by Monita Rajpal
Kevin Poon is essentially Hong Kong’s curator of the city’s culture of cool scene. From NYC to LA, pop culture’s biggest names answer his call, helping him bring their independent vibes to the streets of Hong Kong. For Poon though, business isn’t just business. It’s personal.
(Hong Kong, October 2016) There’s a sign in Kevin Poon’s office that says “Family is a circle of friends who love you.” Family isn’t a word Poon uses lightly. Neither is friendship for that matter. Not anymore anyway. In a city as small as Hong Kong, it’s easy to get lost in the myriad of relationships that develop through business, acquaintances, and of course social media. Poon, 35, is in the heart of it all with multiple ventures that cover everything entertainment and fashion related. And he’s good at it. His list of clients keeps growing. So do his varied businesses; from clothing to gadgets, PR and marketing, a coffee shop, and even a gym. All of which help to expand his influence globally as well as his social/professional network, people who are looking for a guiding hand into a city that, while cosmopolitan, is also quite foreign if you want to do business here. There’s a lot of traffic and bureaucracy through which Poon uses his early acquired skills to navigate. Poon is the link between brands, musicians, designers, and companies that want to get noticed in Hong Kong’s pop culture and fashion scene. He has built businesses with and for friends, helping them by ways of introductions and ideas. Nowadays though, Poon says as he gets older, as many “friends” as he has, he can count on one hand the people who he would describe as his “day one” friends, people who are part of his “crew”.
When Poon founded the clothing and lifestyle company CLOT in 2003 and then the retail outlet Juice, a year later, he did so with his school friend and “crew” mate, Edison Chen. Their aim was to bring all that influenced them growing up in North America to the streets of Hong Kong. They hit a sweet spot in the timing of the city. It was when there was a gap, a void, if you will, in how the city would be defined—whether it would be a westernized city in China or a Chinese city with some western influence. “I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” he says. “Hong Kong is a transient city, I think that helps.” Poon adds, “when we first started Juice, it was coming from a place of ‘where can we find these hard-to-find sneakers and t-shirts’ and things like that. It comes from a place of creating something for what we want.” On another level, their vision was to change perceptions and ultimately bridge the palpable divide between East and West. While Poon was born in Hong Kong, he spent his early years in Chicago and Vancouver. There he saw the stereotypes people had of the Chinese. He tells me, “at school the image of Hong Kong kids or Chinese kids was always 2nd or 3rd grade when compared to American kids or Japanese kids for that matter. We were always the weaker link. I was frustrated…like in Hollywood, when you see a Chinese kid it is always the really nerdy kid, they never get the girls, they’re bookworms. (I was) like ‘why does it have to be like that?’” For answers, Poon turned to music. The words of rappers like Tupac and Biggie Smalls took on an almost gospel-like importance to how he would think, feel, and eventually work. He says, “as strange as it seems, I think rap music helped me a lot…It comes from the struggle. You don’t have the resources, you don’t have things, (there is) oppression…I really aligned myself to that.”
Rap didn’t just help Poon deal with racial stereotypes that he encountered while in the U.S. and Canada. In high school, the struggle for identity, a sense of belonging, and perhaps direction became more apparent in his own hometown of Hong Kong. After living in Vancouver, Poon returned to the city to finish high school. He studied at the Hong Kong International School (HKIS), a private school attended by the offspring of the city’s wealthy real estate and business tycoons. Poon says his family’s economic situation however, was very different from the other kids. He tells me it was only through his father’s job at the tractor company Caterpillar that somehow enabled Poon to attend this school of privilege. “A lot of my peers that were going to the school were from amounts of wealth, billionaire families, people who owned stock trading companies, lots of real estate, etc., and we grew up with really nothing, nothing in the sense compared to them,” he says. That difference in economic dynamics and backgrounds that Poon felt everyday shaped his outlook on his parents and ultimately, his desire to define his own destiny. “At a young age I was already looking at a lot of successful people and thinking ‘why can’t I have that?’ When I went to HKIS it opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities. Sometimes the wealth comes from lineage and sometimes it’s earned. I would study Jay Z and Warren Buffett and think ‘how inspiring are these people?’ I just didn’t want to live a regular life. I always felt there’s more to it…So at an early age I was listening to a lot of rap music and I thought ‘you can do it’, how to change a negative into a positive, and how to be a man.”
