Judy goes back to wok

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SHE was 16 when she arrived from Hong Kong with $20 and a husband. Judy Wong still has the husband, but the bankroll is more substantial.

‘I was young and I was in love. I was with my husband. I was 13 when I met him and he was six years older than me,’’ she says as I try to imagine the impeccably dressed, confident Brookfield matron sitting opposite me as a near-destitute child bride.

‘When we arrived in Australia, we worked in a takeaway in Chinatown in Sydney. The lady liked me and she helped me to stay in Australia,’’ she says.

Wong’s story is that of the thousands of immigrants who have made the term ‘‘Chinese restaurant’’ synonymous with affordable dining throughout the country. I ask what advice she would give to people wanting to succeed in business and her dark eyes fix on mine.

‘Work hard,’’ she says, ‘‘then work harder. I burnt my arm in the kitchen and had third-degree burns, but I still went to work.’’ A few months ago, the indomitable Wong emerged from retirement, tired, she says, of doing nothing. As we speak, in the background inner-city workers queue at her latest exercise, the FantAsia takeaway in MacArthur Central in Queen St.

‘We arrived in 1976 and within 12 months we’d saved enough money to buy a takeaway restaurant in Sydney. It only had three tables,’’ she recalls.

‘Then we saved more money and moved to Rockhampton where we built our first restaurant, the House of China. In the end, I had four restaurants and a mobile kitchen – for the Singapore Armed Forces when they came out on exercises. It cost $300,000 and could cook 6000 meals. When we left Rockhampton, we also owned a complex which included a nightclub and karaoke bar.

‘We were in Rockhampton for 27 years and had two children there. Rockhampton was really good to me. It put me where I am today. There were good people, very loyal customers.

‘Then we came to Brisbane and retired for 10 years and now this,’’ she says, indicating the brightly lit counter behind her.

I ask her how, hard work aside, to succeed in an industry in which so many fail? ‘‘You have to give people what they want,’’ she says. ‘‘People have to get the value. People have to get a smile. I tell my staff that if they’re not happy, don’t come to work.’’

The new venue has been trading for a few weeks and she admits that opening it has exhausted her.

‘In this business, you get back what you put in. You can’t expect anyone to do it for you or for things to automatically happen.’’

Wong has firm views on life and the philosophy necessary to succeed in it.

‘Money is not my first priority. Money will come if you do the right thing by people.You do the right thing and you will receive. You have to give out first. If you give a gift, don’t expect anything back. Your giving must be unconditional. That’s what I believe.’’

As we speak, her eyes focus over my shoulder on the queue of customers behind me, scanning it for any sign of crisis.

‘Consumers are the smartest people in the world,’’ she says, satisfied that all is well. ‘‘They know what they want. The minute they sit down, they want the food to look good, taste good and make them feel good. It’s no good just having one of these. You have to have all three.’’

I ask her why she emerged from retirement after a successful business career and a 10-year retirement and she shrugs. ‘‘We sold everything in Rockhampton. Then at Brookfield we built a beautiful home and retired there and had beautiful people over for lunch. I’d never been able to go out with friends for dinner or lunch before. I was always working, and then someone said, ‘You have to get back into food’. So I put my FantAsia uniform on and I put my waitress hat on and the minute I put my hat on, I’m a waitress. Yes, sir! No, sir! Thank you, sir! You have to make people feel special. I don’t care if they spend $7 or $70. They are all my customers.

‘I want to keep our prices to less than $10. We have people walking down from Ann St every day for lunch. You have to remember that people go overseas now and they taste the food in Asia and they understand quality Chinese.’’

She says she has had calls from other shopping malls asking her to open a second outlet but, for the moment, is focused on her current project.

‘Since we opened, the Myer Centre approached us and Westfield but we first want to get this right before we open more. You must get yourself completely right before you go into something else.

‘That’s the trouble with some restaurateurs. They make their money quickly, then sell it. We’re here for the long haul.

‘We are doing 500 customers a day and while there have been a couple of Chinese restaurants that have gone bust around here, I’m totally confident.

‘We’ve also discovered the market of inner-city apartment dwellers, which we were unaware of because we were living at Brookfield. After work, they buy from us and take it home to save them cooking.’’

I’m about to leave when her husband John, a chef, appears from the kitchen. I ask him what it’s like being back at the wok after 10 years in retirement. He sits down, taps his head with a forefinger and gives me a very Chinese answer. ‘‘You have to do something,’’ he says. ‘‘Otherwise, your brain turns like a rock.’’

–Mike O’Connor, The Courier-Mail, October 16–17, 2010