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