There was another major influence in Poon’s life–his older brother. With a seven-year age difference, the younger Poon looked up to his brother at a time when school was the place where he got bullied (“I was one of the shorter kids, I was chubby growing up and I was getting picked on a lot at school”), and home wasn’t the sanctuary it should have been. Poon tells me “my parents got divorced at an early age. They were never getting along. I lived in a broken family…I didn’t feel that much love at home so I turned outwards to a lot of my peers and my friends, my crew for that sense of belonging. That’s really how my childhood was…A lot of people assume that because I’m described as ‘successful’ it’s because I was a rich kid so it (must have been) easier for me to get things started.” He says in reality, “it was a life of finessing for me. It was never easy and everything was where you just had to work extra hard.” He adds that at an early age, he learned more about what he didn’t want out of life, a lesson that propelled him to push himself to not repeat what he saw in his father. “My dad was always a salary man and I think my dad was always the guy I didn’t want to be like growing up because he was one of those guys that just worked…he came from a poor family…he stayed at that one job for like 25 to 30 years and he was risk averse. He didn’t like taking risks. He was always a safe man and that was the opposite of what I wanted to do,” Poon says. Despite that though, there is perhaps a little of his father in him in that when it came time to going to university and choosing a course of study, Poon chose to get a degree that would give him the safety net he would come to rely on when taking the risks in business. Poon studied finance at Pepperdine University in California, saying, “I figured if I have to study something then I should pick something that would give us the quickest return possible.”
Today, Kevin Poon’s portfolio is diverse. Juice is expanding. There are 9 stores (most recently two opened in China, one in Shanghai and the other in Chengdu), as well as a pop-up shop in Los Angeles. Poon’s brands continue to reflect what he and his friends are all about. In addition to CLOT, Poon has a distribution company (District Distribution), a PR/Marketing company (Social/Capital) that works with the likes of Balmain, Max Mara, Burberry, Topshop, Tom Ford to name just a few, a concept store (WOAW-World Of Amazing Wonders), Elephant Grounds coffee, and Topfit (the gym). But perhaps the common link between them goes back to Poon’s love of music. Through CLOT, Poon brought Kanye West to Hong Kong in 2006 to perform his only show in Asia as part of West’s Touch the Sky Tour. In 2013, Poon brought another renowned artist to the city: Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter/producer, Pharrell Williams to curate a concert called Blohk Party. There are others who are stepping into the fray and putting Hong Kong on the musical map. An annual weekend concert series called Clockenflap continues to see huge success with the names they are able to pull in. Established in 2008, organizers have seen their roster grow with performances by the Flaming Lips, Azalea Banks, and this year’s big name act: the Chemical Brothers. While Poon is encouraged by this momentum he says the city itself doesn’t make it easy to bring these events to the masses. He tells me, “when people put on music festivals in Miami or Los Angeles the city welcomes that, this is bringing tourism and good vibes to the city. Here…they just make it hard to promote any type of culture in this city…You get discouraged, almost to the point where I want to move to LA. It’s just hard…this place is a bubble. You don’t realize how much of a bubble it is until you leave and then you think ‘oh my god, wow.’’
When I ask Poon what gives him the impetus to just go out and start a new project or a business despite the discouragement, how he manages to keep pushing for the life he wants to live rather than succumb to what others want him to do, and how he doesn’t get deterred by self-doubt, he tells me, “to be honest with you I think it’s just not knowing any better. I always think things are easy. I always think I can do everything…It’s interesting because your self-perception of what you can do and what you can really do are two different things…When I first start anything I always think ‘this is easy, I can do it’ until I actually start doing it and then I’m like ‘oh my god, there are so many things going on…’” He then adds, “failure is not an option and oftentimes when you put your best foot forward good things happen. Sometimes ignorance is bliss…”
What I found interesting about Kevin Poon’s story is that he succeeds at being the captain of his own ship, choosing what he wants to do and with whom he wants to work. It does seem as though for Poon, work and play are intermixed. And while many of his ventures have been about achieving his ambitions and satisfying his thirst for making Hong Kong a cultural hotspot, he says he does feel the need to look outside of himself, to give back to the city that has given him an identity. He tells me, “I think when I was younger I definitely aspired to be someone but as I get older I just want to be the best version of myself and use what I have to give back to the community. It can’t all be about commerce…I mean, how many t-shirts can I sell? I want to do stuff that is of more depth…I want to be involved in education and really try to change how people think…I just want to keep pushing the envelope.” He adds, “at the core, the world is really small. I love helping people out…that’s how the best relationships get developed. A lot of times nowadays when you ask the younger generation, they often think ‘what’s in it for me, what do I get out of it, why do I have to do this?’ I was never really like that. I was always the one who wanted to help above what I was asked to do…It feels good to help people. It feels like you’re useful,” he says. As for mixing business with friendships, he says, “when you do business you want to work with people who you can trust the most…” And for Poon, that means staying loyal and being grateful to the people who helped him get this far, the family he has created with his “day one” friends.