Hong Kong might be the only city in the world where the accountants are celebrities. For Roger Lee certainly, it’s the story of his life. Lee was the numbers guy to Hong Kong’s film industry for decades, working for Shaw Brothers, Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop and Golden Harvest. All that changed in 2011, however, when his first screenplay, A Simple Life, was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival and he was thrust into the limelight. Directed by Ann Hui, the film stars Andy Lau and Deanie Ip as the odd couple formed in real life by Lee and his ageing amah, Tao Jie, at a critical juncture in their lives, when the one was struggling to make a name in movie producing and the other was beginning to need her employer’s care for the first time.
This month, the now 73-year-old Lee, who modestly concedes that the film made him a “half-public figure,” shares an earlier chapter of his life, this time on the Hong Kong Repertory stage, in All Good Things. Like A Simple Life, where Tao Jie’s steadfast devotion to Lee’s family is counterpointed by a capricious movie industry, in All Good Things, Lee takes his tentative first steps in film production as the ambitions of another Hong Kong working class — restaurant workers — decline. Lee had a front row seat to that trajectory at his uncle’s famed Orchid Garden restaurant in the 1970s and 1980s.
Lee speaks about his career in the precise English diction that one might expect from a Certified Public Accountant; he majored in accounting at the University of Oregon before working his first job at the Singer sewing company’s headquarters in New York City. When he reminisces about the heyday of Orchid Garden, however, his face flushes with nostalgia for a bygone era.
The 1970s and 1980s were the golden age of what he calls an “irreplaceable” Cantonese cuisine, and Orchid Garden was a favorite of Hong Kong cinema royalty like Bruce Lee and Run Run Shaw who came for flag fish (saam1 dou1 三刀) and ricebirds (wo4 zoek3 禾雀), both now extinct from restaurant menus. More importantly for the success of the restaurant, those Hong Kong stars sometimes brought even bigger international idols like American actors Charles Bronson and Danny Kaye.
Lee was a learner in those days, lending a hand anywhere it was needed but mostly mixing cocktails behind the bar, an excellent vantage point from which to observe the famous clientele. He recalls that Bruce Lee’s regular appearances with the actress Betty Ting Pei were part and parcel of the general buzz — “he wasn’t rude to anybody in the restaurant, just arrogant” — but Kaye’s visit left a lasting impression on the accountant in him. “Because of his trip to Asia, he wanted to cook Cantonese food back in San Francisco. Did you know that?” he asks excitedly. “He recommended Orchid Garden as the best Cantonese restaurant in the world!”
Kaye was a household name in the US in those years and the original UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, in which capacity he toured Asia and visited Hong Kong. His obsession with Orchid Garden became a lucrative endorsement when Newsweek featured the restaurant on its cover. “Business picked up from that,” Lee sighs with satisfaction.
Orchid Garden knew several iterations over its 60 years of operation, starting on Des Voeux Road in 1926, then settling for nine years at its most famous location, on Hankow Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, in 1970. That was the restaurant Lee discovered when he returned to Hong Kong from Oregon in the summer of 1973. After three years in the psychedelic counterculture that infused American university campuses during the Vietnam War, his homecoming sparked an epiphany, which he still remembers with some surprise. “I was in culture shock coming back to my roots and finding out there were so many things I didn’t know about Hong Kong. Everyone was very down to earth and working so hard to make ends meet whereas everything was well provided in the United States,” he says.
That younger, wide-eyed Roger is the narrator of All Good Things as the restaurant’s destiny moves from the frying pan into the fire: at first catering to the tastes of its famous patrons, then reckoning with a swiftly modernising industry that had no room for mom and pop, white linen Cantonese restaurants.
Lee can still list in detail the reasons for Orchid Garden’s failure, from the introduction of credit cards and foreign cuisines to the expectation of printed menus and all around sleeker packaging. When the luxury hotels opened Chinese restaurants of their own, however, it rang a death knell for Orchid Garden. “A big hotel restaurant attracted the movie stars and VIPs,” Lee explains. “It was more prestigious than a small Cantonese restaurant on a side street even though the food was much better there.”
