'Abalone king' Yeung Koon-yat sees Hong Kong society turning sour

'Abalone king' Yeung Koon-yat says hard work may not be enough for today's young people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 6:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 6:21am

Food has always been central to the life of Yeung Koon-yat. Growing up in wartime Guangdong, his family was so poor that two of his sisters starved to death. But after crossing over to Hong Kong in 1949, Yeung worked his way up from washing dishes to become the "abalone king", cooking the delicacy for world leaders and earning a Michelin Star for Forum Restaurant in Causeway Bay.

Despite his fame, the 82-year-old Yeung is not immune to some of the social issues affecting the city. Not only has he been forced to move his business after the landlord demanded a higher rent, he is also about to enter a legal dispute with a rival.

Yet Yeung would much rather talk about his concerns for the future of the city than the trademark infringement writ his business filed against local restaurant chain Fulum Group

Fulum Group was set up in 1992 by brothers who are also surnamed Yeung but are not related to Yeung Koon-yat. It now has more than 80 restaurants. While they use different English translations, Forum and Fulum share the same Chinese characters. Forum's writ lists more than 40 restaurant names it says infringe its registered trademarks.

Sitting at Forum's new location at Sino Plaza - its home since January after the rent went up at its old location in Lockhart Road - Yeung is reluctant to say much about the court case.

"I am actually not in charge of the court case. I am in charge of the food, of the abalone," he says. "But actually this [case] is something which is not unexpected."

Dressed in a tailored, pinstripe navy blue suit, an Hermes shirt with his initials embroidered at the cuffs next to the matching silver cufflinks, a silk tie and a narrow scarf, Yeung tells of the effort he put in to build his career - and admits hard work may not be enough for today's youth.

"Today, it's hard for the young people. No matter how hard you work, the pay is only HK$10,000 to HK$20,000. In the past, you could do a lot with that. But now - why, it costs a few hundred million dollars to buy decent housing!" he exclaims. "No wonder Hongkongers are so obsessed with making money - there's a need to save up for emergencies which may happen later."

The wealth gap, inadequate services for elderly people and soaring real estate prices limit Hong Kongers' options, he says. Yeung still reads the newspaper every day, keeping up to date with social issues and events.

"Large numbers come from the mainland, there's barely room to breathe. I'm not saying shut them out. I'm just saying it's important to heed Hongkongers' voices," he said.

"The social unrest needs to be addressed. There's a reason why people are not happy," said Yeung. "Hong Kong is always changing, it's important for the government to keep an eye on the health of the society."

Yeung joined an earlier influx of mainlanders in 1949 when, at the age of 17, he entered the city via Macau to escape the chaos of the civil war.

Yeung's father had been killed when the Japanese occupied his hometown of Zhongshan in Guangdong. His two younger sisters starved to death in the poverty that followed.

"I came down [to Hong Kong] the moment the doors opened," Yeung recalls.

Determined to start life anew, he managed to find a job at a reputable restaurant through someone he knew back home, washing dishes and completing odd jobs for HK$30 a month.

"Back in the day, finding a job was like winning the jackpot at horseracing," chuckles Yeung. He worked 13 or 14 hours a day. After work, he went to night school. Having a friend who knew someone who worked at the school, Yeung would wait for everyone to leave and sleep on the desks each night.

"I learned fast and was hard-working, so I quickly got to go up the ranks," Yeung recalls.

By 1974, he was able to open Forum, but had to reorganise it, so the business was not officially registered until 1977.

"We went through an extremely hard time during the 1980s, after Margaret Thatcher famously fell down [in Beijing] and Hong Kong was to be handed back to China," said Yeung, referring to the then British prime minister's stumble at the Great Hall of the People during the trip that decided Hong Kong's fate.

Yeung had to borrow money from friends and scramble to find investors. But he realised he needed something more.

"Every restaurant needs a signature dish - something special - to really survive," he said.

Yeung picked abalone because "it was the food of kings, of businessmen, or intellectuals's good quality and healthy".

He first tasted the dish while working as the manager at a restaurant where he was in charge of writing the menus, said Yeung.

It took him three years to learn how to pick the best quality abalone, and to perfect his skills in making the dried morsel into the soft, flavourful and aromatic dish Forum still serves today.

Every pot of abalone is cooked for at least 14 hours in a claypot and a fire on full blast, he said. Pork ribs, whole chickens and other flavourful fresh ingredients are added in to ensure that the abalone has the best aroma.

"When I was still figuring it all out, abalone wasn't widely cooked in Hong Kong," he said. "It was a make-or-break gamble. I didn't have a choice but to succeed, or else the business was going down."

Things started to look up when his abalone caught the attention of dignitaries in Hong Kong. After a trip to a Singapore food fair and then to Beijing, where Deng Xiaoping was impressed by Yeung's abalone, Yeung's reputation soared.

He would cook for dignitaries such as the then French president Jacques Chirac and Hong Kong's last governor, Chris Patten, as well as other big names from politics and show business. He was named the World Master of Culinary Arts in 2002.

Now, because of his age, Yeung leaves most of the kitchen duties to his son. He still visits the restaurant almost daily, and lends a hand once in a while, or when old customers specially request his abalone, his pan-fried fresh grouper, or the bird's nest "eight treasures" claypot rice.

"I find satisfaction in what I do. And I never get bored of abalone. I still eat it whenever I can!" he says. "Money doesn't make life good - it's your family; being able to respectably earn a living; always striving to improve but still being content with what we have." For Yeung, family, friends and relationships come first. "Some people make so much money that they won't even know how to spend it. I think I have enough, and I just want to live out my days in peace."


Yeung Koon-yat

1932: Yeung was born
1949: Comes to Hong Kong via Macau
1974: Starts his own restaurant with a few other investors
1977: Officially registers Forum Restaurant
1983: Starts cooking abalone
1985-86: Attends culinary festival in Singapore, receiving high praise for his abalone; serves Deng Xiaoping in Beijing
1996: Becomes a member of the exclusive Club des Chefs des Chefs d'Etat
2002: Named a World Master of Culinary Arts
2014: Forum moves to Sino Plaza