaurant had capacity of 300 tables and featured traditional Chinese palace design by Ip Chung-sang (see article) and was built at the cost of over HK$10 million. The third floor was a dragon and phoenix banquet hall while the fourth floor was a Chinese garden theme nightclub and the fifth floor included Chinese and Japanese style VIP rooms. (KSEN, 1971-7-17)

The restaurant was an instant hit and by year end, it had over 1500 guests for its Christmas and New Year Eve party, breaking the records of any nightclubs in HK and forcing them to extend the festivities from the nightclub on the fourth floor to the third floor. Featured singers at the time include Teresa Teng, Lau Fung-ping and Paula Tsui. (KSEN, 1971-12-28)

International Restaurant Image 4 York Lo

Lui Lok (seated fourth from the left) with IRN leaders Tsang Pui-chiu (seated second from left), Lee Chu and Lui Siu-mun and HK Basketball Association chairman Carl Ching (程萬琦) with the Wai Bun basketball team before they head over to Taiwan for the Chiang Kai Shek cup at the International Restaurant in 1972 (KSEN, 1972-10-28) 

As shown in above picture, two of IRN’s principals Tsang Pui-chiu and Lee Chu were involved with Lui Lok in the basketball circles in the early 1970s when one of Lui’s associatesLui Siu-mun (呂少文) joined their restaurant group.Lui Siu-mun formed the Wai Bun basketball team (渭濱籃球隊) in 1967 with the backing of Lui Lok and within three years, the team was on the top of the HK league and participated in many tournaments in Taiwan and Southeast Asia and Lui Lok and Lui Siu-mun were elected life president and vice president of the HK Basketball Federation. (WKYP, 1973-1-16) When Lui Siu-mun got married to Fung Yun-ping in 1972, the wedding banquet was held on the fourth floor of the International Restaurant with Lui Lok as introducer andin attendance were police sergeant Auyeung Kwan and actor Lui Kei. (WKYP, 1972-5-10 and 1972-1-15) Another IRN leader Lui Kai was also a colleague of Lui Lok in the Lui Clansmen Association although they were not related as he was a native of Nanhai while Lui Lok came from Haifeng in Chiuchow.

By the early 1970s, the principals of IRN had amalgamated Kwan’s Paramount, Man Yee, Sui Heung Yuen together with International, Chung Kwok and Man Wah restaurants into Man Shing Gourmets & Estates Ltd (萬成飲食置業, incorporated in 1970).ManShing was renamed IRN in October 1972 andthe next month went public at the Far East and Kam Ngan exchanges through the issuance of 8.2 million new shares at $1.25 per share, representing 25% of total share outstanding. The firm’s assets appraised at $40 million include 3rd,4th and 5th floor of Good Hope Building plus 4 residential flats in Sai Yeung Choi Street which served as staff’s quarters. The projected earnings for fiscal year ending March 1973 was $4.17 million and $4.45 million for the next fiscal year. (WKYP, 1972-11-8)

In 1973, Lui Lok fled to Canada ahead of the formation of ICAC and his familyborrowed HK$6 million from IRN with their shares in Wai Bun Land (渭濱置業, named after the alias of the Taoist deity Lui Tsu whom Lui believed he was descended from), which controlled his private villa “Wai Bun Castle” (渭濱城) in Shatin, as collateral. Wai Bun Castle, also known as “Pok Nga Villa” (博雅山莊), was a villa surrounded by 10-ft stone walls (nicknamed “Great Wall” by neighbors) and Chinese garden and it eventuallybecame IRN’s property and as a result avoided being frozen by the HK government as part of the graft case against Lui.

In June 1974, the group opened the 6-story Ho Wah Restaurant(豪華酒樓) at 343-349 Nathan Road which had capacity of over 300 tables. (KSEN, 1974-6-12)In late October 1975, Kwan Kwok-ki received an extortion letter which contained a bullet asking for $10000 or else his legs would be broken. Later, the 26 years old husband of a cashier at the Sui Heung Yuen restaurant who was a triad member was arrested and was sentenced to 19 months in jail. (WKYP, 1975-11-2)

In the mid-1970s, IRN began its international expansion, starting with the opening of a Chinese restaurant in London in May 1975. In October 1976, IRN opened the largest Chinese restaurant in Toronto at the time – the International Chinese Restaurant (國際大酒樓) on 421 Dundas Street West with 200 employees. (KSEN, 1976-10-14) The International Restaurant in Toronto was managed by Simmy Lui San-man (呂倩文), Lui Kai’s daughter who graduated with a B.S. in biology from University of Oregon and M.S. in biochemistry from the University of California. In 1979, she married Billy Hung Hing-chuen (孔慶全), the president of Shiu Pong Enterprises in Toronto who is the second son of real estate developer and stockbroker Hung Hin-shiu (see article on Wongs and Hungs). (WKYP, 1979-6-17)

In December 1978, International opened their Chinatown Restaurant (中國城酒樓) in Paris and a delegation of over 30 from HK led by the management team joined the opening ceremony. (TKP, 1978-12-14) In April 1979, Kwan Kwok-ki left for Sydney to explore the possibility of opening restaurant there for the group and told the press that there were plans to open the largest Chinese restaurants in Australia, West Germany and Switzerland.  (KSDN, 1979-4-13) The group’s overseas efforts were organized under HK Overseas International Gourmets Managers Ltd (香港海外國際飲食業管理有限公司), which was incorporated in 1979. By that time, IRN had a total of 15 restaurants across the globe.

