General Manager Gilbert Cheng is retiring in August and for many the club will never be quite the same. Sue Brattle went along for a chat.
The FCC will lose its memory this summer as it says goodbye to General Manager Gilbert “Tiger” Cheng, who is retiring after working at the club for 46 years.
For a man whose recall of names, faces, places and even membership numbers is legendary, getting information out of Gilbert isn’t easy. The blend of modesty and discretion that has made him such a great asset at the club all these years means he is uncomfortable when the spotlight is turned on him.
However, his trademark broad grin and explosive laugh soon shone through as he chatted about his childhood in Kowloon Tong and I innocently asked him whether he was a born-and-bred Hongkonger. “I am absolutely a Hong Kong boy,” he said. “School in Oxford Road, Kowloon Tong, a Boy Scout leader and influenced by my teacher, Tiger Wong.”
The young Gilbert aspired to be a policeman until someone pointed out that perhaps his personality wouldn’t suit the job. He tried his hand at several jobs before a neighbourhood friend, Mr Teddy Lai, introduced him to the FCC in 1972.
“Mr Lai had become the floor manager at the FCC in 1969. I started as a busboy as a summer job and never thought I would stay for decades. It was difficult to get a good job; everyone wanted to work in European hotels, but there weren’t so many of them then. My first bar manager and trainer was Papa Liao who made sure that I was taught housekeeping, stock control, purchasing, and so on. I also spent hours in a local supermarket to learn what things like tomato ketchup were – and to know that ketchup is different from sauce!
“My first 10 years were a happy time. It was a happy atmosphere, more like a big family. Senior staff and club members taught me everything. I also spent two years studying at night school, one year full-time at Caritas College of Careers, and four years part-time at Poly U.”
Gilbert moved from busboy to waiter, bartender, restaurant manager and kept moving upwards “just working hard” as presidents came and went. In fact, climbing the career ladder to become General Manager in 2000 rates as one of his best memories.
A simple question – Who gave you the best career advice ever? – triggered a long list of colleagues, friends and FCC members. “They all brightened my career goals and broadened my mind.”
Going back to his phenomenal memory, Gilbert said: “That came from the years when I was serving people in person; I knew their names and membership numbers because I was interacting with them. In recent years, I have spent most of my time in the back rooms.” Also the club has grown, with membership doubling since 2000 and a workforce now of 96 full-time and 10 casual staff.
He recalled wild Friday nights at the FCC, when the default was to call 999 to break up a fight. “When I was a bartender there could be 200 men around the bar, four or five deep. Members used to drink more.” However, if you like gossip, Gilbert is not the man for you. “I never ask members personal questions, I don’t ask what they do or where they live,” he said.
As for his favourite moment looking back, Gilbert listed “the extraordinary excitement and emotions of the 1997 Handover Party led by [then club manager] Bob Sanders”. He added: “That week, journalists from practically all over the world descended upon the FCC.” And his worst moment? “The thought of having to leave my job at the FCC, which has been my life for the last 46 years.”
However, this summer sees the start of a new chapter in Gilbert’s life. He is contemplating going back to “school” – “just to keep the brain working”. What would he say to his successor? “Trust the Board to make the right decisions as they only want what is best for the club and, most of all, treat and respect the FCC as your home. Every day is a new day; enjoy and have fun while giving your best.”
Gilbert gets talking about work
“The FCC team was one of the best in town, hardworking, loyal, friendly and willing to learn. However, the labour market is changing and shifting. People don’t mind quitting their job now. They are not wrong; the world has changed and young people can’t pay their rent on the wages they earn. This is a social problem and it creates the current job-hopping and labour shortages. You can see ‘job vacancy’ stickers everywhere. However, at the FCC we still have members of staff who have a good spirit and good sense of teamwork; they are sincere and accept challenges. If you work at a club like the FCC you have to learn its culture. I was so lucky to have had the chance to work with them and learn from them.”
When The Correspondent asked for tributes to Gilbert Cheng, they came pouring in. So here are a few quotes.
Gilbert has been an essential part of the Club for decades, pre- and post-handover. His bonhomie and his talent as a team leader will be equally missed by members and staff.
FCC President Florence de Changy
Gilbert will forever guide our way as he has all the years at the Club. We have ensured it. His voice, after all, is enshrined in an audio file link on the “Contact Us” page on our FCC website, where he tells Hong Kong taxi drivers where the correspondent expat sitting in their backseat is trying to tell them to go. It was the one brilliant thing we did updating the FCC website. One click of the blue box “Click here to hear location in Chinese” — and the dulcet tones of Gilbert Cheng will lead one and all to FCC. Forever.
Angie Lau, member since 2011
Over the more than 50 years I have been a member, we have recruited a large number of people to attend to various operations of the Club. Among them, only Gilbert can claim the distinction of reaching the pinnacle of his career—starting as a junior waiter and finishing as general manager. That is something which both he and the Club can be proud of. There is an adage in my native tongue, Malayalam: “A performer should retire after the best performance”. Gilbert has long been the best performer as our manager. Gilbert, like his mentor Mr Liao, is a Club legend, too good to let go easily.
When things got tough, the Tiger side of Gilbert’s personality came through. One of the most memorable times was the controversial decision taken by the board while I was president: Redo the main bar.
Gilbert felt that the bar should run across the width of the room rather than its location along the left wall. A small but vocal portion of the membership threatened to “come with baseball bats” to defend their bar staying put.
That is when Tiger showed his stripes: Renovation works started a week earlier than announced, with the old bar gone one Sunday before anyone could protest. To ease the pain, Gilbert diplomatically distributed souvenir slices of wood from the old bar.
