Spectacular: Laser technology is used in the lighting of the Impression Liu Sanjie show in China to make the river and surrounding mountain sides a part of the outdoor stage. — Photos: Handouts
IT’S a chilly night at Yangshuo, China, with late autumn winds blowing and a temperature of just 7°C; and it looks like it could rain at any moment. Yet more than 3,000 tourists brave the conditions to throng an open-air theatre fronting the Li River just to watch the Impression Liu Sanjie show.
This large-scale performance by 250 fishermen and 300 artistes – as well as some well-behaved cattle – is a combination of folk songs and dances depicting the life of ethnic minorities in scenic Guangxi Province.
Laser technology interplays colourful lights on the river’s rippling waters and against mountain peaks that transform the water stage and surroundings into a community filled with life.
This Nov 22 night is in the low travel season, yet there is an 85% occupancy and tickets sold – at prices ranging from RMB238 to over RMB600 (RM153-RM385) – making the 75-minute musical a spectacular success.
And come 2018, the success of this cultural show could be replicated in Malacca.
Datuk Wira Boo Kuang Loon, the business architect and brain behind the RM300mil Impression Melaka project, is working hard to ensure that Malacca’s own Impression project will be equally successful and will help transform the state into an exciting tourism destination.
In an interview with Sunday Star in Kuala Lumpur, the CEO of property group Yong Tai Bhd says: “I am a Malaccan. I am 44 years old and I want to retire in Malacca.Impression Melaka will be a strong catalyst for tourism. As a Malaccan, I must do something good for the state before I retire there.”
The Impression projects are a cultural franchise from China’s Guilin Guangwei Wenhua Tourism and Culture Company, whose Impression Liu Sanjie show was mooted and directed by Zhang Yimou – one of China’s most famous film directors who co-directed the impressive opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Impression Liu Sanjie began to post profits in its third year of operation, in 2007. Last year, it posted a net profit of RMB70mil (RM45mil) and this year, it expects to net RMB82mil (RM53mil), according to its deputy general manager Tian Feng.
Since the inception of China’s first natural theatre in 2004, more than 10 million people have viewed this nightly musical with theme songs from a movie about Liu Sanjie, a brave country girl who sang folk songs while battling oppressive landlords in old China.
The huge success of Impression Liu Sanjie has since encouraged other directors to stage eight Impression series in other cities in China.
Impression Melaka will be the first Impression show outside China and came about mainly because of the city’s historical links with ancient China. Hence, the storyline will inevitably include the coming of the Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng. He came some 600 years ago to trade with Malacca and supposedly marry off Princess Hang Li Po to Sultan Mansur Shah.
In fact, this project – which has strong support from the state and national governments – caught the attention of China’s President Xi Jinping during his visit to Malaysia in 2013. Xi was to witness the signing of agreements with eight companies.
“I was told this: After President Xi looked at the list, he singled out Impression Melaka for the official witness ceremony. To him, it is important for Malaysia and China to have people-to-people cultural relations in addition to economic ties,” Boo recalls happily how his project attracted the limelight.
Sitting on an almost 7ha of land facing the Strait of Malacca, Impression Melaka will be presented in an indoor theatre with 2,000 seats. There will be two shows a night to capture 1.1 million spectators in the first year of operation.
This project will inject vitality into the state, especially at night.
Tourists don’t normally stay overnight in Malacca due to the lack of high quality tourist-related events at night. However, this show may alter the night tourism landscape of the state.
Apart from tourism, the project will likely spur the growth of tourism-related industries in Malacca such as real estate, hotels, restaurants, transportation and arts education.
In fact, Impression Melaka is seen as central to the development of Yong Tai’s eight- to 10-year Impression City project with a gross development value of RM5.4bil, as its location within this major mixed residential and commercial property development project near the city will help to draw in investors and residents.
Naturally, as with any first-time project, there is risk involved.
“I have to admit there is some risk in this Impression project.
“The storyline is very crucial and we have to ensure the Chinese directors get it right. Hence, Boo is constantly having meetings with the directors,” says Datuk Seri Lee Ee Hoe, Yong Tai’s executive director, in a separate interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Lee, who owns Apple Vacations Group, was originally a business partner of Boo’s in Impression Melaka. The project was injected into Yong Tai when they did a reverse takeover of the listed property firm.
