In­ner child

Pe­nan­gite Sim Choo Kheng draws on the child in him to cre­ate fun parks around the world.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By CHIN MUI YOON startwo@thes­tar.com.my

HOW did a Pe­nang boy end up cre­at­ing theme parks from Bahrain to Bul­garia? Sim Choo Kheng’s name may not ring a bell but his com­pany is qui­etly carv­ing a niche for it­self in the global theme park in­dus­try. Since 1993, Sim Leisure Con­sul­tants has been steadily build­ing a track record for de­sign­ing, build­ing and man­ag­ing wa­ter parks and theme parks.

“Fun is se­ri­ous busi­ness to us,” says Sim, 45, at an in­ter­view in his of­fice in Pe­nang’s Jalan Imi­gre­sen.

The ren­o­vated old shop­house hints at the cre­ative work that goes on in­side. Crow­ing roost­ers and chirp­ing birds wel­come vis­i­tors as a de­light­ful workspace opens up – wooden floor­boards and sculp­tured con­crete walls, work­sta­tions tucked in al­coves amidst wish­ing wells.

And in the sun­lit court­yard typ­i­cal of shop­house ar­chi­tec­ture, trail­ing vines and stone sculp­tures cre­ate a “lost city” am­bi­ence. The meet­ing room was con­cep­tu­alised as an “in­ter­ro­ga­tion room” com­plete with a prison-like steel door rid­dled with bul­let holes!

“As my de­sign team spends a lot of time cre­at­ing con­cepts, I feel it’s im­por­tant to have a work en­vi­ron­ment that stim­u­lates cre­ativ­ity,” ex­plains the youth­ful look­ing Sim.

A break­through project – the Viet­nam Wa­ter World – at Hanoi’s Ho­tay Park in 1998 opened the door for Sim’s com­pany to take the road less trod­den. Along the way, his com­pany man­aged to se­cure ma­jor projects abroad.

In 2000, Sim was awarded a RM15mil project in the for­mer Soviet Union re­pub­lic of Ar­me­nia. Two years later, he ven­tured into Bahrain fol­lowed by Bul­garia in 2003.

Sim de­signed and built the 40,000sqm Aquapo­lis, which is sit­u­ated in a for­est. It is Bul­garia’s first water­park and one of East­ern Europe’s loveli­est. Sim com­bined a nat­u­ral park en­vi­ron­ment with a se­ries of ar­ti­fi­cial el­e­ments like pools, wa­ter slides, jacuzzis, foun­tains, water­falls, tow­ers and ru­ins.

In the Mid­dle East, Sim’s compa- ny won con­tracts to build ma­jor parks such as the Magic Oa­sis of Abu Sam­rah Theme Park in Qatar, and the Al Qas­sim Theme Park in Saudi Ara­bia.

In 2005, Sim won a ma­jor turnkey project to build Bahrain’s RM150mil Lost Par­adise of Dil­mun which en­cap­su­lates his vi­sion of a water­park for the whole fam­ily.

In a desert set­ting, vis­i­tors float down the wa­ter­way at Qasar Enki, ride real waves on Dil­mun Beach, spin around in a fish­bowl amidst gush­ing wa­ter, and ride down the Speed Slide, a ver­ti­cal sheet of wa­ter that is not for the faint-hearted. Chil­dren have a Kids’ Me­sopotamia wa­ter play­ground, while par­ents can laze at the Oa­sis Pool un­der the shade of date palm trees.

The Bahrain project opened the way for more con­tracts in the Mid­dle East: Saudi Ara­bia, Iran, Qatar, Ye­men and the United Arab Emi­rates.

Closer to home, the dra­matic 17m-tall fi­bre re­in­forced poly­mer stat­ues of Anu­bis guard­ing the en­trance to Singapore’s Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios’ Egypt Zone, and parts of Juras­sic Park, are Sim’s work.

In Malaysia, Sim was re­spon­si­ble for craft­ing the re­mark­ably re­al­is­tic Steam Cave and wa­ter­fall at the Ban­jaran Hot­springs Re­sort in Tam­bun, Perak. Sim’s com­pany also crafted many ar­ti­fi­cial boul­ders and sculp­tures that are found in Sun­way La­goon Theme Park in Se­lan­gor.

