A living legend

Veteran chef Wong Ling Soon cooks up dishes from yesteryear. — Photos: MUHAMAD SHAHRIL ROSLI/The Star

At 76, veteran chef Wong Ling Soon’s eyes still sparkle and his skin has a rosy hue that he attributes to double-boiled soups and collagen from the fin of a certain fish.

Add to that his phenomenal rags-to-riches life journey, and you have a living legend.

Wong, or Ah Soon Kor as he is fondly known, has worked 60 years in 60 restaurants, and owned six Rasa Sayang Restaurants which were known for his dishes with abalones, shark’s fin, lobster, prized so mei (humphead wrasse) and other high-end ingredients.

In the 1970s, he was dubbed the “King of Cantonese cuisine”. He has since divested himself of all the restaurants, but is still up for the occasional engagement, consulting and curating menus, imparting his skills to younger chefs.

We met for the interview (conducted in Cantonese) at Noble Mansion in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. He was there to present Ah Soon Kor’s Menu, showcasing his popular dishes before 2000.

Wong, widely known as Ah Soon Kor, talking animatedly.Wong, widely known as Ah Soon Kor, talking animatedly.

He was born second in a poor family of 10 children in Kampar, Perak. At age 12, his uncle bought him a train ticket to Singapore to work in a restaurant there. His eldest brother was already working in a dim sum coffeeshop in Kampar.

In Singapore, he did odd jobs in a Shanghainese restaurant for a year before heading back to Kuala Lumpur where he worked at a Shanghainese restaurant in Malaysia Hotel in Bukit Bintang. He soon graduated to cutting vegetables, assembling ingredients and passing the cooked dishes to the server.

By 14, he was allowed to handle the wok and worked in the kitchen for the owner’s penthouse gatherings. His pay then was RM150 but his service points came up to RM300, which added up to a princely sum of RM450 in total.

“A bottle of XO brandy then cost RM40, and I bought one for my father. He was so happy!” said Wong.

He then worked in two Hakka restaurants before moving to a Cantonese restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, at the request of his Singapore sifu (master).

Keen to learn more, he kept changing restaurants in the Klang Valley for two years, and then moved to Penang before he returned to Kuala Lumpur at the top of his game – the first cutter.

“By then, it was May 13 (1969) and I became a hawker selling Hainanese chicken rice and Hokkien noodles at my own stall in Imbi. There were lots of gamblers and swindlers there. But no one asked me for money.”

He gained experience too working as a chef in a Shanghainese restaurant in Penang. After a year, he was back in Kuala Lumpur, cooking Cantonese food in various well-known restaurants such as Kum Leng, Mak Yee, Lee Wong Kee and Lok Yuen.

“I know all the sifu there and learnt from them,” he says.

When he went to Ipoh for a year to open a restaurant for his uncle, he came up with two popular dishes – Baked Salted Chicken and Salted Fish Fried Beehoon.

His other colourful accounts included working in Winners Restaurant in Genting Highlands and helping two ailing restaurants in Kuala Lumpur.

“I got RM400 to RM500 in pay, and lots of tips from gamblers in Genting!”

He also recalled how business improved in the second restaurant, but he only received two oranges and a RM10 ang pow during Chinese New Year. I left and their business went down.”

He also had a six-month stint in Thai Thong in Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur and later, he helped to open Marco Polo in 1976.

“I was earning RM4,500 then. The owner, Datuk Lim Foo Yong, let me stay in Hong Kong for a month to upgrade my skills. He employed two Hong Kong chefs to work under me and asked them to take me around,” said Wong.

After five years, he left to open a number of Rasa Sayang restaurants. His biggest project (located where Berjaya Times Square Kuala Lumpur is now) had more than 30 tables downstairs and nine rooms upstairs, and he led a team of 50 people.

Business was good and after three years, he opened another Rasa Sayang Restaurant in Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya, which was a huge success.

Chef Soon Kor Sharksfin Restaurant opened in Bukit Bintang and attracted big spenders who would order lobsters, so mei, shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

“My Soon Kor Wat Tan Hor (flat rice noodles) had abalone, udang galah and scallops in it!” he shared.

There was a short-lived restaurant in Sunway; a Rasa Sayang at Berjaya Hotel in Penang; and another one in Crystal Crown Hotel in Petaling Jaya which stayed open for over 30 years; as well as one in Klang near the Hokkien Association building.

“In all, I’ve opened eight or nine restaurants. I’m semi-retired now but I’m still asked to be consultant in the opening of restaurants. I’ve worked with Copper Mansion, Kingdom in Taman Mutiara, and Youmiqi in Jalan Kelang Lama. I still do menu consultation with Genting during the weekends.”

The chef now has four grown children and leads a quiet, peaceful life.

“I like to watch news and food-related programmes on TV. My chef friends are few as I’ve scolded them before,” he said with a laugh.

Reckon Wong won’t be going into full retirement any time soon.

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