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My Dad was a chef, a great chef! (Part 1)
My Dad was a chef, a great chef!
As parents, we all want our children to inherit something from us - our ideas, values and also teach them to be nice to their family as they are the best link to their past and the people most likely to stick with them in the future. We can't help being nostalgic at times by telling stories about our childhood days to our little ones. How did we get through temptations, struggles and more importantly choosing right from wrong? One day after I cited these important qualities to my 2 sons Ryan and Ethan, even though they may be too young to understand these life questions; a question they asked still haunts me - "Did grandpa and grandma taught you all these?" Were these values I imbibed as a child or did I pick them up along the way? As I tried to recall through my meandering life and struggled for an answer, I decided I should venture into history. This venture entailed hours of chatting to my Dad about the past. Through these conversations, I found myself travelling back in time; I realized our conversations were just like the way I spoke to my sons through the tune of my father. He too had travelled back in time and was talking to his young son. Something told me it is not important to know if I am what I am because of my parents. I decided I should write a book to celebrate his life and leave my children and their progenies to be the judges if these values were passed on to them. No matter what, I am certain the children will be proud of him. And more importantly, Dad has yummy recipes that none of us have learnt. Maybe by writing them down, someone down the line will pick them up and keep Dad's legacy going! Trust me! They are worth keeping. I am salivating just thinking about his cooking.
The book is now available in iPad format
The story teller
Born in July 1964 in the year of the Dragon, a dragon baby is thought to be bright, cheerful and lucky. I was not sure in my case though as my Mum was seriously contemplating to abort this dragon baby. Miraculously, a Communist Chinese trained gynaecologist came to my rescue; she prescribed vitamins instead of abortion pills to Mum. Was it my luck?
My family association with the British Navy
Dad was seldom around as his job took him away; he worked for the Royal Navy and fought in the Korean Campaign – (I remember sitting on his lap listening intently to his war time stories when I was a little older). My family had had a long association with the Royal Navy, going all the way back to the late Qing Dynasty. My grandfather and his brother, my granduncle, worked for the Navy on its smaller frigates that patrolled rivers of southern China to protect British interests. China was then technically divided or colonized by foreign powers. The British could roam freely on those rivers and they hired local Chinese to work on board for non-military related works. Stewards and Cooks were common positions available. Both my grandfather and granduncle worked in the galley on board on those vessels. After the fall of Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war the British armed forces retreated to Hong Kong and many of those Chinese were dismissed.
Grandfather and his young family travelled back and forth between Hong Kong and their hometown, Zhongshan to escape the conflict at the time. Grandpa died of illness when Dad was only 11. Grandma and Dad managed to survive the war through handouts from relatives and odd jobs whenever they were available. It was trying times for Grandma and Dad, and lives were very fragile indeed. In fact, Dad had a close call. He was on his way to a rare dinner hosted by an aunt, Grandma and Dad had to walked for miles to the aunt’s house and they had to pass by a Japanese garrison on the way. Chinese civilians were to bow at the guards whenever they passed through and Dad forgot to do just that. He was stopped and taught a lesson - he had his butt kicked really badly. He could easily be shot given another guard or time as people had been killed before for not bowing.
My granduncle who went back to work for the Navy after the war asked Dad to come to Hong Kong as he believed that opportunities in China were limited. So Dad came to Hong Kong and ended up working for a family friend who used to work with my grandfather but he was fortunate enough to be sent to the US and made a small fortune. He ran a restaurant in Hong Kong at the time and he recruited only the children of relatives and friends to provide livelihoods for those children. That restaurant was eventually closed because the owner had his US citizenship approved and he was moving to the States for good. Dad moved on to become an office assistant in a trading company that imported health supplement pills from Australia. It was where he met his life long friends, Mr. Lam and his brother, who worked for another trading company next door to Dad’s office. Unlike Dad, the Lam brothers were quite proficient in English and they had good prospects in their careers. But to Dad; that was a dead-end job without much prospect but an event in China created an opportunity for Dad to pursue a much more meaningful career.