The rock-climb­ing wall at Camp 5 in 1 Utama Shop­ping Cen­tre and the Shah Alam Ex­treme Park in Se­lan­gor are part of Sim’s port­fo­lio as well.

His biggest project to date is the RM90mil Wa­hooo Water­park in Bahrain where vis­i­tors pay to get soaked at a Rain Fortress, hur­tle down a 190m-tall wa­ter slide, and get sucked into a black wa­tery hole.

Sim is keen to ex­plore the op­tions in coun­tries mired by war, and in the for­mer Soviet Union – places that many of the “big boys” are not ea­ger to ven­ture into.

“There is a need for leisure any­where around the world. Kids need to play, adults want places to take their fam­i­lies to, and ev­ery­one needs time to re­lax and play. We are liv­ing in a stress­ful world. Even in war-torn coun­tries like Iraq, chil­dren need places where they can just be a child.

“Even in semi-law­less coun­tries like Ar­me­nia, the sit­u­a­tion was gloomy but I am glad I am in a busi­ness where I cre­ate fun and hap­pi­ness for peo­ple.”

He laughs when he re­calls how he had to al­low Ar­me­nian pres­i­dent Robert Kochar­ian’s body­guards to dis­guise them­selves as life­guards tot­ing AK-47s dur­ing his theme park’s of­fi­cial open­ing.

“Our in­dus­try is small, but dom­i­nated by a hand­ful of big play­ers. I hope to high­light that leisure shouldn’t cater to just a priv­i­leged few, or cen­tre around con­ven­tional big names. Rather, it should fo­cus on small but profitable parks that are founded on cre­ativ­ity in­stead of copy­ing run-of-the-mill icons and ideas.

“Theme parks were birthed in the West. But the mar­ket to­day is be­yond Europe, Amer­ica and Ja­pan; I see the fu­ture of this busi­ness in In­done­sia, the Philip­pines, Thai­land, and the Mid­dle East. China alone is a huge mar­ket.”

Sim is riled by the ex­or­bi­tant prices that mega theme parks charge for en­try.

“Fun should be for the masses,” he says.

“How can peo­ple af­ford to visit Dis­ney­land when it costs hun­dreds for one per­son? A fam­ily of four would need to spend over RM1,000 just to visit a theme park. Can peo­ple in Cam­bo­dia af­ford it? I feel that these parks should be re­garded like McDon­ald’s – en­joyed and ac­cessed by the masses.”

Sim adds that the days of hav­ing a “big­ger, faster or newer roller­coaster than your neigh­bour’s” are gone. Beau­ti­ful things do not need to be costly, he says, adding that a theme park should have its own unique iden­tity cre­ated through re­search.

“My first for­eign project, the Viet­nam Wa­ter World, has closed down,” says Sim.

“It was a typ­i­cal pat­tern that fol­lowed big Western parks. There, they can charge US$40, but in Viet­nam they can only charge about US$4. It was an un­prof­itable scheme. Many parks over-cap­i­talise, and when they close down, it gives the in­dus­try a neg­a­tive im­age.”

From Pe­nang to the world

Sim cred­its his in­spi­ra­tion to cre­ate fun, happy places to his child­hood days grow­ing up in Pe­nang.

Sim is the youngest of nine chil­dren. His mother was a mi­grant from China, and his fa­ther worked as a bus driver. The fam­ily eked out a liv­ing in their vil­lage at Thean Teik Es­tate in Pe­nang. It has been re­named Far­lim to­day and is a densely pop­u­lated area.

“We lived off the land and the land took care of us by pro­vid­ing for our needs,” Sim rem­i­nisces.

“We were poor, but so happy and care­free! We reared pigs, ducks, chick­ens and planted veg­eta­bles. We walked in the forests, built tree­houses, learnt to swim in the river which was crys­tal clear and filled with fish. We never had fac­to­ry­made toys; we im­pro­vised and

made our own toys.

“Know­ing that it was go­ing to rain to­mor­row, we’d build a dam with piled rocks. When the wa­ter level rose, we’d have a pool to swim in! We didn’t have money for gog­gles, so we tied plas­tic bags over our heads and dived into the wa­ter. There is noth­ing like the free­dom we had in those days!”

