“I was in a hospital for three months, in agonizing pain,” he recalls, “and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk again. So that got me thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.” Happily, Chin made a full recovery; and very quickly, he put his thoughts into action. “I went to my parents and told them that I wanted to leave Malaysia and go to Australia to further my studies.” And so he did, departing his home in the small city of Sandakan, on the northeast coast of Borneo, to finish high school and attend university in Melbourne.
Jennifer Wang is also no stranger to life-changing moments and sudden upheaval. Born in Taiwan, her family split when she was 10 so that she could grow up in the United States and then Canada. “A lot of Asian families want their kids to have certain educational opportunities and experiences, so they make sacrifices,” she explains, adding that when she graduated from college in British Columbia, her father was living by himself in Taiwan. “I decided to move back so that I could spend time with him and to keep him from being alone.”
While life’s exigencies helped shape Chin and Wang into the successful entrepreneurs that they are today—Aaron started a software company and a food business; Jennifer founded Taiwan’s Home Hotels brand—Alan Wong seems more determined to bend life to his will. Like all truly great architects, he creates worlds and then watches as people flock to them. “When I was 16, I was a Malaysian junior golf champion, which demanded a great deal of focus and practice,” he explains, “but it also meant that I was spending a lot of time with very successful business people, folks who inspired me and who taught me about life. So for me to start my own design company at the age of 23 felt completely natural.”
Also completely natural was how these three visionaries came together and united their skill sets—Wong as Design Entrepreneur, Wang as a hospitality and operational wizard, and Chin as a design and IT consultant and a top influencer among young creatives—to produce The Luma, a homegrown wonder on its way to becoming the first international hospitality brand born in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
Aaron Chin: I meet people from different nations, and most have never heard of Sabah. They may know Borneo, but that’s about it. I grew up in Sabah and there are so many natural treasures here, World Heritage sites like the Danum Valley and the Maliau Basin. We have virgin rainforests that are over 100 million years old! Sabah is also a great representation of the Malaysian spirit. We like to say that there is one Malaysia, but in different areas you encounter different situations. Some states have a more Muslim-dominated culture, some more Chinese, some more Indian, but in Sabah it is truly one Malaysia, with no race or religion issues; people get along very well here.
Alan Wong: True, but still, when it comes to promotion, Malaysia has always emphasized the west—Kuala Lumpur, Penang. We want to showcase the east—Sabah’s beauty, but also its art, the music, and the vibrancy of Kota Kinabalu, where The Luma is located. This is a very progressive place. But people who don’t know it might think it’s only orangutangs or a backward island.
AW: Absolutely! The hotel has been promoted in Robb Report, Lifestyle Asia, Tatler, and other international magazines. And the story they tell is the one that matters most to us, namely that we are empowering the locals, building a platform that people here can be proud of, a place where they can host their foreign visitors. But also we are showing that Sabah can create an international brand. Before The Luma, there wasn’t anything on a world-class level that was homegrown in Sabah. The Luma is about being bold, yes, but it’s also about inspiring locals to think on a global scale.
AC: Luma is so much more than a hotel. It’s a social hub. A lot of local musicians and artists come here to discuss projects. So it is really exciting that, just by existing, our creative project gives birth to other creative projects. Kota Kinabalu never had a space like this before, a homegrown brand that acts as both an international port of call and a local artistic hub.
Jennifer Wang: Coming from Taiwan, I obviously can’t speak in great detail about all the charms of Sabah, but I can say that I find it quite amazing that the beach, the mountains, and the rainforest are all a short distance from each other. As for The Luma, one of the key elements that I tried to contribute was something that I did in Taiwan, which was to turn the hotel into a platform that promotes local goods, brands, and artwork. I felt this was my purpose at Luma. And without a purpose, why be in the hospitality industry? For me, a hotel is more than just a place to spend the night. There has to be some added value for the guest.
AW: Most people look at a forest and see trees; I see geometry. Designers just see differently! We like forms, how things are positioned and interlinked, a crisscrossing of energy. We are used to seeing as an artist sees. Yes, the space was initially very challenging. It seemed that the rooms would be too narrow. So we got creative and made interlocking, L-shaped rooms—like Legos—with a narrow part and a wider part. Typical hotel brands don’t like this. They always want a straight room and are very rigid in their thinking. But Design Hotels got it and our guests love it. They feel that the spaces are unique, that there is more character.