Despite the possible risks, Impression Melaka has managed to attract institutional investors.
For instance, Hong Kong’s listed company Sino Haijing Holdings Ltd, which owns Impression Liu Sanjie, has taken up a 34.5% stake in Yong Tai.
“All our corporate proposals and fundraising have been completed.
“This shows confidence towards us is solid. Yong Tai shares have also been rising steadily,” declares Boo at the interview.
And Apple Vacations, Lee’s successful travel company not linked to Yong Tai, has committed to selling 300,000 tickets annually for Impression Melaka.
This accounts for 27% of the 1.1 million tickets targeted in the first year of operation.
In fact, any misgivings could be swept away by the intense optimism shown by the management of Impression Liu Sanjie, who will be giving technical and management advice to Boo.
“You have 15 million tourists visiting Malacca annually, similar to Yangshou’s tourist flow. You are targeting only 1.1 million. For the Chinese, almost everybody knows Malacca because of Zheng He.
“The Chinese think of Malacca first, and then Kuala Lumpur, when they visit Malaysia,” said Tian on Nov 23, at a briefing in Yangshou for Yong Tai’s fund manager and this writer.
“I am sure if you charge US$40 to US$80 (RM179-RM358) per ticket, and work with tour companies, there will not be any problem with ticket sales. Just close your eyes, you will recoup your investment within three years,” he said confidently.
(Malaysia expects to have seen two million tourists from China this year, and four million next year.)
In fact, Malacca’s rich history was key in director Zhang Yimou accepting Boo’s invite to helm the production.
Other countries in this region and the Middle East approached him, yet none of their stories seemed to have been appealing enough.
The energetic and optimistic Boo, in a two-hour interview with Sunday Star, talks passionately about Impression Melaka and its future impact on Malacca and Yong Tai. Below are the excerpts:
How did you get involved in Impression Melaka and persuade Zhang Yimou to direct the show?
In early 2013, I thought I should do something to help catalyse the tourism industry in Malacca.
Despite having 15 million tourists, the state lacks night events that can encourage tourists to stay overnight. I am a Malaccan, I want to do something good for the state, as I want to retire there.
One day that year, I was invited to lunch with the former Chinese ambassador. I shared my thoughts with him. He then mentioned Liu Sanjie and I recalled I had seen this show several years ago.
I Googled the website of Impression and wrote a letter to Zhang Yimou. Two months later, Zhang replied and another one-and-a-half months later, he brought fellow directors to stay in Malacca. They liked Malacca.
Malacca has a history, a story and culture to share. In addition, its historical city centre has been listed as a Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site since 2008.
Did you face difficulties in the initial stages?
Yes. Land matters. We had to change our location several times.
With the first piece of land identified by our directors, the landowner changed her mind after we took her to see the Liu Sanjie show.
She asked for a 100% increase in price despite having signed the sales and purchase agreement with us. I regretted taking her to see the show in China. The second piece of land did not have the Strait of Malacca as a background, and the directors asked: Where is the draw if tourists cannot see the Strait?
The third piece of land had a problem with its title.
Finally, we have this present piece of 17 acres nearer to town and fronting the Strait.
Did you face funding issues?
All local banks asked for a feasibility study and valuation report. They wanted to know whether this project was commercially viable. But this is the first of its kind in Malaysia. Income will be derived from future collections from tickets.
The Bank of China was willing to approve a loan of RM118mil, as that was its leftover of allocations for 2013.
However, before the signing of the loan agreement on March 9, 2014, the MH370 disaster struck on March 8 (a Malaysia Airlines plane, carrying mostly Chinese tourists, disappeared en route to Beijing). The signing was postponed.
The bank had said we had to provide data to show a rise in tourist arrivals in Malaysia after six months. But after MH370, of course the data showed a decline.
How did the project get injected into Yong Tai?
In fact, the difficulties in getting bank loans turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
As I was thinking about raising funds from the equity market, Yong Tai Bhd’s owner approached me.
The company was a loss-making garment maker for many years. The family wanted to sell out. So I injected my properties into the company to diversify its business first and then a takeover.
