Last orders at Portia’s restaurant
Some 27 Liberal MPs were eating at a restaurant in the Canberra suburb of Kingston last Wednesday when frontbencher Christopher Pyne rose to start a rousing rendition of For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.
There also were speeches, the main one from shadow attorney general George Brandis, and offers of assistance from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey.
The centre of attention was restaurant owner Portia Yeung, who stood by embarrassed, giggling into her hands as is her nervous habit.
“Whatever you want we’ll get it for you,” said Mr Abbott.
“How about a safe seat,” Ms Yeung joked.
Portia would have done well in politics, but she has another calling.
On Thursday night she will leave her restaurant for the last time. She started it in October, 1996 but now has sold it.
She wants to study at a Bible college in Oxfordshire, Britain, for a year, and then become a Baptist missionary near the Chinese border with Tibet.
She wants to drop her job as Canberra’s most accomplished restaurant hostess to teach English and spread the Gospel in a place dominated by communists, Moslems and Bhuddists.
Formerly from Hong Kong, Portia was widowed and left to raise her daughter Marion – now a university student— when her Australian husband died of skin cancer.
She had to work hard, first opening a restaurant at Queanbeyan. However, for the past 15 years her Canberra restaurant Portia’s Place has been a political clubhouse for many working in the large building on the hill nearby.
Her timing was superb. She opened the restaurant in a converted antique shop just when members of the new Howard government were looking for a place to eat and play. Labor MPs had the Tang Dynasty down the road (it has since closed) and so the Liberals picked Portia’s.
But not just Liberals sat at her tables. She remembers the first Liberal who did was Brian Gibson. Warren Snowdon was the first Labor MP (he calls her Sister) and Paul Neville the first National.
Portia kept them coming back. She remembered what they like to eat and sometimes made notes of preferences on the back pages of a diary she used to record bookings.
Often she didn’t bother to put out menus. The food simply turned up in front of regular customers soon after they sat down.
That meant, she says, the MPs, staffers and journalists could talk privately without being interrupted by waiters taking orders.
“And I watch the 4.30 news before I come to work so I know what to say and what not to say,’’ she told me over lunch yesterday.
So, Tony Abbott loves the duck pancakes, and likes the bones left in a dish on the table so he can flense them.
Malcolm Turnbull likes dumplings. Wayne Swan will have a light beer and maybe two glasses of wine, but rarely more.
Before she was Prime Minister, Julia Gillard regularly arrived on Sunday night in trackie pants to pick up a take-away, usually shang-tung lamb with steamed broccoli. Portia would keep a chef on late to make sure the broccoli was fresh.
If a political heavyweight booked a table and a rival later called with a booking, Portia would quietly let them know the other side would also be dining there, and give them the option of going somewhere else.
Her discretion went further. One midnight she was locking up when she saw a four wheel drive pull up outside. The driver, a minister of the Crown, and his female companion, not his wife, commenced a torrid snogging session in the front seat.
Portia was so embarrassed she fled to the kitchen at the rear of her restaurant and stayed there until the couple had cooled down.
Her kindness is extraordinary.
In 2007 Herald Sun journalist Michael Harvey was at the side of his wife, fellow journalist Cynthia Banham, as she recovered in a Perth hospital from terrible burns inflicted during a plane crash in Indonesia.
Portia and Marion flew to Perth to deliver Michael’s favourite dish of shang-tung lamb, and King Island pepper steak.
In March this year Portia attended a speech from a missionary visiting her church. He told the audience that if they had a degree, were financially independent, over age 50 , spoke Chinese and could travel, they should take up missionary work.
I can tick all those boxes, she recalls thinking. But she wanted to know if God really meant her to change her life and she thought she had a sure test.
“It’s hard to sell a Chinese restaurant so I said, God, bet you can’t get a buyer for my place quickly. Bet you can’t,’ she told me.
Two weeks later a group of three investors turned up with a proposition to buy her out. Further, a friend she had not seen for years sent her a package of information about Bible colleges in Britain. She hadn’t asked for it.
“I was really scared. It’s was like God was telling me to do it,’’ she said.
So on May 27 she sold the restaurant and used much of the money to look after long-serving staff.
“There wasn’t much left for the old girl,’’ she said laughing.
And on Thursday it all ends.
“I have been so blessed,” she told me. “I want to share the grace. I have met so many people they are family to me. It is a blessing.”
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