Foodie Confidential: Escape from Vietnam

Foodie Confidential: Escape from Vietnam

If Alvin Ung, 52, had not gone into the restaurant business, he might have ended up a mechanic.

These were pretty much the only two options available to him back in the 1980s, when his family left Vietnam and settled in Birmingham in Britain.

At age 17, in a strange country and speaking little English, he started off as a dishwasher in Chung Ying, a Chinese restaurant where the staff spoke Cantonese, a dialect he was fluent in.

He worked his way up to sous chef, then went on to start and later sell two successful takeaway restaurants, before relocating to Singapore last December to join his brother Anthony Ung, 42, who has lived here since 1995.

Together, they opened Char, a homey restaurant in Guillemard Road that specialises in char siew, roast pork, roast duck and other dishes that he perfected in his 25-year career in Britain.

The story of how his family made it out of Vietnam after the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, is a harrowing one.

His parents' families were from Guangxi, China, and moved to Vietnam.

His parents met there, got married and had 10 children. One of them died at a young age.

After the war, many in the country sought to leave, and his family did too.

His father worked as a teacher, and the family could afford to send only four or five of the children out of the country.

"He couldn't pick who to send," chef Ung says.

So the family sold every possession, including pillows and bolsters, to raise enough money to get everyone out of Vietnam.

Along with other refugees, the family travelled from the Ha Long Bay area, where their home was, to Lang Son, which was near the Vietnam-China border, where they camped for close to a month before gaining entry into China.

From there, they took a boat to Hong Kong and lived there for two years in a refugee camp, while waiting for the Hong Kong government to help them settle in the United Kingdom.

"As we were refugees, we were not allowed to work or attend school in Hong Kong," says Anthony.

In Hong Kong, chef Ung's elder sister decided to move to the United States with her husband, while the rest of the family moved Britain.

There, they sought help from Ockenden International, a charity specialising in helping refugees.

"With the help of the charity, we managed to find housing in Birmingham," chef Ung says.

The children ranged in age from two to 23 then, and the oldest ones looked for jobs to put food on the table.

"Our parents were in their 50s then, and it was difficult for them to find jobs. They stayed at home and took care of my younger siblings," he says.

In 1982, he got a job as a dish washer in Chung Ying, and climbed the ranks to sous chef four years later.

He worked there for 15 years, before setting up two Cantonese takeaways in Birmingham and Derby, selling quick Cantonese dishes such as fried rice.

His parents, now in their 80s, live in Birmingham, while his siblings live all around the world, in the United States, Britain and Singapore.

When his brother Anthony suggested they start a restaurant here, he decided to move to Singapore.

Chef Ung says: "The economy in Britain was not doing that well, and in Europe, dining out is only for special occasions unlike Singapore, where dining out is the norm."

Char, which opened in January, is popular with families in the area and expatriates.

His wife, a housewife, and their four daughters, are still in Birmingham.

"Maybe I will bring my family here when the business is more stable," he says.

How did you learn to speak English when you got to Britain?

I still can't speak English properly. I guess I learnt it from conversing with people daily. Thankfully, the people in Chung Ying spoke Cantonese, which I'm fluent in.

How are Singapore dinners different from those in Britain?

The people here are more discerning. They know what they want.

Singapore diners also like to analyse the food, and they come and go really quickly.

In Britain, people would sit for hours before leaving.

Where did you to make roast meats?

I learnt it all when I was in Chung Ying. My two takeaway shops were more focused on quick stir-fries.

What is your favourite kitchen tool?

My cleavers. I've got about four, and I can do anything with them. I sharpen them every day. If the knife is not sharp, it's easier to cut yourself.

Who are your sources of motivation?

I have four daughters and my wife in England.

They drive me to make Char a success.

What is your favourite cuisine?

It still has to be Cantonese cuisine. I love a good stir-fried lobster with ginger and spring onions.

Are you interested in any other cuisine other than Cantonese food?

I think Sichuan cuisine is not bad. I like Mala hotpot, and also Kung Pao chicken. I'm really a true blue Chinese.

Do you have any hobbies?

I like to play golf. I'm really good at it. In Singapore, I play at Tanah Merah Country Club when I've got the time.

In England, I would play at the Forest of Arden Marriott Hotel and Country Club in Birmingham.

What is something always stocked in your fridge?

Peanut butter and mayonnaise. My go-to food would be a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich, with Gardenia white bread.

It's just something different from what I make every day.

What is your favourite local dish?

I've tried many local dishes such as chicken rice and bak kut teh, but I still like the fish head curry along Joo Chiat Road the best.

What is your favourite ingredient to cook with?

I don't have a favourite ingredient. In Cantonese cuisine, it's a combination of sweet, sour and salty. You can't just have one favourite.

Why do you like to cook?

At first, it was just a job. I think it was all about necessity. When we came from Vietnam, I could get only the easy jobs such as being a mechanic or a dish washer.

It's not exactly a "like", more of me trying to earn a living. But I do enjoy what I'm doing.

What are your thoughts on the hawker scene in Singapore?

I feel that it is okay, but the only thing I worry about is the hygiene. The stall is so small, how do they manage to keep it clean?

Do you cook at home?

I do sometimes when I'm free. I'll make home fare, nothing stylish, more of comfort food.

I also cook for occasions such as New Year or Christmas for my family, which comprise about 30 people back in Britain.

This article was first published on May 25, 2014.
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