Vicki Chow, Michael Chow, Max Key, Sir John Key, John Chow and Steven Zhu. Photo / Provided
By Toby Manhire from The spin-off
John and Michael Chow have announced a new partnership with former Prime Minister Sir John Key and his flamboyant son. This is the latest in a long line of catchy headlines.
If it weren’t for the fact that a pandemic-induced fever dream bordering on insurrection is playing out in Wellington, yesterday’s news of a Key-Chow joint venture would be the talk of the water cooler . The plot development – sorry, property development – was announced in a statement promising a venture ‘focused on raising capital from wholesale investors’ combining the strengths of MTK capital, led by the former prime minister Sir John Key and his social media personality-turned-son developer Max and Stonewood Group, run by John Chow and his younger brother Michael.
The plan is to raise $100 million by mid-2023, with projects already underway in the Auckland suburbs of St Heliers, Glenn Innes and Wai O Taiki Bay. They intend to fund around 500 new homes. Key senior said: “New Zealand, with its historically strong land democracy and migration patterns, makes property development a sought after asset class.”
According to the statement, the former Prime Minister and ANZ chairman “has known the Chow family for a long time and respects their business acumen, attention to detail and work ethic”. That’s not all they’re known for. An immigrant family, brothel pioneers, legal scraps and run-ins with the councils – the Chow-Key collaboration is just the latest chapter in a story rarely short of thrills.
Let’s take a few pages.
Hong Kong to New Zealand
In 1984 the Chow family arrived in New Zealand to start a new life, leaving behind a fledgling recycling business. In an effort to ease the integration of boys into the Hutt Valley, 13-year-old Ka Yu was now to be known as John; Ka Ming, 8, has become Michael.
J&M fast food
For anyone a resident or regular visitor to the great city of Wellington over the last quarter century, J&M Fast Food is a culinary institution, its bright red sign a beacon in the night of Courtenay Place. In the mid-90s, John and Michael took over the site from their parents, sprucing it up, and throwing their initials into the name. Their masterstroke: extending the closing time to 6am. (It continues today under different owners.)
The mermaids come to the rescue
After pocketing a modest profit on J&M, the brothers bought the former ANZ Bank under construction down the road, just past the St James. They threw their energies into a crispy fried chicken restaurant, called The Chicken Palace. He was perhaps ahead of his time. It did not work. They tried to rent all three floors. No chance. Things got so bad that they, their parents, and their sisters moved into the property, selling the Hutt Valley house to keep them afloat.
He was then, John told Hamish Rutherford for a Stuff profile, he faced his “darkest and dying moments”. He said, “I didn’t want to go out. I stayed in my room most of the day. I didn’t want to face failure.”
Desperate, they tried something different. Together with an operator from Auckland, they decided to open a strip club. Wellington Mayor Mark Blumsky fiercely opposed it, as did thousands of residents and business owners. When they obtained the approval despite everything, the brothers did not need to advertise: everyone already knew this new place of the Sirens. “When we opened, we were full of people wanting to know what it was. We spent next to nothing on marketing.”
The council quickly banned new strip clubs on Courtenay Place, meaning the mermaids had it to themselves. The passage of the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003 enabled them to rapidly expand their activities and become owners of brothels.
real estate magnates
The Chows were quick to reapply their profits, buying commercial property and a hotel in Wellington, and also looking to Auckland. They arrived in Auckland, wrote Patrick Smellie of BusinessDesklike the “bad boys of Wellington” who “made it a virtue to look like a couple of gangsters in sharp suits, shiny shaved heads [and] flashy offices”. They went on to build their sex business empire, as well as gaining a reputation for turning unloved and tormented sites. Their self-proclaimed approach: “identifying properties that are both undervalued by the market and [where we] can see the opportunity to add value.”
They tried their hand at various other ventures along the way, including at one point a litigation start “no cost, no gain”. By 2016, they had largely abandoned the sex industry and bought the massive Christchurch residential construction company Stonewood Homes, which was on the verge of collapse, and brought it back to a prime position as the property market failed. ceased to thrive.
