By: Tara Jenkins
We sit down with British expat Penny Seymour in her Sheung Wan apartment to discuss everything from cooking in castles to celebrity antics at parties and the interior design of her gorgeous home.
As an event management specialist, you’re in the right place: this city has a reputation for hosting great parties. Is that why you originally came?
I’d reached a crossroads in 2011, and a friend suggested I rent out my house in Sussex and go travelling. So I put my UK party-planning business on hold, bought an airline ticket, and pitched up to stay with a friend in Hong Kong. Two weeks in, I thought: this is amazing! There’s something special about this city that makes you feel alive, and the expat community is so friendly and eager to help in every way. I explored several job avenues, but in the end decided to open a HK branch of my company, Gusto Events.
How did it go?
It was quite tricky negotiating the administration, but in the end the visa came through, and I was in business. Lots of people told me it was a brave thing to do, but actually it didn’t feel courageous, just like I was having a lot of fun – and working at the same time, of course! I do remember being nervous at the beginning, though: if someone asked me about venues, I’d have no idea. But then a client engaged me to organise a wedding at the Hong Kong Club and One Thirty-One in Sai Kung; I researched the best florists in the city, and my knowledge base grew and expanded from there. Four years ago, I began working as a consultant to Ironmonger Events for the Rugby Sevens, and I ended up working for them full time for a while. It was great fun, although dealing with drunk rugby fans was quite a change from the upscale celebrity events I organised in London!
Celebrities, you say? Tell us more!
I worked in London for 15 years for The Admirable Crichton, organising smart corporate dinners, award ceremonies and a lot of private work. The company had a royal warrant, so we arranged Prince William’s 21st! We also organised high-profile events for fashion houses; one was a glamorous Versace event, where I was in charge of the VIP area on the top floor. At the time I had a bashed-up Mini Metro, and I was driving it down Bond Street on my way to the event, thinking, there’s something wrong here! Anyone who was anyone was there, from Elton John to Jason Donovan; I almost felt lightheaded – my brain couldn’t take it all in. Once the chefs finished the catering, certain celebrities were using the stainless steel surfaces in the kitchen for other more illegal purposes – it was mad! Afterwards, I was responsible for clearing up the mess, disposing of rubbish and heading back to the very ordinary trading estate where our office was – rather a stark contrast to all the glamour!
Any other tales from that time?
Over a period of 15 years I was also in charge of an area called The Pavilion at the annual Alfred Dunhill Links Pro-Am Championship in St Andrews, Scotland; it’s where all the VIPs are entertained. Hugh Grant always went and still does; Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Costner came, too. I’ve also been out for dinner with Bill Murray: charming and great fun, but mad as a box of frogs! On the whole, I’ve found most celebrities to be disappointing. A few are lovely, but most behave in a very arrogant and rude way, thinking they can justify their behaviour because they’re so famous. By contrast, we organised all Sting and Trudie Styler’s parties, and they’re both absolutely delightful; Sting is so gentlemanly.
Your business is obviously all about attending parties and events; are you very social in your spare time?
I’m probably out around three to four nights a week, but most of my social life revolves around going to people’s houses for dinner or drinks, and I’ve met so many people that way – mostly women, as there are no single men in Hong Kong! I play mahjong regularly with a group of girlfriends, and through them I’ve met more people; I don’t do any formal marketing, as all my referrals are word of mouth. That’s the way things work in Hong Kong; there’s a fine line between work and play – if there’s a line at all!
What about eating out? Where do you like to go?
I go for dim sum with my team every three to four weeks, and I’ve tried jellyfish, cow’s stomach and thousand-year-old eggs. I thought they were all revolting, but now I don’t have to try anything new, I’ve tried it all! I love food and I originally trained at Leiths, the cookery school in London, but I have literally regressed here – I hardly ever cook. If I’m back in England in a proper kitchen, I’ll do all the cooking, but here it’s almost like suspended time!
Have you worked as a chef or a cook before?
Yes, after I left Leiths I worked for some time as a private cook for a number of wealthy families, and had a couple of rather unsettling experiences. I was engaged by a very grand couple who lived in a castle in Scotland on the understanding there would be four people a day to cater for. In fact, it was more like 14 for dinner one night, and 16 expected at the weekend: too much for one person who had just finished training. I’ll never forget the day I arrived. They showed me to my bedroom, which was just off the kitchen, and the husband immediately picked up a mop and bucket and said: ‘I suggest you get started!’ When I resigned they refused to pay me for the time I’d been there, and I had to book my own taxi to the station; it was dreadful. By way of contrast, when I was studying at Leiths, my parents arranged for me to lodge at the home of David and Josceline Dimbleby (BBC presenter and cookery writer, respectively). Their two elder children were away at university and they wanted their youngest daughter Kate to have a companion. They were completely normal and not remotely flash, and David is utterly lovely – though so bright that I always felt quite ignorant in his company!
So did you consider working as a chef instead of an events organiser when you came to Hong Kong?
Before I switched to event management, I worked as a cook at the Institute of Petroleum for a few years, and then at the Bank of Nova Scotia. But I have a long history of eczema, and it became fairly bad on my hands. At its worst, my fingers were completely swollen and infected; not conducive to cooking. But then I’d think: I’ve got all my limbs, I’m so lucky; what if I didn’t have an arm? I’ve got a bit of eczema now on my legs, but oddly I really haven’t had any since I moved to Hong Kong.
Your apartment is located in a very local part of town; was that deliberate?
I love that I’m in such a local area, surrounded by all the shops selling Chinese medicine remedies or haberdashery. It’s so central, I can walk anywhere: to my office, to restaurants, to bars. I also love being able to lie in bed and look straight out onto that incredible harbour.
The place has a wonderfully colourful and contemporary style. Tell us a bit about it.
I’m very partial to pinks and blues, and feel so happy here. It’s weird to think I arrived nearly six years ago with one 20kg suitcase, and now I have a whole flat full of furniture and ornaments! The giraffe picture on the wall is actually a Salvatore Ferragamo silk scarf that I bought for around $200 in Shenzhen, and got framed for around $2,000! Otherwise the furniture is from IKEA, Bowerbird or INSIDE; the gorgeous blue cabinet is from the Wedding Cabinet Company here. I’ve collected lots of things from my travels: the side table and the chicken sculpture I brought back from Bali, for example. The pink throw is from South Africa; the painting from Burma – I think that’s possibly the most amazing trip I’ve ever had. I’ve been to Thailand and Vietnam too, but there are still so many awesome places to visit – Cambodia, the Philippines; I’ve got so much more to do! And there are many business opportunities to explore too. I’ve been in Hong Kong for less than six years, but in this city time goes twice as fast as anywhere else. And I intend to make the most of every second.
Bowerbird | 8/F, Horizon Plaza 2 Lee Wing Street, Ap Lei Chau | bowerbird-home.com
INSIDE | 1510 Horizon Plaza | inside.com.hk
The Red Cabinet | 11/F, Horizon Plaza | red-cabinet.com.hk
Dai Pai Dongs on Stanley Street
Enoteca | 47 Elgin Street, Soho | 2525 9944
Café Gray Deluxe | The Upper House 88 Queensway, Admiralty | cafegrayhk.com
For more stories about how expats have made Hong Kong home, check out our Homes section.