Chef Alain Pang returns home after 30 years

After spending half his life in France, chef Alain Pang brought his family back to Hong Kong in a reversal of the path he took

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 4:11pm

Chef Alain Pang Chun-lung returned to his village of Fanling Wai in 2004 after 30 years in France because he yearned for his Chinese roots and hoped to give his two children a grounding in Chinese culture. Yet Pang and his wife, Lee Hay-lan, retain a lot of their old life, with conversations sometimes lapsing into French. He has even turned part of their three-storey village house into a private kitchen serving rustic French-Italian dishes. Chez Lung attracts French teachers and students of the language from Chinese University as well as foodies from across the city.

Although French culture will forever be a part of their life, Pang says of the move back to Hong Kong: "There's nothing better than being surrounded by your own blood."

The Pang clan has lived in Fanling Wai for 800 years, he says. "When I sit down, the people around me are not friends but brothers from the same clan.

"From here all the way to Ting Kok village in Tai Po, all the inhabitants are surnamed Pang. They all originated from one person. So, during Lunar New Year and other festivals, it's warm, boisterous and great fun."

It was the 1970s when 16-year-old Pang was uprooted, along with his mother and two younger brothers, by his father from the New Territories in hopes of making a better future in France. Not knowing any French, the family settled in Paris. Like many Chinese emigrants they wound up working in Chinese restaurants.

The family relied on Pang, the eldest child, to be their link to the community so he had to pick up French very quickly.

"Once I arrived there, I was determined to learn French. I thought about it all the time: when I was bathing, on the bus or sleeping," Pang recalls.

He went on to study aeronautical engineering in college, but realised after graduation that jobs in the food business often paid better. Pang signed up for a three-year-cooking course to refine the skills he had picked up while working in restaurants.

"I learned a lot about French cooking from that," he says.

He became a chef after five years working in various kitchens, and reckons he owes his abiding passion for cooking to a craving for food since he was little.

"I was a glutton when I was a child. I ate everything. That has something to do with poverty. I didn't get the chance to be picky. Picky eaters can never become good cooks."

Pang met his wife, then a fashion student, when she was working as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant. Deciding to make a life together, they pooled their money in 1990 to buy a small premises in the hill town of St Claude in the Franche-Comté region, bordering Italy and Germany, and turned it into a Chinese restaurant.

A year after opening the restaurant, daughter Kar-tong was born and a year after that they were married. Son Kar-jo came along in 1996.

The lifestyle in rural France suited them. "In St Claude all the restaurant owners had a gathering once every one or two months. We met at a different restaurant every time. A wine seller would bring a box of wine and the owner would cook for everybody. We talked about cooking and stuff. It was such a good time," Pang says.

Their Chinese restaurant also proved hugely popular. "Business was so good that it was enough to open for five days a week. If we opened for more days, our revenue would push us into a higher tax bracket, so our accountant advised us to stay on a smaller scale to avoid paying higher taxes," Lee says.

The Gallic approach to child raising and education came as a welcome revelation to Lee.

"The French are very nice people who love their children. Their enlightened attitude to education amazed me," she says. "My daughter hated maths. Once, she got a mark of about 70, so, as a Chinese parent, I went to talk to her teacher. She told me 70 was a very good mark and they did not need every child to become a computer expert. They need artists as well. She said my daughter's drawing skills were exceptional and that her pictures were posted all around the school.

"In France, no child's mark is below average. They don't give kids homework which will disrupt their sleep. They don't need them to carry books as a heavy school bag will hurt their back. Each child gets a set of hardback books free from the school which are used for years. For new information, teachers give out notes. Regardless of your socio-economic background, everybody gets about HK$2,000 before term begins to buy exercise books, a school bag and other things needed for school."

So, when the family returned to Hong Kong, Lee says, the high-pressure culture took a lot of getting used to. "In Hong Kong kids are pushed to the limit and you need to buy a whole new set of books for each new academic year just because few words have been changed. This is crazy," she says.

Before settling in Fanling the family spent a year in Guangzhou, where Pang joined his brother-in-law's trading business, but that folded in wake of the Sars crisis.

Kar-tong, who was 11 when they left France, had the biggest adjustment to make in Guangzhou.

"I couldn't speak or read [Chinese]. I didn't have any friends in the first six months at school. Other children looked down upon me because I didn't know Chinese. But I am quite good at adapting to new environments. I went to school in the morning and had Chinese tutorials in the afternoon. I picked up Chinese quickly and made friends."

There was more hard work when she enrolled in Primary Five after they finally settled in Fanling.

"I had to work very hard at the beginning because I couldn't write Chinese characters. Although primary education in France is relaxing, secondary school is quite hard. Teachers give a lot of homework to do on holidays, which set me up for secondary school in Hong Kong. I did OK in the Form Five public exams, but my Chinese is still not very good. Sometimes I have difficulty comprehending the topics discussed in newspapers," says Kar-tong, who is now a communications student at Baptist University.

Back in Fanling Wai, Pang resumed his culinary passion by opening part of his home and front yard to diners as a private kitchen, but he makes his living from a catering venture.

Operating out of an industrial space in Fanling, the business ran into many obstacles at first.

"We are not very smart at running the business, which serves schools, hospitals and hostels," Lee says. "While securing orders is not difficult, managing staff and supplies can be tricky. And with a catered meal costing just over HK$10, we can lose money easily."

They might make more from their French-style diner, but the Pangs don't want the stress of turning it into a full-service restaurant, even though they have had offers from investors to do so. For now the private kitchen will remain a family venture - everyone is involved, with the youngsters recruited to help with food preparation as well as serving customers.

"My parents are foodies. And I love great food, too. I like cooking French food for my friends at home. For me, cooking is like making art," says Kar-tong.

Certainly, Pang would rather spend time fussing over a dish of buttered frog legs or coq au vin, discussing food and culture with diners and making friends, but Lee doesn't want her husband to work too hard.

"He works every day as the head chef at our catering business and has to keep his eye on the quality. There's only a few days each month when diners can come to our house for French food, like on school holidays or when the factory has less work to do," she says.

But having a chef in the family doesn't necessarily make for tasty meals at home, in fact it's often the opposite, Lee says. "My husband only cooks for guests. Our meals are mostly cooked by the maid. And on days when there are diners, we end up eating from McDonald's as he hogs the stove."