The Yangtze incident
It was the “Yangtze incident” during the Chinese Civil War. On 19 April 1949, the Royal Navy frigate, HMS Amethyst, sailed up the Yangtze River on her way to Nanking to deliver supplies to the British Embassy. Suddenly, without warning, the People’s Liberation Army‘s shore batteries opened fire and after a heavy engagement, Amethyst lay grounded in the mud and badly damaged. 44 of her crew were dead, dying or seriously wounded while others deteriorated from the tropical heat and the lack of essential medicines. The local Communist official was adamant: either accepted responsibility for the entire incident, or the Amethyst would remain his prisoner. The incident was seen as a national embarrassment for the British and they decided to strengthen the fleet in the Far East. Incidentally, the Naval officer whom my grandpa and granduncle used to report to before the war came back to Hong Kong and was put in charge of the Chinese staff in the Navy. Dad was recommended to join the Navy shortly thereafter. Dad joined the Navy as Shift Chef trainee; a Shift Chef is someone who cooks for the entire ship and the Officer Chef is responsible for the officers and above as well as any catering requirements of the ship. The British Navy was renowned for its rich traditions and thorough training had Dad peeling potatoes for 3 years. Dad also spent months enduring seasickness. He once told me he felt so miserable as he could puke no more and when he thought he got a little better, the puking would come back again. And when he had absolutely no appetite and everything seemed to be tasteless; he took a banana. Miraculously, the seasickness subsided shortly after. Dad had since reckoned that the humble banana was the best prescription for seasickness. That was how Dad started his Naval career and his pursuit of culinary skill. Dad slowly moved up the rank and became an Officer Chef.
Dad served on board a number of warships; they included the HMS Jamaica, St. Brides Bay, Terror, Cossack, Cavalier and Lincoln. During the Korean Campaign, he was serving on deck of the HMS Jamaica and she was ordered to be part of the attacking fleet for the amphibious landing at Incheon, Korea. Shortly after they arrived and joined the rest of fleet, there was an air raid by the Korean People’s army air force, the raid happened so sudden; the ship was caught off guard and one of the batteries were hit and six of its crews were killed instantly. Dad told me he was lucky to be alive as the galley was directly underneath the battery and he was in the galley at the time. It happened to be a break time after lunch and most of the galley crews were taking a nap under steel benches. The steel benches saved Dad’s and his mates’ lives from shrapnel and debris.
Dad was transferred to HMS St. Brides Bay after the Korean Campaign. HMS St. Brides Bay was part of the Far East Fleet and her duty was to carry out reconnaissance around the Strait of Malacca, Malaysia during the Malayan Communists conflict. During one of the ship refueling and maintenance exercises when she was anchored in one of the bays on the west coast of Peninsular West Malaysia, some of the crews decided to have some fun and dived into the water for a swim after their hectic and stressful duties. Dad who was a keen swimmer decided to join the rest of the crews. Dad was enjoying himself so much and did not realize he was being drifted further and further away by the current and before long he found himself under a “kelong” – a jetty made of bamboo and wood which was commonly found in South East Asia, he struggled to find a way out of the kelong against rising tide. Dad really thought his time was up and would drown in the rising tide. Luckily, he managed to slip through some tight bamboo stripes with cuts and bruises all over his body. While Dad counted his lucky stars; he developed a phobia of water and would not swim again until years later. His adventures in the navy finally came to an end when he joined Government House as the Head Chef. During his navy days, Dad was awarded the Korean and United Nation Medal Awards for his service during the Korean War and the British Empire Medal during his service at Government House. Dad was among a small handful of Chinese who were awarded these honours in those days.
Dad served on deck HMS Newcastle and many other warships
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My family members
I have 2 older brothers, Ho and Man. Ho, my eldest brother is almost eight years my senior. I don’t recall much of him until my older years but I do remember he chipped his front tooth when playing with me. He also teased and made Man upset very often. I guess the 8 years gap did have an impact on us as we did not play too much together except that he introduced me to fishing and we did that a fair bit when I was older. He was also the person who brought me to watch “Jaws”, by Steven Spielberg, the movie that freaked me out completely and stopped me from going to the beach for few Summers. My the other brother, Man is 4 years older than me. Man till this day isn’t very close to anyone. He may be a square peg in a round hole to some people but once you get to know him, he could be your best fun loving pal too. Man and I had developed a secret sequence of code through whistling that could only be deciphered by the 2 of us and a handful of kids. These codes were definitely out of reach of Ho, as he did not whistle at all. My paternal grandmother and my Mum took turns to look after me. Mum was a trained seamstress who supplemented the household income by doing simple sewing jobs from factories that were going through boom time during the developing era of Hong Kong. Of course, there was also our maternal Grandmother, “Fung Po”, who later moved in with us after my agnate grandma passed away. Grandma “Fung Po” was a “happy go lucky” lady; she was loud and laughed whole-heartedly a lot. She took me shopping to buy goodies all the time. She frequently spoke about her time with me vividly in her eighties; telling friends and relatives on how I reminded her about bringing enough money. Our favourite pastime was going to have Wanton noodles in the afternoon and I always reminded her that I was going to have 2 bowls of noodles. As naughty as a child could be, I played many tricks on Fung Po. The trick that irritated her the most would probably be the lizard I caught and threw onto her hair. She screamed and ran out of the house trying to get the lizard off her hair. My fear of lizard as an adult might probably be the karma for my treatment to Fung Po.
