Pizza Always Takes Me Back to My Hong Kong Childhood

FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Pizza Always Takes Me Back to My Hong Kong Childhood

How my dad's obsession with an American pizza chain impacted my childhood.

My dad can't go to a restaurant without trying to calculate it as a business. It's a really uncomfortable experience. He'll sit there and look at how many tables there are, how many waiters there are, what people are ordering, and start to guess what the turnover of the restaurant might be.

A lot of people go to restaurants for the experience: to enjoy the food and the whole setting of being together with their families. For us, if we're not eating at home, it becomes this whole other thing where you're not even talking about food. You're talking about business.

Advertisement

The author's mother and father (right). All photos courtesy of the author.

A big part of my dad's identity is that he's a cultural revolution refugee. He's actually from Swatow in southern China, and his family— he's the second youngest of six—owned a garment factory in China where they were Baptists (my great grandfather was a Baptist minister). Basically, everyone who didn't leave in time when the cultural revolution took over was sent to concentration camps and forced to perform hard labor, stuff like that.

So he came to Hong Kong with his family when he was 9 years old, where they lived with 15 people in one room. His whole experience of starting life having money, and then having absolutely nothing has had a really intense impact on my dad.

Now he looks at everything as a business, as a way to make money, and he's had so many different careers in his life. That's who my dad is.

He came to the US in his mid-twenties and even lived in New York for a little while—he's been going to this restaurant called Oriental Garden since the 70s. At one point, my dad had a job in New York trying to start up Singapore Airlines as a travel agent. They sent him from Hong Kong to New York and he started by renting a desk somewhere on Mott Street in an old bank off the park. Some of his friends had bought the bank and turned it into a funeral parlor, and he worked in the basement where the vault was. He said the vault was also where they used to clean out the bodies and prep them for Chinese funerals.

Advertisement

Anyway, around that time, he traveled around through New York and the States and at some point went to California. He very much embodies the American dream: this idea of hunting for opportunity and the possibility of making something of yourself even when you come from nothing. Everywhere he went, he saw all these popular chain restaurants and he really fell in love with the thought of bringing an American chain restaurant back to Hong Kong.

So he came across Numero Uno, which is like a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza chain, or the equivalent of a TGI Friday's for pizza. And he got his mind set on bringing it back to Hong Kong.

And he did it! It was around the late 80s or early 90s when he did it, and Domino's pizza hadn't come out yet. There was no Pizza Hut, but he opened about six or seven Numero Uno chains. It was absolutely the first pizza chain in Hong Kong.

The author at her own birthday pizza party.

Most of my birthday parties up until I was six or something were all at his pizza restaurants. As a kid, we went to Chinese international school, and my dad was one of the vendors that sold pizza at school fairs. I would go with my mom and set up the booth and hang out while they served pizzas.

The thing is that in Hong Kong today, maybe that kind of stuff works now, but back then, the city was totally cash-based so chains and corporations weren't a thing. At the time, the chain model didn't fit with what was going on in the city.

Advertisement

So then one of the first things that happened when my dad opened his first Numero Uno was when all of the triad gang members started showing up, demanding protection money. I remember my parents talking about this a lot: triads would come and fill up the whole restaurant when it opened, one person to a table, and drink a single soda, all day for weeks until protection money was paid. They would insist all staff hiring would happen through them.

He opened all these pizza restaurants with this real American dream in mind, thinking they would all be a hit. And it was just one nightmare after another for him. Even all the food had to be ordered from the United States. Sometimes it would come in late or the chefs would alter the recipes.

At his peak, he probably had seven Numero Unos. He had them for about five years, and at the end, it sort of drove him nuts so he closed them down by the time I was seven. Anyways, he had already started a commodities trading business with his friends that turned out to be quite successful.

Nowadays, Hong Kong is a very different city. He sees other chain restaurants taking off in Hong Kong and China and he loves it. You know that restaurant, Pret A Manger? He's absolutely obsessed with it. I mean he could probably eat there and talk about it everyday. He can't believe how consistent it is no matter where you go in the world and what you get for the price… don't even get me started.

Advertisement

When the Umbrella Revolution was happening, people camped out on the highways and blocked all the roads. My dad's office is on Queens Road, so he would walk out to the protest site every day with his secretary and they would buy McDonald's lunches, like 50 of them, and walk around handing them out to people. He loves seeing young people getting out there and doing things.

These days, my brother and I have such a funny relationship to pizza. I don't eat it regularly, but if I do, it's with my brother. My brother went through a really big pizza phase when he first moved to New York. We'd go out to Di Fara randomly, like I'd skip work in the afternoon and meet him. No joke, we've driven to Connecticut before to go to that pizza restaurant, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana for a white clam pizza. I think I've done that twice.

My dad fucking hates it. It's not nostalgic for him at all. He totally hates pizza. He's also a fitness addict at this point in his life—he works out every day. So he finds it totally disgusting. But me and my brother, we really love pizza. It's very much a family thing, or at least that's how me and my brother feel about pizza.


As told to Charley Lanyon. Sarah Law launched KARA the handbag label in New York City in 2013.