At the same time, I invited Datuk Seri Lee of Apple Vacations to join me in taking up a stake in Yong Tai by injecting his properties into this listed company. After this, we injected Impression Melaka into Yong Tai. By having a listed company, it became easier for us to raise funds for Impression Melaka.
Today, we have completed all our corporate proposals that involved the injection of property projects, fundraising and share placements.
Indeed, Hong Kong’s Sino Haijing got in touch with us when they learned about our injection of Impression Melaka into Yong Tai.
They invested RM280mil by taking up new shares at 80 sen per unit. Now, they hold a 34.5% stake.
I have a 10.6% stake while Lee San (as he is generally known), holds 10.56%. Both of us will increase our holdings to instil confidence in the company. We must show we are not the hit-and-run type of investors.
How important is the Impression project to you?
The success of Yong Tai will depend on Impression Melaka. We told investors that in the first year of operation (in 2018), we expect to post a revenue of RM140mil and a net profit of RM60mil. In 2019, revenue should increase by 7% and profit by 3%.
With RM60mil in profit, earnings per share from the Impression project should be around nine sen. And if we add another 15 sen from contributions from property development in Impression City, earnings per share should total 24 sen.
Our dividend policy is to give out 50% of net profit. With a dividend of 12 sen per share, investors should be happy.
I believe our shares should be worth around RM2 by 2018.
(Currently, Yong Tai’s share price hovers around RM1.30 – the highest level in five years.)
Is the economic slowdown affecting your projects?
It should be manageable.
In October, we recorded en-bloc sales of RM461mil from Phase 1A of Impression City to Orient Venture Properties Bhd.
We have also locked in RM412mil worth of contracts with Orient Venture Properties to carry out the renovation works on the (sold) property.
Yong Tai is also finalising and securing the investment and/or financing of about RM800mil from Golden Bridge United Holdings Group (HK) Ltd for the implementation of Impression Melaka and Impression City projects.
Next year, we will launch a RM300mil residential project for locals within Impression City. We want people to live in Impression City. Each of the 800 units is 700sq ft (65sq m) with two rooms.
So far, 300 to 400 people have registered their interest in this project, which is slated to be completed within three years.
From which areas do you expect tourists to come for Impression Melaka?
We are targeting 1.1 million visitors in the first year of operation.
Of those, we expect 40% to be from China, 30% from domestic sources, 20% from Asean and the Asia Pacific region, and 10% from Western countries and the Middle East. In our calculations, there will not be repeat tourists as the combined population is huge enough.
Have you decided on the content of the show?
It will be a Malacca story dating back as early as Zheng He’s time. It will also include the Sultanate, colonisation by Portuguese, Dutch and British. The show will last 75 minutes. But unlike Liu Sanjie, we will have an indoor theatre.
We need to do this indoors because of frequent rain and thunderstorms in Malaysia.
Why should people have confidence in you to create Impression Melaka?
This is a good project and I, as a property developer, have the passion for this project to ensure it will be successful.
It is an exclusive project in this region that covers Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines with a combined population of over 400 million.
In every company, it is the man running it that matters. People have confidence in Eco World because of Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin.
Though I am not in that league, I have demonstrated to shareholders my commitment to this project.
For example, when other shareholders subscribed to a rights issue at 50 sen per share, Lee and I took up a special issue at 58 sen per share. This showed we never took advantage of our positions.
We have also showed that we can bring institutional funds and Hong Kong investors into Yong Tai.
We have created an interest in and demand for Yong Tai shares. Hence, shareholders are seeing higher share price now.
And unlike some other corporate players, I have injected my properties into Yong Tai at cost rather than at an inflated price or at a premium.
In fact, the move to take over Yong Tai did not come with the intention to own a listed company, but to raise funds for Impression Melaka.
I will also slowly raise my stake in Yong Tai to show my commitment towards the projects and confidence in Yong Tai. Lee will also be doing the same. We will not sell our shares, so that we can show that we are not hit-and-run investors.
I am seeing increased confidence in Yong Tai already, as there are now (in December) more shareholders than in October.
This means more people are buying Yong Tai shares because of the trust and confidence they have in us.
I am a Malaccan. I must do something that is right so that when I retire, I can go back to Malacca.