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Food & Drinks

From Frank Sinatra to Clark Gable, the Hollywood stars Peninsula Hong Kong barman served

Senior bartender Johnny Chung has worked at The Peninsula Hong Kong for 61 years. He recalls the time Clark Gable taught him to make a cocktail, and how the Kowloon institution evolved

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 9:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 9:32am

Senior bartender Johnny Chung Kam-hung feels at home in The Peninsula Hong Kong. At 77 years of age he is one of the longest-serving employees of the hotel, having worked there for 61 years, and has fond memories of serving guests in the lobby cocktail bar for decades, from Hong Kong regulars to movie stars.

He has watched the hotel evolve in his time there, from the days of fancy tea dances with live bands playing in the Rose Garden room on the sixth floor, to the addition of a helipad on the roof in 1994 and the placing of the largest single order ever for a fleet of Rolls-Royces in 2006. He also remembers a time when the carpet in the lobby was only rolled out in wintertime.

When Steve McQueen was talk of the town in Hong Kong

These days he finds himself behind the counter of The Bar on the first floor, his ground-floor haunt of decades having been given over to a luxury boutique.

He no longer works the late shift. Instead, he wakes at 4am to read the paper, and two hours later he is busy squeezing fresh fruit juices for hotel guests for breakfast. His shift ends at 2pm, whereupon he eats lunch in the hotel canteen and relaxes for the rest of the day before retiring early to bed.

“I work six hours a day. I’m used it,” he says with a warm smile.

The Bar is cavernous, with a low ceiling and red leather seats. Behind the bar counter is a gleaming array of bottles. He feels right at home. Indeed, for Chung, who has lost his older sister and brother, and isn’t close to his other relatives, the hotel is home.

“It’s like a big family here. I know about 80 per cent of my fellow employees,” he says.

When The Peninsula opened in December 1928, it was the first major hotel in Kowloon, and adopted the tagline “the finest hotel east of Suez”. In 1888, the Star Ferry service had been launched to link Central district on Hong Kong Island with Tsim Sha Tsui at the foot of the Kowloon Peninsula. In 1915 the Kowloon-Canton Railway station opened there. The Peninsula was ideally situated, across from the railway station and near the Star Ferry pier.

Chung’s father worked at The Peninsula as a bell captain in the lobby, and would tell his son how busy he was.

“He would say ‘Hung zai’ – that’s what he called me – he said his job was tough because The Peninsula was the only hotel in the Kowloon area at the time. People would go there to eat, so he was very busy. Once he started working it was non-stop on the shift,” Chung says.

Chung’s father had been working at The Peninsula for eight years when, in 1957, he fell ill and, days later, died; to this day Chung isn’t sure what caused his death. The hotel took pity on Chung’s family and suggested employing the then 15-year-old so that he could provide for his family.

For three months, Chung was a messenger boy, delivering messages and mail to guests, until there was an opening at the bar and he transferred there as a busboy.

“I’ve been working here ever since. I have never left, not even changed to a restaurant in the hotel. If there was an opening for a busboy in a restaurant, I didn’t want the job. There was lots to learn in the bar, like how to mix drinks,” he says.

“In the restaurant, the food is already cooked and you just serve the dishes, and look after the guests, but at the bar you can chat with the customer for over an hour. I wanted to work in the bar even though it was tougher.”

Chung recalls how difficult the job was for a timid teenager without much confidence.

“In those days I was very shy, very scared. The customers were very picky. If you asked another question, they wouldn’t answer you. If you forgot what drink they wanted, they would get angry with you – ‘Orange juice, I say!’ They were very brusque, so you didn’t dare ask another question. Some customers were OK.”

It was difficult for Chung to learn on the job because busboys weren’t allowed to stand near senior staff when they were taking drink orders from customers.

“They didn’t want us standing in front of the customers. If you’re a busboy then you clear the tables; they never let you serve the guest. Each job was clearly defined.”

Eventually Chung was promoted from busboy to junior bartender, then senior bartender. He saw many colleagues move to new hotels, such as the Mandarin Oriental, The Hilton, The Regent and Hyatt Regency; they tried to lure him to join them for a promotion and extra pay, but Chung refused.

When he was promoted to barman, Chung was privileged to serve not only well-heeled guests – including a socialite dripping in jewels who liked to drink two dry martinis – but also a slew of celebrities. Among them was the actor William Holden, who starred in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai; James Bond star Roger Moore, whose drink of choice was Jack Daniels; and crooner Frank Sinatra, who drank gin and tonic.

But Chung’s biggest brush with fame was his encounter with Hollywood actor Clark Gable, who asked for a screwdriver. Chung was confused and began looking around for the tool of that name.

“He said, ‘Give me a screwdriver. No, no, a screwdriver is a cocktail, not a tool. Do you know how to make it,’” Chung recalls Gable saying. Apologising, he admitted he did not.

“He was very gentlemanly and instructed me to mix vodka with orange juice,” he remembers. “I was really scared, but I made it for him, and he said, ‘Not bad, wonderful, perfect.’”

When Roger Moore played James Bond on streets of Hong Kong

It was only later that Chung found out his instructions had come from a famous American film star.