The Straits Times
15 July 2005

No Spotlight for Ms Cathay

by Ong Sor Fen

Her business is show business. But Cathay Organisation Holdings' executive director Choo Meileen prefers to steer clear of the limelight.

She is famously press-shy.

But her busy schedule also precludes interview time, even for the momentous occasion of Cathay's 70th birthday next Monday.

Barely 24 hours after touching down from a Shanghai trip on Monday, she was off to Kuala Lumpur to oversee Cathay's business interests in Malaysia.

Her hands-on approach is no surprise to industry insiders who characterise the immaculately groomed, youthful-looking 50-something as articulate and sharply observant, with a nice sense of humour.

Indeed, she deflects persistent interview requests with a graciously self-deprecating joke via e-mail: "With so much interest on T. T. Durai, I don't think people would be very interested in much else."

She earned her spurs in the industry the hard way, and the respect accorded her reflects that. Eng Wah's executive director Cynthia Goh says that despite the friendly rivalry between their two companies, "I have always regarded her as the 'Big Sister' in our industry."

Choo took over the company founded by her uncle Datuk Loke Wan Tho in 1984 and steered Cathay through rough waters. When Datuk Loke died in an air crash in Taiwan in 1964, his brother-in-law, Meileen's father, Choo Kok Leong, took charge.

In the early 1980s, there was a slump in cinema attendance, caused by the advent of the video cassette and rampant piracy. Cathay was also plagued by a loss-making film distribution arm.

Choo oversaw painful retrenchment exercises and the sale of a Cathay landmark - the Odeon cinema in North Bridge Road.

Within two years of her stewardship, Cathay hauled itself from a $6 million (US$3.54 million) overdraft back into the black. The public listed company reported a gross turnover of $48.9 million (US$2.88 million) last year.

In her e-mail, Choo says: "I have been committed to the well-being of the Cathay Group and my heritage (my family and the Loke legacy of which I am extremely proud) since I can remember."

Her persistence in redeveloping the historic Cathay Building in Handy Road is one indication of this dedication.

Her brother, K.C. Choo, who migrated to Canada, preferred to cash out. So the two siblings parted ways and liquidated Equus Realty, the holding company for the building, in 2001.

That allowed her to proceed with redevelopment plans for the building. Gazetted as a national monument, it will reopen early next year.

Besides the two cineplexes - with nine screens at Cathay Cineleisure Orchard and seven at Causeway Point - Cathay also has other leisure and lifestyle ventures here.

There is the famed bowling alley, which was a minor institution at Cathay Orchard since it opened with the cinema in 1965. When the building was torn down, the bowling alley was resurrected for a few years at Cineleisure's ninth floor before closing last year.

Choo, an avid traveller herself, was the prime force behind hangout@mt emily, a budget hotel that opened last year.

While she might seem reserved on first encounter, friends and business acquaintances offer anecdotes which paint the picture of an avid film buff prone to unexpected acts of generosity.

Warner Bros' general manager Ng Peng Hui has known Choo for only four years. But after he mentioned that he was a fan of Cathay's 1950s star Grace Chang, "Ms Choo surprised me by giving me a precious vintage poster of Grace Chang in June Bride", he says.

Lighthouse Pictures' Thomas Chia recalls an even greater act of kindness. In the early 1990s, his music shop specialising in soundtracks was doing poor business because of its bad location at Lucky Plaza.

"One Sunday morning, Ms Choo appeared in my shop," he says. After asking a few questions about the business, she offered him retail space at Cathay Building.

He marvels: "She literally gave me the keys to the shop, with no contract and no rent. She put in a new air-conditioner and cleaned up the space. She just took 12 per cent of the takings."

Kenneth Tan, managing director of Golden Village, who has known Choo for 20 years, notes that she has made adventurous decisions. He cites Cathay's pioneering expansion into the suburbs, including Bedok and Queenstown, in the 1970s and its partnership with GV in the early 1990s to acquire and distribute films.

He even has her to thank for a new culinary addiction: "She loves the designer wonton mee at the Four Seasons - she got me hooked on the dish as well."

Also see
Dato' Loke Wan Tho, Cinema King & Bird Lover

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