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Saturday March 24, 2012

In the swing of London

IF you’re a Malaysian in London, you’re likely to have heard of Rasa Sayang, the cafe in Macclesfield Street that satiates those craving nasi lemak, prawn mee or sotong kangkung.

Chances are you would even have glimpsed cafe owner Teddy Chen there, a 69-year-old Chinese man who usually sits on his own with a newspaper, tucking into a steaming bowl of sar hor fun. But it’s very unlikely that you’d know he used to party with Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney in the 1970s.

“Those days I wasn’t aware how far I’d risen. People used to chase me to give me tapes. I was the only Chinese executive in EMI Records,” says Chen.

He was the international administration manager in the licensing department and was responsible for sub-licensing artiste’s rights to third parties worldwide.

But how did a young man from Ipoh end up in swinging London, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kate Bush, Sheena Easton and Olivia Newton-John?

Chen: The owner of Rasa Sayang in London.

Chen puts it down to Asian hospitality – being more welcoming and attentive to others – and his talent for approaching and talking to anyone.

He explains: “One night, Diana Ross came into the office and the receptionist, who didn’t know she was Diana Ross, told her she had to wait. She lost her temper. I went up to her, said ‘Hi’ and brought her up to see the MD immediately. These small things, it’s just me being me. Other people might not bother.”

Similarly he took Duran Duran to dinner in Soho because they were hungry, even though he wasn’t in A&R (Artists & Repertoire, the division responsible for discovering new talent and overseeing their development).

It was this can-do attitude that got him to England to begin with.

In 1964, at the age of 22, he bought a one-way plane ticket from Kuala Lumpur to London.

According to Chen, his friends in Ipoh had begun leaving Malaysia to study overseas, and he decided to do the same even though he wasn’t academic and wanted to be a politician or a businessman.

He arrived in late October without a coat and just £10 (RM50) in his pocket.

Luckily, he had accommodation; the floor in his friends’ flat in West Hampstead.

“What surprised me was finding my friends driving fancy cars like Maseratis, Triumphs, Jaguars and Alfa Romeos. They were supposed to go to college and study, but they all slept late every day,” he chuckles.

As he didn’t have family wealth to fall back on, Chen found himself a job as a clerk by the third day of his landing.

It was several years later, when he was a clerk at the Performing Rights Society, which administers the performing rights of composers’, songwriters’ and music publishers’ music, that he began his 15-year career in the music industry.

Chen is very much settled in the UK now, but it wasn’t smooth sailing from the beginning.

“Being a Chinese-Malaysian in London in the 1970s, you felt out of place, definitely. You went into a club, there might be people calling you names.

“My character is such that I make sure I go up and talk to people, I’m not shy. Many people will try not to mix with you because you’re different.

“But I make sure that it’s not me who’s got the problem. I will engage you and become friends,” he says.

Today, Chen’s outgoing nature keeps him in touch with his wealthy, and now powerful, boyhood friends who returned to Malaysia after their studies and Rasa Sayang regularly hosts senior corporate and government figures visiting London.

One has to ask, since he’s so well-connected, whether he, and his children, would have had better opportunities if he’d stayed in Malaysia.

Chen shrugs and offers a philosophical view, “If I had stayed, I might have done much better because I knew, and still know, a lot of people in Malaysia. But I can’t say, it’s what the Cantonese call meng sui (fate), you’ve got to accept it.”

He continues, “People wondered what I was doing in the music industry. In those days you became an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor. But I liked singing, and I liked music.”

Of course, he believes there are benefits to staying in his adopted country too. For instance, the freedom to express one’s opinion.

“Here you can do almost anything, it doesn’t matter how controversial you are.

“Your liberty is not being denied, you don’t have to sacrifice your opinion. Here, you can have representation if you disagree with the government, you can talk to them,” Chen said.

He also likes the orderly manner in which businesses are set up and conducted.

“You follow the rules and you’ll get there. You must have money, the right people, the right lawyer, the right licence, the right forms. In Malaysia, there may be reasons to block your application but it’s not always orderly and not always clear why an application is rejected.”

Chen owns other food outlets in London: Noodles Oodles in Queensway, Rasa Sayang Express in Oxford Street and Lotus Leaf in Westfield Stratford, which opened in September 2011.

He relishes the fierce competition, both in bustling Chinatown and in Westfield shopping mall, where one has to be invited to set up shop.

“It’s not easy to get in but if you proceed accordingly, you can succeed,” he adds.

As for his children, he says he will not stop them if they want to return to Malaysia.

He thinks there are opportunities for them in business, but less so if it involves working for a corporation or a government agency.

He says he would advise them.

“Within two to three years, if you don’t have the opportunity to reach the highest level despite your ability, then you know you haven’t achieved what you intended.”

He recognises though, that fortunes have turned and that the world is now looking to the East for money and power, no longer the West.

“If I was a 20-year-old in Malaysia today, I would go to Hong Kong or Beijing or Shanghai. In fact, many of my daughter’s British friends are learning Mandarin and heading to China,” he adds.

For himself though, that ship sailed a long time ago.

“At my age, it doesn’t really concern me if I’m living in a ‘sunset’ country. My friends have said I’m stupid for not returning to Malaysia.

“In the 1970s a friend did ask me to run one of his businesses in Malaysia. I told him I would never work for a friend. I think that upset him. But that’s me.”

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