Every time I go by the closed up restaurant beside Victoria Park, with only a faded outline remaining of its glorious neon sign out front, it makes me sigh. I'm old enough to remember before there was a Hoo Lee, then its early days when it opened at 5 am for breakfast and stayed open til every last craving for chicken fried rice was satiated. Many of my growing up memories feature the place, as so much adolescent socialising went on there.
The induction into the Hoo Lee culture occurred when we all gave up coke and fries for coffee and an egg roll. So sophisticated, and so unlike the Woolworth's lunch counter or its rival, Stedman's across the street. At Hoo Lee's you were treated as an adult, and they were happy to have us as customers when some others treated youngsters like unwanted pests. It always felt like home to be there.
On Labour Day in 1966 a large crowd of kids was swimming in the Lake late at night, partying like mad to prepare for school the next day. It was raining hard, the wind whipping the waves into huge peaks, when lightening bolts began to sear through the sky. Time to get out and warm up with that coffee and egg roll. By the time we got settled and fed, the power went off and the whole restaurant was in darkness. Some owners would just close up if that happened, but old Joe and son Gam brought out candles and lanterns, and we carried on until fatigue drove us all home. In those days the entire wall behind the long counter was crammed with Chinese works of art for sale, and the red glow of the china dragons gave the night real magic.
My last meal there was already tinged with nostalgia when we sat down. Karen served us, starting with glasses of chilled water before we even ordered. The courses came in an orderly fashion, like they should, and were served in the oval stainless steel dishes with pedestal stands and rounded covers to keep the veg and noodles hot. Right down to tea and fortune cookies it was just as it used to be, seeming almost scripted in its flawless execution. Somehow going to a buffet place can't match the quality of the experience we had at Hoo Lee, that day and every day before it.
Like our old Dance Pavilion in the Park, Hoo Lee Gardens has passed into history. We'll never know how many meals were served or picked up at the back door after hours, or how many teenage romances began there, but it was a treasured piece of Cobourg for many of us. I hope Gam, all the family and all the people who worked there over the years know how much they were loved, and appreciated. They built a landmark that won't be forgotten.