Don Liew cover profile

Don LiewThe first thing that strikes me about Don is his unChinese looks and complexion.

"The tan is from golf," he quips in respond to my query.

He is amused that I nearly fell for it and he hastens to explain his parentage.

"My father is pure Chinese but my mum is Thai, Filipino, Chinese. My wife is Eurasian and I've got a bunch of `mixed up' kids. With that kind of mix they are really very good looking and I tell them I'm lucky I have two boys. If I had girls I would have nightmares."

He speaks from the heart and makes no secret that he dots on his children.

Born 36 years ago in Penang ("I'm a Rat and this is my year) Don is the eldest of three boys and two girls.

"I came from a poor family and I used to help my dad who was a mechanic at a petrol station," he recalls, very matter of factly.

He studied in St Xavier's Institution and dropped out after his Form Five.

"I was a bum in school," he laughs. "My mum would confirm that."

A friend told him about a sales job in KL and he packed his bags for the capital. He arrived on a Saturday but the job was already taken. It was too embarrassing to trot back to Penang because all his friends had given him a farewell.

The next day he saw a `help wanted' sign on the door of a food catering business. On Monday he borrowed a tie from his friend and went for an interview.

"I found out that the `help wanted' was just a dishwasher" he says with a smile. He must have been the most well turned out applicant.

Don had no reservations taking the job as it came with three meals a day and accommodation.

"Three meals were eating leftovers from catering functions and accommodation was six people in double bunk beds in a single room. It wasn't what I was used to but then I think all those hard years have taught me a lot. Looking back I wasn't spoon fed all the way so I really struggled my way up and that gave me a better perspective of what life is. At least I value the dollar."

At RM90, the salary was meagre but there were opportunities to earn extra money through part-time waitering. From dishwasher he went on to be kitchen helper, assistant cook and because he was the only one in the kitchen who could speak English fluently, he finally ended up doing sales.

After six years with the company he packed his bags again, this time to return home to start his own food-catering business. That lasted only a couple of years.
"I brought all these fantastic ideas from KL and Penang was not ready for it. The spending power was not there. I couldn't compete with the locals because my price was higher. They say Penang people are kiam siap (kedekut) and it's true. Here I was trying to sell as much as I could and my clients were asking for discounts on this and that, cutting down here and there. It was frustrating and different from the KL market."

Then it was back to KL again, this time for good. He went into real estate for a while until he started his own construction firm. There were more hurdles for him to clear as the company suffered bad losses during the 80s.

"We survived but we're more cautious now in the sense that we only do clients whom we know will pay us so we are doing just enough to give us some extra pocket money every year and we won't expand from where we are now," says Don.

His partner runs the business now and as for Don, the food and entertainment has been his main line since opening Barn Thai with a Thai partner in 1991.

"He wanted to set up a Thai restaurant and I wanted a jazz club, though I had zero knowledge about it compared to now, because back then jazz was starting to blossom again worldwide. So we compromised and came up with Barn Thai Jazzaurant, barn thai meaning `Thai house'."

Any other businessman might have cringed at the thought of opening on the 13th and it being a Friday too, but not Don Liew. He and his partner are hardly the superstitious type and they made a big event out of it.

Those who remember the opening cum Friday the Thirteenth bash will recall waiters and band members donning ski-masks, the kind that was worn by the killer, Jason.

Don has an anecdote to tell about the opening.

"We tarred the carpark on the morning itself and the contractor said it would be at least another two days before we could actually put a car in it. The same evening the whole carpark was full and the tyres of some cars sank into the ground and ladies had problems getting their high-heels off the tar. Everyone said, `Don, your ground is so soft' and I said, `Hey, this is a soft opening!'"

Barn Thai has indeed come a long way. But why bother with tearing down an old bungalow and constructing a restaurant and of all places directly opposite the Micasa hotel apartments?

"Putting ourselves here is synergy. Micasa spent a lot of money advertising where they were and we just rode along," says Don. "We only had to advertise ourselves as a new Thai restaurant, a new jazz club."

At that time a lot of people were sceptical about the idea of a Thai restaurant with jazz music but Don's fine business acumen has proven a lot of people wrong.

"Hard Rock Cafe and Barn Thai opened at about the same time and we were about the first people to operate a restaurant with a bar and live music. The rationale behind it was the lifespan of a club, whether it has live music or recorded music, is an average of only 6 years whereas for a restaurant, it is 25 years. We started out in the right direction as we wanted a restaurant because the business lasts and the music part was just a bonus. It was actually operating two businesses in one venue, very cost effective."

Barn Thai, as a restaurant, took off like a rocket but nobody knew them as a jazz club until they organised the first Asean Jazz Festival with Hard Rock Cafe in 1992. From then on they never looked back.

A second Jazz Festival to be organised this year is in the pipeline and they are hoping to bring in the first Cambodian jazz band to perform here.
Don Liew
Barn Thai opened in Langkawi in 1993 as a franchise. The next restaurant is due to open in Bandar Utama sometime in June. There are also plans to venture into the Singapore and Australian markets.

On the entertainment side Don is moving towards show promotion, artiste promotion and other related businesses. But what is closest to his heart is to diversify into merchandising anything and everything that is to do with jazz.

Strange as it may sound he admits to not being a jazz lover and following the latest developments on the jazz scene is not so much interest but business.

"Everything has to start with business. If I don't have the capital to sustain myself I would be lying to you if I were to say this is my hobby. It's not and I do it purely for business purposes but of course, I must enjoy it. If there is no liking for it then I couldn't have done all these (jazz festivals) because we don't make money even with sponsorship."

In his quest to learn more about jazz he regularly attends some of the world's largest jazz events like the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland.

"They are about a hundred times bigger than what we organise so what we do is actually very, very small and they are for a market like ours," says Don.

He claims to be tone deaf and that makes him a very impartial music listener.

"I don't listen to jazz musicians or artistes from a technical point of view but from the heart. If I feel that this is a great sound I feel that 95% of the crowd out there will love it. Whenever I go and listen to an artiste perform I am listening for my crowd."

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