Back in HK, IRN continued its growth, launching the new Man Yee Restaurant at 424-426 Castle Peak Road and opened Wah Kwok Restaurant at 77-91 Queen’s Road West in 1979. (KSDN, 1979-4-24)

Transition under Lui Siu-mun in the 1980s

In 1982-84 during the confidence crisis in HK with the handover talks, IRN was also going through seismic changes of its own. In February 1982, Lui Shun left IRN and with the backing of chairman Wong Chung-ming of Tung Chun Sauce Factory (see article) and support of deputy managing directors Wong Kuen (王權) and Lee Lun(李麟)opened Dor Cheuk Restaurant (多爵酒樓) in Kowloon City. In April 1982, Lui Siu-mun was promoted to deputy managing director (WKYP, 1982-4-21)

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Article about the opening of Dor Cheuk Restaurant in Kowloon City in 1982 with picture of Lui Shun delivering a speech as managing director (WKYP, 1982-2-25)

In June 1982, IRN opened Shatin International City Recreation Club (沙田國際城) on the site of Pok Nga Villa with New Territories leaders Cheung Yan-lung (張人龍), Wong Yuen-cheung (黃源章), Ng Chan-lam (吳燦林) and Wai Hon-leung (韋漢良) as guests of honor. The club which occupied over 100,000 sq ft included traditional Chinese garden, restaurants (traditional Chinese, Korean barbecue, Chinese and Western buffets), bars, swimming pools, tennis courts, table tennis tables, gyms and saunas.

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Left: Front page ad for the opening of Shatin International City in 1982 with sketch of the entire site and listing eight of IRN Holdings’ restaurants (WKYP, 1982-6-20); Right: article about the appointment of Lui Siu-mun as IRN’s deputy managing director in 1982. (WKYP, 1982-4-21)

In October 1982, IRN for the first time announced dividends of 20 cents per share, which was a significant improvement for the firm which had never paid dividends of over 5 cents per share.This was thanks to improvement in earnings which was $5 million better than 1981 and $8 million better than 1980 thanks to personnel changes and cost savings.  (WKYP, 1982-10-6) By this time, Ng Sui-wan had been replaced by Tsang Pui-chiu as chairman and Lui Kai was out of the picture. New faces on the board included Tse Shun-leung (謝舜良,to be covered), Tsang Pui-kei, Kwan Wai, Kwok Yu-kam (郭汝鑑), Kwok Tai, Poon Kei, Chu Poon Pui-yeung and Chan Kang (陳鏡), the proprietor of Kang Kee Noodle Factory (鏡記粉麵廠) in Wanchai. Kang Kee was founded in 1945 and operated until 2000 when Chan Kang retired and sold it to Ng Shu-tak (吳樹德), whose father Ng Fan-lau (吳藩柳) started Yue Lung Noodle Factory (裕隆粉麵廠) in Kowloon City in the 1950s and instant noodle manufacturer Tai Ta (大達公司) in the 1970s. Kang Kee’s clients include Luk Yu Tea House, Marriott and West Villa restaurant. (WKYP, 1983-2-26)

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Left: Man Yee Restaurant on Castle Peak Road in 1983 (KSEN, 1983-5-3); right: directors of IRN at the signing ceremony of partnership for the Guangzhou hotel in 1986(WKYP, 1986-7-24)

Trouble however was around the corner and in May 1983, Man Yee restaurant closed and over 100 staff lost their jobs with over $300,000 in owed salaries. In December 1983, Tsang Pui-chiu and Lui Siu-mun as chairman and deputy managing director of IRN Holdings visited the Commercial Crime Bureau to report accounting irregularities and kickbacks in one of its subsidiaries. As a result, the stock suspended trading. (KSEN, 1983-12-15)

In August 8, 1984, a major reorganization took place at IRN and Lui Siu-munsucceeded Kwan Kwok-ki as managing director.(WKYP, 1985-8-13) Later in the same month, Sui Heung Yuen on Canton Road in Yaumati went out of business after 18 years and 82 workers lost their jobs and were owed over HK$500,000 in salaries. Allegedly over 9 months of rent were owed, so the landlord went to the court and had the restaurant shut down. (KSDN, 1984-9-1)

