Joanna, aka Dior, called me up the week after I did her shift for her, and was desperate again for someone to fill in at the Chinese restaurant. I figured her hard-partying lifestyle was affecting her ability to do her shifts, but because of the job offer at Emperor’s Garden, I told her I wouldn’t be able to help her out.
She immediately agreed that if I could replace her again that week, she would give me a permanent job there, every Saturday and Sunday – I felt bad about turning down the job at Emperor’s Garden, but figured, a bird in the hand and all that – so I accepted her offer.
It was an eye-opening experience working at the restaurant. The owner was a rich, young Shanghainese with a beautiful bride; I thought they were incredibly sophisticated, cultured and classy and was in awe of them. I found out years later that they were also swingers, which totally grossed me out.
It was my first experience working with a crew largely from Hong Kong – it felt sometimes like I was trapped in one of those Hong Kong soap operas I used to consume back home in Malaysia. I had to pick up their accent pretty quickly, since I grew up thinking Hongkies were like the French of the Oriental world – if you spoke their language (Cantonese) with a weird accent, most times they would just pretend not to understand you and proceed to treat you like a second-class citizen.
Every day in the kitchen, they would have the radio tuned into the station that covered horse racing, and the staff, particularly the chef and his crew, would be glued to it when their races were on. I could never figure out how a bunch of Chinese with no discernible English could follow the rapid-fire commentary but I guess if you’re a hard-core gambler like they were, you find a way.
The head chef (Lai Sook ie. Uncle Lai) was loud, impatient and gruff, but his offsider was a nice, old man who was in charge of making the rice flour rolls with different fillings. Since Lai Sook was often stuck in the kitchen, he would ask us every now and then if there were more ‘devils’ or more ‘people’ seated at the tables – ie. whites or Chinese – this racial profiling helped him determine whether to fry up more Aussie favourites like spring rolls or put more of the traditional Chinese selections in the steamer.
Each time a table asked for their bill, we would tabulate the number of strokes on their dim sum order card and give it to the cashier to work out the total. I noticed that the middle-aged, grumpy manager would always insist on doing it himself if the table consisted of white Australians. I was told much later that the reason for that was so he could cheat the gullible by adding a few strokes to each card to inflate their bill, then pocket the difference to fund his gambling addiction. Don’t know how true that was, but he did always excitedly grab the card from us before we got to the cashier every time it was from a table of oblivious Aussies. The Asians, of course, always made sure to check the strokes against what they ate, so there was no putting one past them.
Then, there was T, one of the waiters there. For someone with his physical appearance (short and fat) he sure was cocky and confident. Apparently his family back in HK was rich, and he was ostentatious with his money – fancy cars and a fancy bike which his legs were too short for (I saw him fall over when trying to start it up once). Somehow, my friend CT, who had started working there as well, fell for his charms. I always felt she could do a million times better, since I didn’t think he treated her particularly well, but having left school early I guessed she saw in him a passport to a better life. I didn’t think their relationship would last, so I was shocked when she told me a couple of years after I stopped working there, that they were engaged to be married.
In the time they were together, he had managed to negotiate a mortgage (one of his ‘side businesses’ I was told) for her family and as such, they had been able to move into a much bigger house. Her entire family saw him as their financial saviour. He even bought an apartment in upmarket Rose Bay, where he and CT lived.
I believe it was a few days from their wedding when I got the phonecall. CT was crying on the phone. Apparently she’d just arrived home and found him in bed, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. She hadn’t even called the emergency services, so it was a bit surreal talking to her whilst she was cradling him in her arms. She was convinced there was still some signs of life in his eyes though the police later said he’d been dead for hours. It came out after his death that his lavish lifestyle had been a facade – he owed money to loansharks and couldn’t pay them back, and all his credit cards were maxed out – he’d even taken out cards in CT’s name and maxed them out without her knowledge, ruining her credit for years to come. He was dressed head to toe in red – apparently doing so meant that he would return as a vengeful ghost to settle scores with his enemies.
Months later, I would find out that her family had moved out of their big new house – the reason they gave was that they had seen his ghost around the place.