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,
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
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
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
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
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."