“Strip Club Territory Wars”
During their years as operators of the nation’s most visible, sinister and shocking strip clubs and brothels claims and counterclaims emerged in a series of legal battles with the owner of rival Calendar Girls, usually over liquor license renewal objections, in clashes regularly described in the media as “strip club turf wars -tease»
When questions were raised about the culture, business tactics and working conditions at their clubs, the Chows were able to cite statements from the NZ Prostitutes Collective in their support.
Racism and the Chinese Community
“I remember in school and even in college, people called us Ching Chong Chinamen,” Michael told Herald’s Corazon Miller in 2017. “I think over time, seeing us work hard and grow our business success, people don’t say that anymore. . I think we’ve earned more respect.”
John told Pattrick Smellie“I think one of the hardest things is being Asian, Chinese, having a sex business. People think, ‘oh, those must be some dodgy people.’ Which in the early days, it might be a bit.”
In 2014, their appearance at a Chinese community conference angered some, who felt they were inappropriate speakers. John Chow says RNZ’s Lynda Chanwai-Earle at the time: “I think we always get media attention – partly because we’re Asian and partly because we’re in the sex business.”
The Palace Hotel saga
In 2008, the Chow brothers purchased the Palace Hotel, a historic property across from SkyCity. Whatever the temptations of the name, there was no suggestion of a fried chicken emporium there. Their plan: to renovate and reopen the 1886 building as a “super brothel” in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
This ran into a problem when, in 2010, work in the basement – apparently to install pole-dancing infrastructure – led to cracks in the walls which saw the council decide the building needed to be sealed off. The council accused them of failing to properly protect the property; some suspected they were deliberately seeking demolition to build a new 10-story operation. The brothers vehemently rejected this, insisting demolition was the last thing they wanted. At one point in their dispute with the Auckland council, the brothers threatened that if they refused to meet with them, they would send 200 strippers and prostitutes to demonstrate outside every World Cup game at Eden Park.
That’s not their only controversy around heritage buildings. They lawsuits narrowly avoided in 2012 for demolishing the historic Willis Street Settlement restaurant in Wellington without seeking the required archaeological approval.
The Chow brothers had a fight with another intriguing character in the business world, NBR editor Todd Scott, when they were ousted from the rich list in 2018, after questions were raised about the radiation of one of their companies. Like reported stuff, John Chow complained they were treated “like two naughty schoolboys” while their wealth was investigated. “Their plans to privatize the NZAX-listed Chow Group have led NBR to take a closer look at their private assets and their membership has been suspended pending further investigation.”
Scott suggested the Chows were pained by their absence; the Chows responded with a shrug. They had, however, routinely described themselves as “wealthy-listers” and framed their NBR-listed wealth to hang on office walls. In 2017, the NBR rich list values them at $170 million. It is likely that their real estate portfolio is now worth more than a billion.
Today, the Chow Brothers are almost entirely in the ownership game – financing, development and construction. They no longer have any interest in the sex industry. “You could also say it comes with a legacy and moral issues and all that. We accept that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s also part of our history. We’re not going to deny it,” John told Smellie.
At the end of 2019 on Linkedin – where he calls himself an “unstoppable entrepreneur” – John wrote, “we have now truly created an unstoppable machine”, before listing some of the brothers’ achievements, including hotels in Wellington and Hamilton, the purchase of a Hong Kong-based online magazine and continued growth of Stonewood Homes.
He added: “In October, Michael and I unveiled our new Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and celebrated our company’s 25th anniversary with my friend, my business partners and my staff… Our failures have only made us stronger. long term, as we learn from them and come back with more knowledge and skills than when we started.” Their success had “nothing to do with luck”, he said, but was the result of “hard work, loyal staff, decisive decisions, an eye for the hidden equity and a willingness to take risks; that’s why we’re on this unstoppable path to billionaire status.”