Restaurant's fish tanks bring success in Sydney

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am


When Eric Wong Kam-wah first installed fish tanks in his Sydney restaurant two decades ago to introduce Hong Kong-style live seafood dishes to Australia, his friends teased him, saying he might end up having to keep ornamental goldfish in them.

'My friends and some of my staff said live seafood wouldn't sell well in Sydney because Westerners were used to frozen fish and prawn and not interested in eating fresh fish, lobsters or crabs,' Wong said in his Golden Century Seafood Restaurant in Sussex Street in Sydney's Chinatown.

But Wong had the last laugh. Twenty-two years later, the initial six fish tanks are now 24, capable of holding one tonne of live crabs, fish, shrimps and mega-size king crabs, ready for selection by diners. Steamed fish, poached shrimps, spicy crabs or king crabs in their shells with steamed egg are popular.

Until Wong and his wife Linda Wong Kam Yin-ling introduced Hong Kong-style seafood dining, Chinese restaurants in Sydney mainly served dishes favoured by Westerners such as sweet and sour pork, fried rice and spring rolls. When the couple and their two sons emigrated to Sydney in 1989 to take over a restaurant, they found chefs used frozen shrimps or fish fillets as ingredients.

This is heresy in Hong Kong where diners expect to select their seafood while it is still swimming.

The Wongs' trailblazing work has paid off: Golden Century is a landmark in the Sydney's Chinatown, serving thousands of customers seeking authentic Cantonese cuisine. Customers include celebrities and high-ranking officials: Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, former Hong Kong Monetary Authority chief executive Joseph Yam Chi-kwong and movie stars Andy Lau Tak-wah and Jackie Chan have all visited. Both the Wongs were born and bred in Hong Kong. After finishing school, Eric became a banker in the 1970s, staying in the sector for 19 years to become head of the Shenzhen branch of a commercial bank. Linda helped run a restaurant in Hung Hom.

The couple said their decision to move to Australia had nothing to do with the 1997 handover to China, but related to their sons' education. Wong wanted Alex, 12, and Billy, six, to study in Australia.

'My friends said if I spent the minimum A$500,000 [HK$4 million] under the investment migration scheme to migrate to Australia, my sons would enjoy free education in Australia,' Eric said. 'This was cheaper than the tuition fee I would have needed to pay if they were overseas students studying in Australia.'

So the couple decided to migrate to Sydney in 1989, investing A$600,000 to take over Golden Century, a 180-seat Chinese restaurant founded by Chinese immigrants.

A year later, the couple teamed up with friends in Hong Kong to buy a 20,000-square-foot property with 600 seats. This was when they decided to revolutionise the Sydney restaurant scene with fish tanks and live seafood. Now they have two restaurants and a third is due to open in September. Their son Alex is an interior designer who is married with a daughter, and Billy works for Credit Suisse in Australia.

You were a banker, now you're a restaurateur. How do the two compare?

When I worked in a bank, I needed to follow house rules and instructions from the boss. Now I decide everything myself - from designing the restaurants to menus and wine lists. When I was in the bank, I only had contact with customers and colleagues, but now customers from different backgrounds come to dine. We've served prime ministers, legislators, movie stars and even royalty. If I had stayed a banker in Shenzhen, I would never have met so many interesting people.

Did you find it difficult as a migrant?

It was very difficult in the beginning. The restaurant is open from noon until 4am and we couldn't afford to hire many staff. My wife and I had to work shifts so we could come back at 10am to prepare for the new day. We also did not know English and Australia very well. Sometimes we lost our way home when there were roadworks. Although Linda had been in the restaurant business in Hong Kong, it was different. For example, Hong Kong diners want to eat meals with tea or a soft drink, but Australians like wine with their food. It was a steep learning curve.

Why didn't you give up and go back to banking?

We had invested in the restaurant business and couldn't pull out easily. Despite the difficulties, we got a sense of satisfaction from running a restaurant. Also, our two sons enjoyed their studies in Australia so we decided to stay on.

You brought in the live seafood. How did customers react?

I definitely think fresh seafood tastes better. But prices for live fish or shrimp are double those for frozen seafood. It takes time for customers to accept the change. In the beginning, we served dishes from frozen seafood alongside live seafood dishes. But we removed frozen seafood dishes from the menu about 10 years ago because no one wanted them. Our fish tanks have expanded to 24 but that is still not quite enough.

What are the challenges of running a Chinese restaurant in Australia?

Staff costs are high. The minimum wage here is A$15 an hour. It is difficult to hire people as we need people who can speak English, Putonghua and Cantonese. We could hire [Chinese] students but they all refuse to work when examination time comes. It is hard to fill a team of 140 staff in our flagship shop and 40 staff in the second shop.

There are so many restaurants in Sydney. How can you compete?

Consistency is the key. Many customers stick to us when they entertain VIPs because they believe we consistently provide good food and service. We have several head chefs who take turns running the kitchens. We want our staff to work as a team. The washer needs to make sure the dishes are clean, the waiters need to respond to customers quickly and the chefs need to focus on cooking. Some Chinese restaurants in Sydney now serve dim sum or banquets, we do not. We focus on serving seafood and other Chinese dishes.

Tell us about the ups and downs.

Sars in 2003 was the most difficult time because there were very few tourists. Overall, business volumes track the economic cycle. Luckily, we have done well over the past two decades because the Australian economy has done well.

What is the best and worst part of the restaurant business?

Some people say sport brings different people together. I believe restaurants have the same effect. We attract Japanese, Chinese and Westerners to our restaurants to have meals. People from different political parties or races also come here to eat together. The downside is very long hours and hard work.

Do you ever think of retirement?

No. I enjoy my work. We plan to open a new 10,000 sq ft restaurant in September at Sydney Casino. We believe in the future of high-quality Chinese cuisine in Australia as there are increasing numbers of Chinese companies setting up in Sydney. Before, the mainland Chinese here were mainly tourists. Now, many Chinese companies have sent in staff to do mining, construction and other business. They need good Chinese food for themselves and their customers.

For those who want to set up a restaurant business, what advice can you offer?

Be prepared to face challenges and difficulties. It is not going to be as easy as being an employee. Do not retreat and do not give up easily and always think of solutions to challenges. Be patient and take a long-term view as it is impossible to succeed overnight in business. If you fail, learn from your mistakes. Some people do a wide range of businesses at the same time. I do not think this is a good idea. It is better to focus on doing one business well before expanding to others. Otherwise, you become a 'jack of all trades but master of none'.