Even as a stu­dent, Sim worked to sup­ple­ment the fam­ily in­come, work­ing as a brick­layer, con­struc­tion worker, kitchen helper, waiter and tu­tor. Af­ter fin­ish­ing school, he left home and spent 12 years work­ing and trav­el­ling abroad.

Upon re­turn­ing home, Sim held sev­eral jobs, in­clud­ing man­ag­ing the Pe­nang and Kuala Lumpur But­ter­fly Farms, and helped a friend to pro­duce train­ing man­u­als. In 1992, he was hired as an op­er­a­tions man­ager for a theme park in Se­lan­gor.

But Sim was dis­con­tented with be­ing an em­ployee with no con­trol over his destiny. At 27, he gave up his well-paid job to start his own con­sul­tancy ser­vices firm. He be­gan by pro­vid­ing de­sign work for theme park com­po­nents and props.

“I had to out­source artists in those days,” re­calls Sim. “I dis­cov­ered my po­ten­tial as I went along. My path was never laid out be­fore me. One thing led to an­other. I re­alised that to get the kind of qual­ity con­struc­tion I wanted, I’d have to get my own contractors to do it. But then I’d have to get in­volved with the in­stal­la­tion, the ex­e­cu­tion, and fi­nally, the man­age­ment.

A break­through came in 1998 when Sim se­cured his first in­ter­na­tional project – the Viet­nam Wa­ter World. It was a boost for Sim Leisure to be seen as an in­ter­na­tional player.

“It was tough in those days be­cause I had no track record and we didn’t have any rep­u­ta­tion,” says Sim.

“Ex­pec­ta­tions are very high in the in­ter­na­tional arena. It is also more pro­fes­sional and it’s a level play­ing field with open com­pe­ti­tion. If you are ca­pa­ble, you get the job, not be­cause of know­ing the right peo­ple.”

Bahrainian busi­ness­men in­vited him to ex­plore op­tions to build theme parks in the Mid­dle East. The Lost World of Dil­mun was Sim Leisure’s first turnkey project for which his com­pany han­dled ev­ery­thing from the fea­si­bil­ity study to the de­tail de­sign and man­age­ment, ex­cept for the con­struc­tion of the struc­tural build­ings.

In 2007, Sim Leisure was cer­ti­fied by TUV Nord for an ISO 9001 rat­ing A model of a theme park, with the props, fea­tures and struc­tures painstak­ingly sculpted and finely whit­tled by hand. for qual­ity sys­tem de­liv­ery.

The fol­low­ing year, Sim suc­cess­fully de­liv­ered the biggest indoor wa­ter park in the Mid­dle East – the Wa­hooo Water­park in Bahrain’s City Cen­tre Mall. The Majid Al Fut­taim Group, a Dubai-based con­glom­er­ate that also owns the world’s biggest indoor Ski Slope in the Mall of the Emi­rates, de­vel­oped it. Sim re­cently won con­tracts to de­sign theme parks in Al Taif near Jed­dah in Saudi Ara­bia, and in Am­man, Jor­dan.

He shut­tles be­tween Pe­nang, Singapore, Bahrain, UAE and Spain.

Sim also de­signs be­spoke houses, such as his beau­ti­ful Mediter­ranean-in­spired home in Pe­nang where he lives with his Bul­gar­ian wife, Sylviya, and their three sons aged 16, 13 and three, as well as their Ger­man Shep­herds, Rambo and Lara, and

Fun for life:

Pe­nang-born en­tre­pre­neur Sim Choo Kheng with one of his 25 pet Serama chick­ens. His dream is to share his child­hood joys through his cre­ative theme parks and wa­ter parks. In his gar­den, he still main­tains old trees that he climbs with his sons. – Chin Mui Yoon/

TheS­tar

Even the head of­fice of Sim Leisure looks like a lost city in the jun­gle!

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Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios may look tat­tered and dusty as if it’s in a desert,

but it’s ac­tu­ally care­fully recre­ated from con­crete, even the ‘wooden’

crates.

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