This video production is to pay tribute to the late Mr Kenneth Lo for his contribution to the development of Chinese food in the U.K. Preface written by Dr Vivienne Lo, Mr Kenneth Lo's daughter.
You want me to talk about food, migration, and my father. His Memories of China? What can I say? They say ‘home is where the heart is’. But what if you have no home? Where is your heart then?
I always thought my father ate his way home. If you consume your nostalgia, it sits kind of comfortably inside, digesting slowly in your belly. His memories were not flickering stills from a cinematic strip; they fired on all senses. After leaving Yanjing University in Beijing in 1936 he never saw his mother again, nor did he see his elder brother Charles (Luo Xiachao) for over twenty years of the civil war and the early years of Communist China. Those emotions that accompanied loss were too painful to express, perhaps even to feel – and why would you do that, when you could hold them with you, somewhere between your heart and your stomach?
It was the all-pervasive aromas and flavours of the familiar places they grew up in that made life tolerable: the synaesthetic sizzling of Sichuan pepper in hot oil, the smarting of the eyes, the simultaneously nasal and high-pitched spice, the numbness creeping around your mouth; it was the stickiness of soya and sesame paste noodles, with crunchy scallions or fresh coriander, the smell of the boats lapped by the lilting water of the Min river; the pink and white mounds of crab shells in the autumn, the clear steaming baskets of fragrant buns stuffed with pork and mushrooms in the morning, the persimmons turned to sorbet in the winter in Beijing.
Rather than dwell on the tragedies and loss in political struggles and the family diaspora, that whole generation of cousins (and the aunties, sixth aunty once removed, her mother’s sister’s cousin by marriage, their children’s wives and husbands…) – the Los the Maos, the Weis, the whole web of them – carried with them an enchanted childhood, which, after all, was not a bad place to be. They were stuck in a Dream of Red Chambers; and like Bao Yu, my father was his step-grandmother’s favourite. The close family and the cousins spent their early days playing in the garden with the Moon Gate on the summit of Yantai hill on the island in the middle of the river south of Fuzhou city. Those were villas the foreign tea traders built, then were turned over to legations and bought up by diplomats. It was also in that garden that he learnt to love the kitchen, because it was there that Qingqing, the faithful chef and consummate storyteller, created lavish banquets for the Lo family who regularly invited local dignitaries and the relatives from far and wide to share their good fortune. Each banquet was multi-layered, beginning with a welcoming chicken consommé, and followed by elegant dishes of oysters, bean curd, and seafood from the Min River. On the old ancestress’ birthday the house was alive with orchids and chrysanthemums and local players would put on performances of Fuzhou folk tales.
It was all the more fabulous because in the wings of that dream were the shades of its own destruction. Great excitement for small boys came with the warlords who brought to the garden their bodyguards with their Mausers; great fear at the Japanese hospitals, where routine tonsillectomies were performed without anaesthetic; and great fun at the Japanese legation next door, which held children’s parties. Troops joining the Northern Expedition in 1927 passed by the garden wall on their way to Shanghai, where the Communist and Nationalist armies were violently rent apart. Twenty years later it was all over. Lo Lodge, as their home was called, was requisitioned by the Liberation army, to be pulled down within a few years.
After the revolution the family were flung to all corners of the earth, some to become captains of industry and commerce, others destined to a life on the streets, yet others to die violently. By then my father had graduated in English from Cambridge, and was working in the Chinese consulate in Liverpool. That was his short-lived attempt to follow in the family footsteps into the diplomatic service. But during the civil war, who would you be a diplomat for? And in any case, no one working in the overseas consulates ever got paid at that time.
His main work at that time was to look after the gangs of Chinese seaman that had joined the war effort and lived in Manchester and Liverpool. Sailors from the same village lived together in houses which came to be identified by the informal restaurants that they ran from their kitchens, the first regional Chinese food in England. Food was the best kind of diplomacy, as he proved when he successfully negotiated an entente between the Caribbean and Chinese gangs running prostitution in the city, over a Chinese meal. Little did he know that he was to fulfil the family tradition and become Britain’s most successful cultural ambassador for China. For it was over ten years later, when he was already in his early forties, that he began his long career in cookery writing, which was to change the culinary habits of people up and down the UK.
It wasn’t until after the opening of Memories of China in Chelsea in the 80s that dad once again, for a moment, felt that his life was secure. The food and money flowed, his books were selling well, his TV shows and cookery school gave him the credit that he deserved, and in party after party we celebrated his ever increasing gang of grandchildren. It must all have been reminiscent of his early years in Fuzhou. But he was no business man or lover of hard work. With Chef But he created an innovative menu that seems to have become a standard of middle to top range Chinese restaurants in Europe, and he must have turned out more than forty books. Nevertheless new found fortune was not to last out the decade. The expensive second restaurant in Chelsea Harbour, and the third in the Algarve ran up against the major recession of the early 90s and, once again, my father was left struggling to survive.
When I was ghost-writing his autobiography I proposed the title ‘The Feast of My Life’. My father was initially irritated by it. He thought it sounded as though life had always been easy because he had been born with silver chopsticks in his mouth. In fact, I was referring to all the culinary experiences that had made up his life, and suggesting a way to end the book. He could never finish his own drafts, because of the implication that it would end his life. But we did ultimately enjoy that feast that I had imagined on the day the book was published. It was his eightieth birthday and the chefs at Memories of China recreated all the delicacies that he had loved throughout his life, and which represented all the people and places that he carried inside him.
Remembering my father is like being forever caught in the smile of a sunny day. From the very first vision of him clicking through the gate where I was a child in Belsize Park and strolling up the garden path with the promise of presents, to the dog roses and rosehips he leaves me in Winter by his graveside in Highgate. It’s unbearable to think that he’s gone, but then he hasn’t really gone. I smell him in fresh tobacco smoke, in the warm sweet aroma of someone who only showered after tennis in Hurlingham and lives around Chinese food (he hardly sweated so it was a nice smell). I hear his gentle low chortling voice and dry humour rippling down the phone lines, his youthful but dry hands. I carry him inside when I eat too much red-cooked belly of pork and see him beaming with happiness and satisfaction when the table is laid for a celebration. And whatever happens in the Lo family, we can always find something to celebrate!
Dr Vivienne Lo is the third child of Mr Kenneth Lo. She is a Senior Lecturer in the History department at UCL where she researches and publishes extensively on the early and medieval history of Chinese Medicine, Sports, Exercise and Nutrition. She trained from her youth in Chinese medicine and the martial arts, before reading Chinese at Cambridge and SOAS. In 1997 she graduated with a PhD from SOAS. In her spare time she still helps the family run Memories of China and Teahouse Oriental in Portugal. She is married with four children and lives in Bloomsbury.