I was told I was a strong, energetic and observant baby. I would throw away the glass milk bottle and grandma would grumble and say I was going to starve if I kept breaking the bottles. I would also make a big fuss and scream every time I saw Mum putting on lipstick knowing that this meant she was about to go out. I still question the authenticity of those events that supposedly happened when I was about 4 months old. However, aunties and uncles have given consistent anecdotes.
I was grandma’s favorite grand kid probably because she was superstitious about me being the dragon boy; it could also be the fact that Dad landed a good job as the Head Chef of the Hong Kong Governor shortly after I was born; this meant Dad would not be away from the family and more importantly a much safer job. He was not involved in any serious combat duty but he was spending a lot of time in conflict regions like Korea and Palestine. The event happened at Incheon could easily be fatal if luck was not on Dad’s side. In fact, Dad did not talk about the event much after the air raid until we were a little older as he did not want to make Mum and Grandma worried. Anyway, everyone in the household was full of joy and for some reason I ended up getting the credit. On the contrary, I could be the one rubbing off the luck from Dad, as he is a dragon boy too.
Dad’s attachment to Government House
I am not sure why I should be the one credited but this was how Dad got his job in Government House. Sir David Trench was the Governor in Hong Kong at the time; Sir David Trench married an American lady who was quite particular about the Food & Beverage (F&B) in Government House. It might have something to do with her years working as the head of catering with the US army in Okinawa. Lady Trench was not impressed at all when she moved into Government House. The kitchen was then under the supervision of the Chief Steward who probably knew little about food. The kitchen was badly run and she was really irritated when the chefs were not even able to grill a decent steak. That went on for a year with chefs coming and going. On an occasion when the Governor and Lady Trench were invited to a dinner party hosted by the naval commander of the Fast East; Lady Trench lamented her disappointment with her kitchen staff to the admiral. The admiral being a good friend of the Governor was trying to help and at the same time boasted about how good the Royal Navy’s talent pool was. The admiral was true to his words and requested one of the best chefs to be sent for trial. My Dad was stationed in the naval headquarters in Singapore. He was ignorant as to what the assignment was about but he was more than happy to be going back to see his family.
The first 3 months in Government House was not eventful; no one spoke to Dad. He was left alone doing bits and pieces. Lady Trench did not show her face even once. I guess Dad was not troubled by the fact that he was nobody there as he thought that was just a temporary assignment and he was also overjoyed that he was able to spend quality time with us. The 3 months flew by and on one particular afternoon, Dad was asked by the Chief Steward to prepare lunch for Lady Trench and that she wanted a steak sandwich. Recalling Dad’s thought – “Steak sandwich? It’s a piece of cake!” The Steward came back an hour later with an empty tray and commented that was the first time Lady Trench finished her meal since her arrival to Government House. Life went on quietly for another couple of months when Dad was asked to prepare food for a birthday party for the Governor’s daughter. As usual, the request did not come with the choice of food. Dad decided to make a 3-tiered chocolate cake amongst other things (I guess he had too much time to kill), and when he was adding his final touch on the cake; he heard the high heels sound against the timber flooring. It was Lady Trench standing in the corridor with her hands to her mouth shouting – “Come, darling! It is your favorite cake!”. The Housekeeper, Ms. Nancy Wilson came and told my Dad his stay in Government House would be extended the next day. Lady Trench had the kitchen overhauled; throwing away all the old equipment and putting in modern stoves, ovens and refrigerators ordered from the Central supply. She also took Dad to a shopping trip at Wing On departmental stores for kitchen utensils. Dad told me she could have got those in Government Central supply but she wanted better ones.