Former President Tom Crampton
I first met Gilbert on his third night at Sutherland House where the Club had set up after moving out of the Hilton Hotel. He had a mass of jet-black hair and a broad ready smile as he worked under the watchful eye of Papa Liao, the FCC’s bar manager from Chongqing days. Liao Chien-Ping, famed for his phenomenal memory of members’ names, likes and dislikes, was not to be disappointed. Gilbert proved a worthy protégé and had apparently done his research on members. Unasked, he poured me a glass of my favourite ginger beer. My respect for him has increased over the years and not too many are aware of the Good Samaritan in our midst: Gilbert is known to have helped out not a few who found themselves in difficult straits.
CP Ho (Member 00025)
Tiger quickly became Gilbert as he stepped into the shoes of the General Manager in 2000. He was the first local GM of the Club. The Club was experiencing a downturn and difficult decisions had to be made – increasing the subscription – as well as a successful membership drive was launched. With the improved finances, Gilbert then had the foresight to propose and complete a plan to purchase the Club’s Accounts Office in Universal Trade Centre – a sorely needed office space that turned out to be a tremendous investment! His tireless work in managing the Club, accepting the sometimes-questionable decisions of governors stoically, and improving the quality of the F&B outlets have now led to a demand for membership with a waiting list of over 3 years. We will miss Tiger’s smiles and laughter, as well as his growls.
As treasurer of the FCC for five years there were a number of occasions on which I found myself biting my nails about some decision I had made, realising that I had probably got it wrong, that there was no obvious way out of my dilemma and no way to avoid looking a fool or worse. But there was a remedy. I would go to Gilbert’s office, close the door, and say, “Gilbert, I’ve got a problem. Help!” And he always did. Invariably he came up with a way out. Thank you, Gilbert. I shall miss his presence in the Club, his cheery greetings to me at the Club table in the morning, his great knowledge of the Club’s affairs, his thorough organisation of its operations, his wide acquaintance with the members, his ways of diffusing tensions and his evident joy in his work.
Jake van der Kamp
The late Hugh Van Es and I were at the bar at the FCC on Gilbert’s first day of work, 46 years ago, and we watched him grow with the Club and advance up the FCC management ladder. Hugh was one of several Board members who recommended Gilbert as GM. The regulars were his family and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for them. Gilbert instilled through example a great sense of care and loyalty among the staff. A feeble member needed assistance to get home? You needed something fixed at home? You needed assistance in some other personal matter? Ask Gilbert, and he will find something or someone to help. When Hugh was in a coma, Gilbert visited him every night and the day he died, I saw him tearfully and reverently hanging up his portrait at the Main Bar.
Annie Van Es
I had the privilege to work with Mr Cheng for 15 years. He is no ordinary general manger, in a way that he gave not only guidelines to achieve tasks at work, but also tutorials on becoming a responsible person in the family, as well as a better person as a whole. In the 1990s, while handwriting chits were commonly used in the F&B industry, he saw the trend of data digitization hence introduced computerized Point of Sales (POS) system to the FCC. It made the FCC the first private club in HK adopting POS. I witnessed numerous occasions when he took the lead to care about the members. He offered comfort when it was required; he cheered up members when they were at downturns; he quietly encouraged members by preparing their favourite dishes or drinks in advance. Mr Cheng, no one will argue that your retirement marks a loss of a dear friend and a remarkable leader. I wish you happy retirement and all the best when you turn your book of life to another chapter.
Hoi Lo Chan, ex-Office Manager
One Saturday in 1997 I was enjoying a liquid lunch at a somewhat quiet main bar when an elderly couple came into the Club. I saw Gilbert checking out the couple, and you could tell he was thinking to himself he might know them. After a few minutes, he walked over and said, “Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it’s been a long time, how are you?” The couple looked somewhat stunned; as I overheard in their conversation, it had been something like 20 years since they had been at the club. Gilbert promptly ordered the couple’s favourite drinks that he had remembered for 20 years. The Club will never be the same without him.
Matt Driskill, 2004-2005 President
All of us know Gilbert is a tough and smart guy, who has high expectations of daily operations and service standards. Every morning when he arrived at the office, he had already checked up various markets from Kowloon, Central and Wanchai. One of his habits was to walk around the Club a dozen times daily, from the roof to the members’ facilities, kitchens and linen room. Even though some say he has a quick temper, Gilbert is the most considerate person I have ever known. He could remember the birthdays of most staff including every little detail of our family circumstances. He always went extra mile to help out, never asked for anything in return. I am still impressed that he attended the funerals of my grandparents within his busy schedule. Not one boss has ever cared about my family like that. This does mark the end of an era. I sincerely wish Gilbert a happy retirement and do always come back to the FCC. We will miss you lots!
Rosalia Ho, ex-Office Manager
When fresh out of Vietnam, I joined the FCC at Sutherland House in the 1970s, and Gilbert was already there. A quiet presence, just setting out on his path to make the Club a better place: an essential home for hundreds of reporters either covering war or Mao across the border. With the move to Ice House Street, it seemed to me, the biggest challenge of an FCC general manager was dealing with the many over-the-top personalities that either drank at the Club, served on the board, or both. I won’t embarrass any of my esteemed colleagues by naming names, but Gilbert was always effective in diffusing the most cantankerous among us. Although a relative old timer, I never called Gilbert “Tiger” – but that nickname certainly made clear the tenacity and dedication that Gilbert devoted to the Club over 46 years. I have not returned to the Club often in recent years as I am usually travelling. But when I have, Gilbert was always there with the kind of greeting that always made me feel very much at home. So General Manager Cheng – wherever your next adventure takes you, you must know that we will miss you and your dedicated service. We wish you well.
Jim Laurie, President 2001-2002
In the next issue, we meet Gilbert’s successor, Didier Saugy. If you have a question you’d like to ask him, send it to the Editor at [email protected]