He’s the longest serving employee at the Peninsula Hotel, having worked at the former railway hotel for a mere 56 years. Johnny Chung Kam-hung began as a trainee bus boy at 14 and now at 70 he has no imminent plans for retirement. The Peninsula, itself only 15 years older than Chung, marks its 85th anniversary this year. For Chung, the hotel has not only been his workplace, but his life-long family.
“My Dad was the lobby captain at the Peninsula,” says Chung, seated in The Bar, where he works as senior bartender on the hotel’s first floor. “He worked here for eight years. When he passed away from lung cancer because the hotel is very family orientated they offered me a position as a bus boy trainee. I was 14. My mother was very proud that I had a job in a hotel, as they were not easy to come by. My brother worked at the Miramar Hotel.
“I started working here in 1957 and I remember walking into the lobby on my first day and I was so nervous.”
Chung began his long career at the Peninsula as a messenger boy, delivering messages, letters and magazines to different departments within the hotel premises. “After three months, I was transferred to the lobby bar as a bus boy. Every morning, I would clean the bar tables. Most of my job was cleaning at the time. I would wear a white Chinese style top and black trousers.”
Chung also remembers trying to improve his English in those early years, studying in 1962 for three months at the Yaumatei YMCA, but a fellow worker at the Peninsula told him to read the South China Morning Post - the small news items - and that’s how he says he enlarged his vocabulary.
“I would read ‘yesterday there was a jewellery robbery in a shop’ and when and where and I learned from the short and simple news items,” he said.
Born in Mong Kok, Chung has lived in Peninsula accommodation throughout his career in staff quarters. He recalls how at one time 200 staff members lived in the dormitory but now there are only two, including Chung. He also remembers the rickshaws outside the Peninsula, when the roads were a good deal quieter, and it cost 50 cents to be taken by rickshaw to the Star Ferry terminal.
Things were tougher in past decades, says Chung. “Handwashing the clothes, for example. In the past we didn’t have the hi-tech washing machines. Today if a person asks to have his shirt washed, we can return it in one day but we couldn’t do that in the past. It was also harder work in the kitchen - the dim sum now we might have a mixing machine but previously it was all by hand, more labour intensive.”
He recalls how there was no air-conditioning until the 1960s, instead ceiling fans were used, and the carpet was only laid down in the lobby during the winter season.
Over the years Chung has met a number of famous actors and singers. “Patti Page, she was very pretty and Paul Anka was a gentleman. I didn’t meet Frank Sinatra, you know, the guy who sang My Way, but the room boy said he gave HK$100 tips and HK$100 went a long way in those days.”
Chung had been working for a just a few months at the Peninsula in 1957 and was at the lobby cocktail bar. One evening around 5pm a man was sitting at the bar and requested a screwdriver. Not knowing ht this was a bar drink, Chung dutifully headed off, returning with the metal tool.
“And he said: ‘No, screwdriver! The cocktail! Vodka and fresh orange juice, then stir it and add a garnish.’ I was very nervous. I made the drink from his instructions and then I passed it to him. He didn’t say anything. After three minutes he took a sip. He told me it was perfect. He then wrote the ingredients down for me. Vodka and fresh orange juice. After he left, a waiter came over and said to me: ‘Do you know who that was?’ And I said I didn’t. And he said: ‘That was Clark Gable.’”
When the David Lean-directed Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed and later released in 1957, Chung met two of the lead actors, William Holden and Jack Hawkins.
“You know the film with the bamboo bridge,” said Chung, humming the signature tune from the film. “The English won in the film. Their drinks were very simple, just whisky and water.”
Hong Kong has changed greatly over the past half century. Chung was saddened when the Hong Kong Hilton and Furama were pulled down. Both those hotels and the Mandarin Oriental, which opened in 1963, asked him to come and work for them. “But I didn’t want to,” says Chung. “They even offered me a higher salary but the Peninsula is my home.”
As Chung began preparing for his evening clientele, he said there are two key things to remember in his role. “You must remember the guest’s name and what he drinks.”