AC: In Malaysia, a lot of old buildings and shops are converted into hotels. The problem is, you always feel what the space used to be. It’s very hard to make guests walk in and say, “Ah, this is a hotel, not a conversion.” But our friends and guests say exactly that. They are amazed by what we have done here. From an architectural and design perspective, that is one of the things we are most proud of.
JW: You also get a sense of Sabah’s natural splendor when you enter the hotel. This bring-the-outside-in concept was something that I felt very strongly about. A lot of hotels in Kota Kinabalu are very cookie-cutter and, sadly, don’t represent the larger Sabah, which is a place rich in natural wonders. The Luma is also in a business district—another reason why I wanted to add greenery and soft touches.
AW: Yes, nature balances things out. We want people to feel a sense of exoticness when they step inside The Luma, that the flora and fauna is here too and not just in the jungle. It was very important to us that Luma prepares the guest’s emotions, soul, and spirit for the environment.
AC: (Laughs.) I think that happened by accident! I attended some social events in Kuala Lumpur and was approached by brands like Omega and The Macallan to do some collaborations together. I really have no idea why people call me an influencer!
AW: Aaron is being modest. He travels the world, has a food and beverage company and an IT business, strong connections to the media...so he is in touch with this country’s movers and shakers. Call him what you will—an influencer, a visionary, whatever—for Jennifer and me, Aaron just has great insights into what appeals to a young, fashionable, progressive audience.
JW: Exactly. He has great taste and is spot on when it comes to the kind of guest we want to attract. So if Aaron likes it, we know our guests will like it too. He is our standard! Alan and I can go wild with ideas, but Aaron tells us what will or won’t work.
AC: Well, that’s really nice to hear. But bringing it back to The Luma and our mission to empower locals—those things we were speaking about earlier—I think the media is always looking for young entrepreneurs to promote, people who will inspire the younger generation and say to them: “Stop hiding! Age and background are not obstacles to what you can do.” I happen to fit that bill.
AC: I have met architects who are good at designing and space planning, but not so good with the numbers. Their ideas may be great aesthetically but financially they do not make sense. Alan, however, is quite unique in that he is good at both: He has a keen eye for aesthetics and space, but also in a very cost-effective way. Jennifer, meanwhile, has tremendous experience in the hospitality arena, which was something that Alan and I both lacked before we all embarked on The Luma project. She has been running hotels in Taipei for quite some time, so she knows exactly what is important to hotel guests, what they feel, what they are looking for. Her input in these areas has been incredibly valuable. The Luma is our baby, so whenever Alan and I overreached and said, “We want to do this and this and this,” Jennifer would say, “Boys! That might be overkill.” The chemistry between us is great.
JW: Yes, it is. But in addition to everything that Aaron brought to the table, I loved that I could rely on Alan for all our design and architecture issues. In Taipei, I would have to go to a lot of meetings for such things. But here I could go to Alan and just say, “Here’s a problem. Can you solve this?”
AW: True, she did! But we have great synergy because we each have our own areas of expertise.
AW: For me, it’s the founder of Aman Resorts: Adrian Zecha. He is from Southeast Asia and has built one of the most famous brands in the world. That showed me that if you think big, you can build a world-class brand on a global scale, no matter where you come from.
AC: I know it sounds stereotypical, but it would have to be Steve Jobs. He had a very keen eye for aesthetics but also a strong business sense. To execute as a CEO and create things that people love is quite rare. He has inspired me a lot.
JW: I would have to say my dad and my son. My dad is a role model. I grew up watching him do business, seeing how he operated. He worked in the nightlife industry, which is kind of an offshoot of the hospitality business that I know, and things were always fair and kind with him. It wasn’t just about money. He was not a cutthroat type of person, so he instilled a lot of good values in me. Which leads me to my son and the values that I can teach him. I think about the benefits of promoting cultures, of being environmentally conscious. I want him to be proud of what he does and to understand that there is more to life than just making money.
JW: Yes. He told me he was. Okay, not exactly with words. It was more indirectly. But I know.