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Before Rasa Sayang: Teddy Chen

Many Outstation Malaysians know Teddy Chen as the owner of Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian restaurant in London’s Chinatown, as well as a handful of other UK restaurants. But before he began feeding homesick Malaysians, Chen was a top music industry executive, working with the likes of Cliff Richard, Kate Bush, Olivia Newton-John and Duran Duran.

Then, he was known as Kwai Chen. “Only my Malaysian friends call me Teddy,” he said.

It was an era of nightclubs, Concorde flights between London and New York, and a lot of partying.

On holiday in Malaysia with his wife Wendy, he reminisces over banana leaf rice in Bangsar…starting from the time he landed in 1960s London, with nothing but a Beatles-style suit and 10 quid from his father in his pocket. (Thanks, Eena Khalil, for the introduction…)

“I was born in Ipoh.

My father was a banker. My mother was a housewife.

At the time, Ipoh was a big mining and rubber town. A lot of Hong Kong actors were coming to Ipoh to sing opera. Lee Kuan Yew used to come to play golf with Tunku Abdul Rahman. There was a Robinson’s store.

I went to ACS, which was rivals with Anderson and St Michael’s. After Form 5, my friends went to Australia or England to study. I stayed and worked for my uncle in Ipoh. Then I went to Singapore for a while selling encyclopedias.

In Singapore, I made a suit like the Beatles. With that, I went to London. My father gave me 10 British pounds.

In London, I met my Malaysian friends. One drove a Maserati. He took out a car phone – at the time that was a big deal – and made a call. Two girlfriends came down.

My other friends had a Triumph, an Alpha Romeo. That time, it was 8 ringgit to 1 pound. They were supposed to study there, but they didn’t go to college!

I got a job in a department store selling crockery. I made 6 guineas a week and got paid on Thursday.

Then a friend asked me to run his club for him. I wore a tuxedo. Downstairs was dancing, upstairs was gambling.

In the 70s, I was working for the Performing Rights Society, collecting royalties for the artists. I worked in the legal department. I had no qualifications! I collected summons and I went to court.

Then I joined EMI Records in the contract department. Soon I became manager of the department and went to the international division, in business affairs. I was responsible for sublicensing worldwide, 57 countries.

I was the only Chinese Malaysian in EMI. I was not called Teddy, I was called my Chinese name, Kwai Chen. I said: “Call me River Kwai.”

Those days, I go by Concorde to New York. I worked with Cliff Richard, Kate Bush, Duran Duran, Rod Stewart.

Once I was having dinner with Duran Duran, before they were famous. John Taylor – very tall, very hungry – ate two steaks. I took out my credit card but the Italian restaurant didn’t accept Diner’s Club! Luckily their manager said he would pay.

I worked for EMI from 1975 to 1985. The last one I worked with was Kate Bush.

It was a hard life, the drinking, the late nights. Not a nine-to-five job.”

(Photos courtesy of Teddy Chen. Can you guess the musicians? If you’re stumped – or younger than 35 – read on. L-R: Teddy Chen (in tie and shades) with Sheena Easton, Teddy Chen with John Taylor of Duran Duran, Olivia Newton-John, Cliff Richard.)