The Governor invited the press to a garden party. I guess the food must be extraordinary and a few of the reporters requested to have a tour of the kitchen and interview the kitchen staff. When the reporters were doing their tour they saw my Dad stood out as he was still wearing the Navy uniform. Dad told them he was there on a temporary attachment and that he was still officially a Royal Navy Officer when being asked. Trouble came a week later when the newspaper published an article about my Dad’s detachment. The British Foreign Ministry summoned the Hong Kong Government and demanded the immediate return of the Royal Navy person to his rightful duty. Lady Trench was in no mood to let my Dad go; so the negotiations started. At that time all Royal Navy personnel were on contract. Dad’s contract included a handsome gratuity that would be paid upon finishing a contract however Dad was 12 months away from that. Taking all of these issues into consideration, these were Lady Trench’s offer. Dad was offered the position of Head Chef; he was the first ever Head Chef in the history of Government House. The position was created just for him because the pay scale of a Cook would not be of any interest to Dad. In order to allure Dad to the job, the title of Chef was introduced in H.K. Government to circumvent that pay scale issue. There was only the position of Cook in Hong Kong Government prior to that offer. A government Cook’s salary was HK$280.00 then. His basic pay would be HK$1,000.00 per month (Police officer salary then was HK$300.00 and a bank officer was about HK$400.00), a brand new staff quarters would be built for the whole family, lodging and utility bills would all be paid for, the Kitchen would become a separate section under my Dad’s care. In the subsequent years, the Housekeeper, Ms. Nancy Wilson often praised about Dad’s culinary skill to guests in Government House and how well Dad had served the Navy before joining Government House. That had somehow started an unspoken trend among the upper class population in Hong Kong to head hunt Chefs and Cooks from the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was going through a massive downsizing exercise in the late 60’s, was also proud and glad to recommend their trained talent to the who’s who in Hong Kong at the time and before long Stewards and Housekeepers were also head hunted from the Navy.
With my so-called lucky charm, my family moved in to Government House before I turned 18 months. Shortly after we moved in, grandma suffered a stroke and passed away before my second birthday. I don’t have much recollection of her but I do remember that she had well set eyes and nose. I guess that was something to do with her being a Eurasian. Dad told me I sat next to her body with tears rolling down my face for hours before the ambulance came and took her away.
A nefarious plot
As the family started to settle in the new environment, there were to be more dramas in Dad’s work front. As the kitchen became separately run, there was much animosity from the Chief Steward. Dad still talks about this occasionally till these days on an event that required much E.Q. in my opinion. It was the annual garden party around Queen’s birthday; 4,000 to 5,000 people were invited to the party. While preparation work took place months before the event, a nefarious plot was being planned. On the day of the party, tray after tray of sandwiches and finger food were brought out of the kitchen. Something told my Dad that trays were going out a little too fast for his liking and decided to take a stroll at the back. To his astonishment, heaps of sandwiches had been dumped in bins in a room. Through his quick thinking, he locked the door and took the key; and he summoned the Chief Steward to the kitchen. Knowing the Chief Steward was behind this, he told him that trays and trays of food had been dumped. He then told him that he might still have enough food to cover the party but in the event there wasn’t enough to go around Dad would disclose the saga to the Housekeeper. The Chief Steward turned pale but there was nothing he could do then. To everyone’s relief, the party ended with a couple of trays to spare. The Chief Steward left my Dad alone after that. One of the Stewards who had dumped food in the bins wrote a thank you note to my Dad upon his retirement and thanked him for letting the matter rest. It was pretty much smooth sailing for Dad apart from the occasional troubles caused by my mischief.
I am happy that I have reached this point
My Dad had been approached in more than one occasions to have his life story published and none before this book had materialized. I used to think neither a cookbook nor a chef's story is attractive enough commercially and that explained why the idea did not germinate. Little did I know the difficulties in relating the events and anecdotes until I had gone down the same path as other publishers before me and embarked on a journey of articulating his story; one would have a mountain to climb to piece the story together if one does not have the first hand experiences. This did not make things easier when the subject is an 80 something years old man with fading memories. But I am thankful and feel blessed to have finished what started as a quixotic mission into a family project that I had done with him and my siblings. I am glad I was able to bond with him again and to hear the excitement in his voice; and the energy through the sparks in his eyes. The book energized him as much as it did to me. I am glad I took part in recalling his story; I am glad that I have learnt more about the family history which I had previously took for granted. More importantly, I found my identity.
I had been overwhelmed by much encouragement and kind words throughout the course of writing this biography for my father. I hope you had enjoyed reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it. As I hope this book receives your acceptance and appreciation, while it will thrill me, will not define me. My identity rests firmly and happily on one fact. I am my father's son.
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The story continues.............
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- My Dad was a chef, a great chef! | By Stephen Sui | Category: Biographies & Memoirs | Blurb
Dad served 4 governors, from preparing finger food to dinner parties for the Kings and Queens and many foreign dignitaries in a timespan of more than 30 yrs. There were stressful moments and interesting anecdotes.
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