OBITUARY: Kenneth Lo

Nick Smurthwaite,Henry McNulty
Wednesday 16 August 1995 00:02 BST

It was almost by accident that Kenneth Lo became the foremost expert in Britain on Chinese food, and played a huge part in popularising and improving its consumption. Despite his gentle, unassuming manner he was a man of drive and erudition who could have succeeded in any number of fields.

Indeed by the time he wrote the first of 40 Chinese cookbooks in 1953 he was already a tennis champion, a Cambridge graduate, a former diplomat and an importer of modern Chinese art. If he sometimes gave the impression of being the perfect English gentleman, that was hardly surprising. Strange though it may seem, it was the one thing he was born to be.

His wealthy parents were dedicated Anglophiles and the family home in Foochow, South China, was a shrine to Victorian England, with a library containing bound copies of Punch magazine. Lo's grandfather, a former Chinese ambassador to London, had been knighted by Queen Victoria, and his father carried on the family tradition by coming to London in 1919, with his young family, to take up a minor post at the Chinese embassy.

Kenneth Lo, six at the time, compared it to a trip to the moon, never before having ventured outside his home town. He acquired the western name from a Hampstead GP who treated all three Lo brothers for flu. Unable to spell or pronounce their Chinese names, he labelled their medications Charles, Kenneth and Walter. The doctor wasn't to know that the Fukienese (Lo's native language) translation of Kenneth approximated to dog shit, a nickname his classmates were happy to taunt him with when the family returned to China three years later.

The Lo brothers attended a kindergarten in Hampstead where the spirited Charles hurled himself at any racist assailant, while the more placid Kenneth did his best to keep the peace. "I consoled myself that nobody looked hungry enough to eat us," he recalled later.

Lo had two great passions in life - food and tennis - both of which sustained him to the last. In his youth he played for Peking University and became tennis champion of North China. Much later he represented China in the Davis Cup. On arriving at Cambridge University to read English in 1936, aged 23, he was shocked to find that there were only three hard courts, having been used to some 40 courts in Peking. An even greater disappointment overtook him when he discovered that only two out of the 22 colleges admitted women. He said it was like entering a monastery.

His first job on leaving Cambridge was as industrial relations officer to the Chinese consulate in Liverpool, where his innovative tactics included inviting disputing West Indian and Chinese seamen to air their differences over a lavish Chinese banquet. A brief spell as the Chinese vice-consul in Manchester followed, before Lo abandoned ideas of a diplomatic career in favour of the entrepreneurial path that proved to be his making. His first venture was a shop selling Chinese greetings cards, which soon expanded into a thriving business importing and selling contemporary Chinese art. By 1956 he had a gallery in London and a staff of six.

At the same time he was developing a sideline as a Chinese food writer, having published his first cookbook after a chance meeting with a publisher friend in the street. Up to this time he had been a lot more interested in eating than preparing Chinese food, but seeing a growing interest in Oriental cuisine, he decided to bone up on it. The book was written flat out in three weeks, scarcely giving Lo any time to try out the recipes. But Cooking the Chinese Way sold 10,000 copies in hardback and became the first, rather amateurish, step towards a one-man publishing phenomenon.

Lo became on of Egon Ronay's revered inspectors and, later, also for the Good Food Guide, which gave him insights into the variable nature of Chinese food. He was shocked to find restaurants using diluted Marmite as a cheap substitute for Soy sauce, and serving chips with chop suey. Though a lifelong gourmet, Lo was far from being elitist about his food. He was as happy with a bowl of noodles as any grand 10-course banquet. To him, Chinese food was the people's food, just as he would applaud a tasty English banger, or bacon and eggs.

Nevertheless the three restaurants he established with his English wife and business partner Anne - in Belgravia, Chelsea Harbour and, most recently, the Algarve in Portugal - were famous for the quality of the food and the tastefulness of their design. The Los were the first Chinese restaurateurs to break away from the cheap and cheerful image of the 1960s. You could always rely on a touch of class from Kenneth Lo's Memories of China, and a bill to match.

In 1981 they launched the first Chinese cookery school in Europe, Ken Lo's Kitchen, and a Chinese Gourmets Club with which he journeyed to China and on several occasions to experience food of the different regions; as well as providing himself with an opportunity to get to know his homeland better. He had remained close to his brother Charles, who lived in New York, but it wasn't until 1980, when Ken Lo returned to post-revolutionary China for the first time, that he was reunited with his other brother, Walter.

Though he identified more strongly with English culture than his own, Lo never lost his sense of ancient Chinese heritage.

Nick Smurthwaite

Ken Lo once said to me, ''Many people think my profession is cooking. It is not. My true profession is sleeping,'' writes Henry McNulty. But it is hard to imagine becoming England's doyen of Chinese cooking culture, most famous Chinese restaurateur, a prolific writer, ex-diplomat, and veteran tennis champion by making too great a profession of sleeping.

Ken Lo was born on 12 September 1913 in Foochow; 60 days later, I was born some miles north, in Soochow. In addition to having many interests in common with him and holding him in great esteem, I have always felt this to be a bond between us.

Ken had many wonderful philosophies on life - ''Making life easier is one of my pet endeavours'' - and in tennis his motto was ''All positions are good positions to play from''. He was a sprightly, adaptable, gentle and kind man, whose relaxed easy-going manner seemed to magic success out of thin air.

One of his many appealing qualities was his great mental agility which flourished on the tennis court. As a veteran player, he would stand firmly rooted on the baseline and make his opponent do the dashing about by expert placing of the ball. Not strength, but wiliness of manoeuvre, was his tennis genius.

The twinkle in Ken's eye often ended up on the written page. In the Seventies, when his four children, like typical teenagers, were at their most obstreperous he dedicated his Encyclopedia of Chinese Cookery (1975) to his wife Anne and to ''Robert, Michael, Vivienne, and Jennifer for providing strong tea and loud background music''. Not one to turn his nose up at anything challenging, Ken once rang to say that he was holed up in the British Library translating an esoteric tome on (positions of) Chinese love-making. He never sent me a review copy.

Old men enjoy reminiscing. Ken and I often thought back to the time that Danny Kaye and he cooked in tandem in our kitchen. Danny was in town for one of his star turns and sent out feelers to find Ken, whom he wanted to meet. Finding Ken at our house, he came by for a chat. Eventually, he got so interested that he dismissed his driver, took off his jacket and joined Ken at the stove, abandoning his earlier date at Covent Garden. Before anyone could say ''Tai Chi'', Danny and Ken were making chopsticks dance. They timed their efforts so that they could take their place at table with us all. For years, Ken carried a well-worn photo of that historic fete in his wallet.

Ken was rightly proud of his family. Through her strength and support, Anne gave him the possibility to realise many a dream. Most recently he could be found at lunchtime at his youngest daughter Jenny's popular noodle bar on Eccleston Street, discreetly holding court

Hsiao Chien (Kenneth) Lo, restaurateur, cookery writer, tennis player: born Foochow, China 12 September 1913; married 1954 Anne Brown (two sons, two daughters); died London 11 August 1995.

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