Lee’s uncle refused to modernise the restaurant in any way, preferring to close the business with enough savings to pay his staff a reasonable severance rather than invest that money in improvements. Roger disagreed, and the resulting tension drives the play’s second act. “In the 70s, [Orchid Garden] was supposed to be a very nicely decorated restaurant but by the 80s it was getting old,” Lee remembers. “It was just out of style.”
What the changing industry couldn’t alter however was the sense of community among Orchid Garden’s staff, from chefs to busboys and even the dessert ladies who sold their sweet soups to restaurants (women were not allowed in commercial kitchens at the time). It was standard practice then for restaurants to provide workers with dormitory-style living quarters, to spare them the commute back to homes in the New Territories after a long night. Lee’s impetus to write the play came from his discovery, 30 years after the restaurant closed, that this tightly knit family of some 50 people, all in their 80s and 90s by then, still gathered for a meal every year. He invited them to yum cha and set to work interviewing each one.
After the death of a cousin, Lee also recovered all of Orchid Garden’s remaining memorabilia. Along with the journal he kept in 1973, it was enough material to write a screenplay. As he did for A Simple Life, he approached Ann Hui again, but this time her response was a categorical no.
Over his long career, Lee went on to produce many movies, including Hui’s Summer Snow (1995), Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time in China (1991), and John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008). He says he understood her doubts that the movie would be profitable, due to the technical costs of recreating Hong Kong in the 1970s and a diminishing market for stories like his: “Box office records show that younger people don’t want to watch nostalgia movies, especially young people in China, and the main market now is China,” he explains with a disabused matter-of-factness. “Why would anyone there care about the 1970s in Hong Kong? They couldn’t understand the situation or even relate to all the things happening.”
His “nostalgia movie” found a more sympathetic audience in Hong Kong Repertory’s Artistic Director Anthony Chan, for whom All Good Things will be his final production before retiring at the end of this season, after two decades with the company. “I find a connection with myself,” Chan says of All Good Things when he joins the interview at Hong Kong Rep’s offices in the Sheung Wan Civic Centre following a rehearsal. “I feel like Hong Kong keeps changing and old traditional values are disappearing. It’s a good time for my generation to at least celebrate a little bit of our own traditional ways.”
Lee agrees: “They say that nostalgia is a kind of depression over what’s happening in the present. If I compare what happened before with what’s happening now, I always prefer the world that existed in the past, when my choices and interpersonal relations were simple. Now everything is defined by money in Hong Kong, but it was a more endearing community at that time.”
An ode to a sepia-toned age that may be more imaginary than real — the 1980s also saw the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set the conditions for the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997 and sent packing hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents — All Good Things does however tell a story that younger generations might relate to: the challenge for hopeful artists looking to buck parental preferences for traditional careers in medicine, law and finance. Accounting got Lee’s foot in the door at film studios (“I was a very good accountant!” he says several times during the interview), but like anyone with a creative vision, he needed someone who believed in him. That person was his uncle.
“Until the day he died, he was the only person who thought I might have a chance at filmmaking and that’s what the play is about. I was losing my direction and he was losing his direction, too. Both of our careers were faltering, and that’s how we managed to have a bond. But he always encouraged me to go ahead with my dreams. For that, I owe him a lot.”
Shortly before our interview began, an entire class of what looked like Secondary 4 students in blue and white uniforms had filed noisily out of the Civic Centre into the bustle of Sheung Wan, smartphones in hand and looking relieved that their visit, whatever its purpose, was over. Can All Good Things speak to young Hongkongers like these?
Chan answers from his years of experience as a theatre director: “People have lost faith in the future and want to move away. [The play] resonates to this situation. If you read between the lines, you can feel that nowadays the situation is so similar. The backstory is different but the feeling of leaving and coming back is the same. The world is changing. How do we face it, how do we accept it?”
All Good Things will be his last story, Lee reveals in parting; writing takes time, he says, and unlike the young Roger, “I don’t have too many years to look forward to!” Yet clearly, this accountant hasn’t stopped dreaming.
All Good Things runs from March 11 to 26, 2023. Click here for more information.