As a 7-year-old in ‘70s Hong Kong, Lunar New Year meant one thing: my grandmother, Daisy, would splurge on all the treats my little heart desired. I particularly loved yuet beng, or mooncakes, which I know were more traditionally indulged in around the mid-autumn festival, but I loved them so much I’d enjoy them at any opportunity. Daisy, then in her mid-70s, took care of me from the time my single mother shipped me overseas at age 3 until I returned to the states at age 10. She was full of joy and laughter, but considered a treat like this a luxury, a holiday novelty. To me, mooncake was a special kind of heaven: a sweet red bean paste wrapped by a baked, deliciously flaky pastry shell. If you were very lucky, you might get a slice that has the hardboiled egg yolk in it. The flavor of that aged egg yolk—just a little funky and over-salted—was worth the price of admission alone. Never was there a better salty-sweet combo than yuet beng.
But that winter, mooncakes weren’t the only object of my childhood desire. I had heard that a certain “Kentucky Fried Chicken” was coming from the U.S., which had been my home prior to Hong Kong. I had first-hand knowledge that anything American was going to be big, bold, and decidedly different than the dim sum we regularly ate. From the TV ads that punctuated my favorite Cantonese-language variety shows, I believed Colonel Sanders himself might just parade past our Happy Valley apartment. With his perfectly coiffed white hair and trustworthy smile, he reminded me of other old white guys I knew, like God, or the headmaster at my English school. I begged Grandma Daisy to buy me a mooncake and a box of God’s, er, I mean The Colonel’s ‘secret recipe’ chicken.
To my delight, one Friday after school, my grandmother took a rare detour from our walking route and strolled right into a brand new KFC franchise. Having never eaten in a McDonald’s, I was taken aback at the gleaming white plastic accented by bold red decor. This place was like nothing I had ever seen—you could practically hear the angels singing. And the smell. It was as if new olfactory nerves were being awakened for the first time. Secret spices indeed!
I skipped home, giddy in anticipation. Forget the mooncake, let’s eat that KFC!!! I could see the dark grease stains soaking through the cardboard box (were buckets even a thing then?), and felt the warmth of its contents as I held the box in my hands.
As we rounded the corner to go up the back steps of our building, a handsome, skinny young man with an almost cherubic face emerged from the shadows. “GIVE ME ALL YOUR MONEY, RIGHT NOW!” he shouted, brandishing a very sharp knife. What I remember from that moment were two things: the dissonance between his aggressive, threatening tone and his sweet, youthful face, proving to me at a young age that bad people don’t always look all that scary; and the fear for my beloved grandmother’s safety, as his weapon moved to her throat.
Visibly shaken, Grandma Daisy managed to mutter, “Take…take… it. Here… take all my money… “ as she handed over her wallet.
“Take the jewelry…” as she slipped off her jade bracelet and gold ring.
“GOT ANYTHING ELSE???!!!””
“Here… take the watch…” as the Seiko fell away.
“WHAT’S IN THAT BOX!??!?!?”
“...Please, please don’t take the chicken.”
The man snatched the box.
“PLEASE!” she pleaded, knowing how much that silly meal meant to me. “Take everything, but PLEASE… DON’T TAKE THE CHICKEN!!!”
The young man eyed me, then threw the box to the floor before running off.
My grandmother gathered herself, picked the shockingly intact box off the ground, and gently whispered, “It’s OK sweetheart, don’t cry.” We were mere steps from our front door, and I went inside, stunned and unable to stop sobbing.
But even shock and terror couldn’t quell the tide of my grandmother’s effortlessly joyful disposition. Mere seconds later, her laughter erupted, as she spilled the details of the encounter to her besties over the phone. “He was such an amateur!!! And then I said; ‘Here, here, take the fake jade! I don’t even care!’ HAHAHA!!!”
She was utterly unflappable, her laughter interrupted only briefly by periodic stops to unwrap a ginseng candy, her absolute favorite. I will never forget the feel of her hand stroking my head in that moment—warm, assured, and devoid of any nervousness. If a child looks to those more grownup and powerful to determine their happiness, then to me my grandmother was better than Colonel Sanders, the headmaster, or God.
Man, I ate that chicken like it was my last supper, and I blissfully chased it down with the entire mooncake, egg yolk and all.
Here’s to a new year surrounded by family and filled with laughter. May no one threaten to take away your joy—or your chicken.
Published on January 20, 2023
Words by Jonathan Ng Sposato
Jonathan Sposato is the founder and acting editor-in-chief of JoySauce. He is also the Chairman and Co-founder of independent tech newsite GeekWire.com, and founder of photosite PicMonkey.com. When he is not planting eggplants in his garden, he can usually be found explaining to friends just how a London-born, half-Chinese, half-Korean guy ended up with an Italian last name, while going to a British school in Hong Kong run by Spanish nuns.