A ‘golden’ era for the Chung family
Last month saw the first ever Chinese New Year celebrations held in Glasgow’s George Square – a colourful spectacular featuring dragon and lion dancing, fire crackers and oriental dancers.
More than 1,000 people braved the wind and rain to mark the start of the year of the Monkey and, despite the terrible weather forcing organisers to finish early, it was a huge success.
Those born in the year of the Monkey are said to be enthusiastic achievers who are able to influence people – both characteristics which could be attributed to Andy Chung, owner of the city’s Amber Regent restaurant and a key player, as chairman of the Scottish Chinese New Year Celebration Association, in bringing the recent festivities to our streets.
Andy (67) was actually born in 1947 – the year of the pig – which makes him noble and chivalrous, according to Chinese folklore.
He came to Glasgow from Hong Kong when he was 19 and built a successful family business from scratch, pioneering the introduction of classical Chinese cuisine and opening a string of restaurants and take-away outlets across the city.
Today his two daughters, Christina (42) and Angie (35) run the acclaimed Amber Regent together, while Andy, who is now semi-retired, remains on hand ‘just in case’ they wish to call on his years of experience in the trade.
He says, “I had a cousin here and some friends but it was just luck really, that I chose Glasgow. At the time, there were very few Chinese in Scotland and people would look at us as though we had come from the sky, as though we were aliens.”
“My generation were self-reliant, we had spirit and we worked very hard. Back then the Chinese community never went anywhere. They just worked, worked, worked – 12 hours a day, seven days a week with maybe just a half day off when you went to the casino.”
Andy opened his first restaurant in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, with a cousin in 1972. Two years later, in 1974, he opened Amber on Byres Road, in Glasgow’s west end. At first, he served simple food – like Chinese chicken curry, chop-suey and foo-yung – and he was also the first person in Scotland to offer a home delivery service.
But he soon realised his customers were not using the restaurant in the same way as other places – and resolved to try and change that.
He says, “At the time Italian restaurants were very popular and I wanted to work out why people never used us for special occasions – they weren’t coming for a night out, to celebrate or anything. The bars were only open until 10 pm and I realised people were coming to us to fill their stomachs. The food was not important to them and they would be drinking more and arguing and swearing – it was not good. I saw what was happening and decided to do something different so I changed the whole menu to focus on quality, presentation and taste. I wanted to bring more traditional, classic Chinese cuisine to Scotland.”
The pioneering move, in 1980, also saw him carry out a major refurbishment of the restaurant. Out went the simple decor and Chinese lanterns and in came a plush new look to match his upmarket menu.
Spurred on by the success of his bold venture, Andy opened up another restaurant, the Amber Royale, in Argyle Street, Glasgow in 1985.
He recalls, “It was a complete refurbishment, everything from the decor through to the crockery. I wanted it to be really special.”
“It was a completely new menu – steamed fish, scallops, beef mandarin and aromatic crispy duck. For the first time, customers had to book a table up to three weeks in advance.”
Three years later, in 1988, he opened Amber Regent, on West Regent Street. Andy says that amber features in the names of his venues because of its importance in Chinese culture. Linked to the green stone jade, it is also believed to be lucky – and in Andy’s case, it certainly seems to be.
The Amber Regent was a suite of empty offices when he took it on and it was a massive project even by his previous standards.
He explains, “I employed a designer to turn the space into a restaurant. The whole thing cost more than £450,000 by the time it was finished – which was a huge amount of money, especially in those days.
The restaurant was soon popular with a raft of professionals, from lawyers and accountants to oil executives. Old Firm footballers and global superstars – including singers Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, rapper 50 Cent, and Celebrity Big Brother star David Gest – have also eaten there. The venue, which seats around 90 people, is currently the family’s only restaurant but there is enough work to keep both Andy’s daughters busy.
Christina, who has two daughters, studied hotel management before teaming up with her father 20 years ago. Her younger sister Angie, who is getting married later this year, studied microbiology at Glasgow University and has been at the restaurant for almost ten years.
Andy, who also has two sons, Vance (43), an acclaimed DJ, and IT worker Martin (39), with his wife Elaine (62) jokes, “My daughters don’t want to be like me you see, working all the time, so they share the role and work three or four days a week each instead.
“They have plenty of time off – they are the new generation, they want a comfortable life. Many of the younger generation now are not working in restaurants – they are professionals, doctors, lawyers and accountants.
“It is not difficult to find a job but salaries are not always good, whereas in a family business you get financial support and the satisfaction of working together. I just keep it all right and am here to help if something happens.”
The Amber Regent specialises in Cantonese cuisine, with ingredients like seafood and vegetables cooked quickly and simply.
Andy explains, “Cantonese cooking comes from the south of China, where there are lots of fresh ingredients so you don’t have to use a lot of spice. The food is quite plain and steamed or quick fried – but it is quality because it is so fresh. In northern China it’s very cold, so they use frozen meat, frozen vegetables so they use a lot more spices to bring out flavours, and the food is greasier, to help keep the body warm.”
He adds, “Chinese people eat everything from an animal – but here if you give people a plate of crispy duck 99 % of them will peel the skin off. You have to think about it and choose food that is suitable for the customer. The eating culture is different here but I wouldn’t change it.”
Change is something Andy knows a bit about. Not only has he made significant changes to the way people eat Chinese food in Glasgow but he has also witnessed a great deal of change over the course of a career in the restaurant trade spanning almost 50 years.
Andy says, “Number one is definitely the drink drive law, which has had an impact on the business, and the smoking ban too but the economy has changed and that has also affected us. Before the recession, people would go out for dinner and claim the expenses back but they have to pay out of their own pocket now.”
“Some of the major firms moved through to Edinburgh when Holyrood was set up and Glasgow is not as busy as it used to be. The growth of technology has affected us too. People can work from home and have face to face meetings over the internet – they don’t need to come into town to do that anymore.”
“The customer now is completely different – a lot more families and older people. The golden time used to be 8 pm and I would have customers here until 3 am. They would stay here all night and keep drinking – brandy, coffee. Now people come in at 5 pm, they finish their meal and go home.”
Andy might not be working 12 hour days any more but he is not sitting about with his feet up either. He took up golf at 43 and got his handicap down to ten and while he admits it has slipped a bit, he still plays regularly and is chairman of the European Chinese Golf Association.
His latest venture – the New Year celebrations in George Square – came about because he felt Glasgow was being outdone by other UK cities.
He says, “Scotland has a long history and cultural traditions of its own, as well as a welcoming attitude towards incomers. We felt that a bigger celebration in Glasgow would be appropriate to welcome in the year of the Monkey and to promote harmony between the two communities. Hopefully, it will grow and grow.”
He adds with a rueful smile, “And maybe the rain will hold off next year.”