Under Lui Siu-mun, IRN focused on turning around through more professional management, enhancing cost savings through group purchasing with affiliate Asiania Restaurant also controlled by Lui and alsoproviding more staff training. In 1986, the group sent at least three groups of employees (24 each time) to week-long training class conducted by the HK Tourism Association (WKYP, 1986-4-13)

In July 1986, IRN signed an agreement with the Flower City Aerated Water Factory in Guangzhou to develop the 163-room Huanghuagang International Hotel complete with opera house, Chinese and Western style restaurants and fast food outlets. Aside from the group’s directors and city government officials, also in attendance at the signing ceremony were TVB producers Siu Sang and Yeung Siu-hung and Gold & Silver Exchange vice chairman Ma Ching-chung. The hotel opened in the fall of 1987. (WKYP, 1986-7-23) In August 1986, IRN’s annual staff celebration dinner was joined by Thai Chinese plastic tycoon Chan Cheuk-ho, food critic Wai Ling (唯靈,William Mark Yiu-tong) and radio host Pamela Pak. (WKYP, 1986-8-10)

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Lui Siu-mun (center) with 24 IRN staff who received certificates from the HK Tourism Association training program in 1986 (WKYP, 1986-1-10)

In 1987, IRN’s property at 612 Nathan Road was assessed at $71.5 million while the firm also expected to receive $10 million in compensation from the government when they took over part of International City in Shatin for highway expansion. (WKYP, 1987-3-25)

In April 1987, IRN resumed trading after 3.5 years of suspension and the stock price closed at $2.27, which was lower than the appraised NAV per share of $2.57. (TKP, 1987-4-14) At the time, YickShing Gourmets & Estates (億成飲食) which was owned by the directors listed above controlled 78% of IRN’s outstanding shares and was required to sell down to 75% in order to maintain its listing status. (WKYP, 1987-5-6)

In May 1987, IRN sent its head chefs Lai Chi (黎熾) and Lam Yin (林賢) along with food critic Wai Ling to Phuket to participate in the International Seafood Festival organized by the Thai Board of Tourism. This was followed by sending 6 chefs of Cantonese and Chiuchow Cooking Show in Singapore in July of the same year. (WKYP, 1987-5-9) The same month, electronics retailer Ho Chee-bun (何池彬) joined the board of IRN. (TKP, 1987-5-16)In November 1987, IRN acquired the basement and first four floors of 141-147 Johnston Road in Wanchai from Tsang Pui-chiu and Kwok Yu-kam for 3.2 million shares at $1.25 per share or $40 million (TKP, 1987-11-7)

In May 1988, Parisco (華胤馨) acquired 53% of IRN from YickShing for $19 million ($2.80 per share) and the deal also involved YickShing buying IRN’s restaurants and properties for $14.5 million. (TKP, 1988-5-7) As a result, the listed shell was renamed Parisco International om October (and renamed Emperor Investment in 1990 when it was taken over by Albert Yeung) while the restaurants such as International continued to be owned and managed by YickShing under the leadership of Lui Siu-mun alongside the famous Asiania Restaurant & Nightclub(喜萬年酒樓)located at the 21st and 22nd floor of the Asian House (熙信大厦) at 1 Hennessy Road in Wanchai, which Lui Siu-mun took over in 1982 and was opened a decade before in 1972 by Cheng Yu-tung and a group of businessmen (including L.S. Yao, see Shanghainese Builders part 7) and managed by Woo Yau.  (WKYP, 1972-7-28)

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Yik Shing hosting their August 8 Senior Appreciation Dinner (八八萬歲耆英宴) at International Restaurant in 1991. Right to left: Lui Siu-mun, Liza Wang (汪明荃), Chou Chun-fai (仇振輝), Chung Pui-lam (鍾沛林), Tong Hoi-yee (唐海怡), Ha Yu (夏雨), Kwok Yu-kam. (WKYP, 1991-8-12)

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The opening of the Asiania Restaurant in 1972. Right to left: Sin Cho-him, Lee Sai-nang, Leung Wai-ho, Lam Shu-tsang, Cheng Yu-tung, Woo Yau, L.S. Yao, Yeung Ho, Leung Siu-kau. (WKYP, 1972-7-28)

Over time, the former IRN restaurants all closed while Yick Shing Gourmets as a firm was incorporated in 1972 and dissolved in 1999.International Restaurant on Nathan Road became the Winton Restaurant which was controlled by the taxi finance company Winton Group which IRN director Tsang Pui-keiwas a major shareholder of and when Winton exited the restaurant business it became the London Chinese Reataurant.Asiania closed its nightclub in 1994 and relocated its Chinese restaurant to Emperor Group Centre in Wanchai in 2013 when the Asian House was demolished. Lui Siu-mun has been active in the horseracing circle for decades and in recent years has served as director of the Macau Jockey Club.

Sources (other than those cited above):

https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%8D%9A%E9%9B%85%E5%B1%B1%E8%8E%8A

This article was first posted on 15th January 2021.

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