Restaurant owner's salty ways after salad days

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am

Yik Wai-yung's route from indebted Yuen Long loan shark to owner and chef of a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant is not the normal road a prudent, aspiring entrepreneur takes.

Yik, 53, owns Yung Kee Siu Choi Wong (no relation to the Yung Kee restaurant in Central) in Sham Shui Po, an area popular among discerning local foodies but better known as a seedy red-light district and dumping ground for unwanted electronic devices. His restaurant has been selected to be on Michelin's Bib Gourmand list, which is for eateries offering 'good food at moderate prices'.

The no-frills decor of the restaurant, harshly lit and dotted with colourful plastic stools, seems a classic setting for a Hong Kong movie.

Yung Kee is best known for its roast pork, which Yik experimented with and perfected while working as a chef to former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos.

'One day, Marcos' generals told me to make them roast pork,' Yik says. 'They love that in the Philippines; they got the taste for it from the Spanish. So I spent lots of time in the kitchen perfecting it as, after cooking, I had nothing to do. They loved it. Personally, I think the Hong Kong-style roast pork is much better than the Filipino's.'

Growing up in Yuen Long, Yik made a living by gambling and debt collection, in short, being a loan shark. At 17, with a few thousand dollars in his pocket, he fled Hong Kong and the spiralling mountain of debt he owed and began a new life working in a bakery in Manila. The bakery was a failure. But, armed with a Tagalog-Chinese dictionary, he was able to communicate with local girls and at the very least continue what he called his 'womanising ways'.

A lucky break came from a friend whom he had grown up with in Hong Kong and who had also come to the Philippines. The friend, a chef for Marcos, persuaded Yik to give up the bakery and join him at the palace.

Yik admits he was young and naive at the time, and confesses he was largely insulated from the political turmoil in the Philippines during Marcos' third term as president.

In 1983, opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated in Manila, a watershed event in Filipino politics that energised the opposition in the country and spawned the 'people power' movement that eventually toppled Marcos.

'I didn't know what was happening, but Marcos was extremely good to us,' Yik says.

'On top of our basic salary of roughly HK$10,000 a month, which was a lot in those days, he used to give us wads of cash to spend. I was young and rich. It was a great life.' Although Yik and his friend lived in the palace, they were free to go out and lead a vibrant social life. Yik says he liked going out to meet girls in the watering holes of Mabini Street.

Yik says he only saw Marcos in person three times throughout his career in the palace. But the glimpses he caught of the habits of both Marcos and then first lady Imelda were telling. They revealed the caution and paranoia that ruled the pair's lives amid growing political opposition to the regime and allegations that Marcos suffered from kidney ailments, rumours he tried hard to quash.

The Marcoses and their children loved Cantonese food, Yik says, especially scallops fried with broccoli, and his daughter liked Chinese sticky rice desserts.

Marcos was also a picky eater and did not allow the use of monosodium glutamate in his food, and he wanted salt and oil levels to be kept as low as possible. He also had a strong dislike for food with bones, fearing that he would choke on them.

Yik says he abides by the same principles for his food at Yung Kee.

'Imelda only ate her food after lots of people had tested it before. She was paranoid. And I never dared look at Marcos directly ... there was something scary about him, a murderous look.'

Although Yik says he 'was so happy in the Philippines', his surreal existence came to an end in 1986 as the late Corazon Aquino's 'people power' movement forced Marcos to eventually flee into exile.

'I didn't know anything about politics, but we could see and hear demonstrations going on all over Manila,' Yik recalls. 'I wasn't stupid enough to return to the palace - what if I never came out? The protesters aren't exactly going to differentiate between guilty and innocent when they eventually storm the palace.'

Yik has a rather rose-tinted assessment of the Marcos presidency and is unabashedly positive about the leader. 'He invested a lot of money in infrastructure,' he said. 'And a lot of Chinese people supported his economic policies. I think a lot of people misunderstand him.'

Yik claims Marcos had set aside two pieces of land for the two Hong Kong chefs, but a middleman had run off with the leases. That left him with no choice but to return to Hong Kong - but not before he had gambled away all that he had earned.

After doing a few odd jobs back in Hong Kong, Yik had yet another lucky break. In 1989, he acquired a piece of property in Sham Shui Po that a gambler had to put up as collateral and forfeited because he could not pay his debt to Yik. The restaurant Yik eventually opened became Yung Kee and has since expanded to three branches, all along Fuk Wa Street.

Despite attracting a host of celebrities and government officials, success does not appear to have changed Yik much. He still has the gruff exterior and salty language of his gambling days. However, he says that after numerous girlfriends and three wives, he has renounced his womanising ways and settled down with his fourth wife.

'Yes, I've been told about this Michelin thing, but I'm not sure and I don't really care,' Yik says. 'I just concentrate on cooking good food. Now if you could wrap up the interview, I need to head to the kitchen.'