WRIT LARGE: Ch 11, Part 2
The Art of Giving First
If we thought the penthouse apartment was surreal, the banquet takes the experience to a whole new level. It is like walking into a fantasy world where dragons exist, giants live at the top of beanstalks, and it is unthinkable not to believe in fairies.
The sixteen-seat table is set in a semi-enclosed rooftop garden. A silver and gold embroidered runner reaches from one end to the other, with silver candelabras, and a huge white and silver flower arrangement in the centre of the table. Each place setting is set with white gold-rimmed crockery, and crisp white napkins. There is a throne at one end of the table, and the entire area is strung with tiny glowing fairy lights.
It is like walking into a fantasy world where dragons exist, giants live at the top of beanstalks, and it is unthinkable not to believe in fairies.
Olivia’s eyes widen as she takes it all in. “I hope you’ve brought your camera. I’ll be expecting some copies.” She slides her phone out when no one is watching and holds it in front of her face, swivelling slowly. “I need a video for my mum,” she says. “Imagine getting married here.”
I smile. Leann, who is standing nearby looking equally as mesmerised, says, “You would certainly feel like a princess.”
We take our seats, Lim Kok Thay taking the throne at one end. It is naturally accepted that as our host, he be seated at the head of the table, rather than an affectation of power or wealth or status. The tall-backed seat might almost have been designed with him in mind, and I note how the servers approach him first as a gesture of respect before pouring champagne into crystal flutes and iced water into tall glass tumblers. The space is filled with the heavy scent of flowers, and gazing out across the Highlands, with the clouds drifting past like huge dandelion puffs, it feels as though we are floating. I feel slightly dizzy as though I have only now stepped from the private jet, and I down half a glass of water.
The first platters of food arrive. Lim Kok Thay explains how Malaysian cuisine is generally considered to be a fusion of Malay, Chinese, and Indian flavours. There are platters of curry, nasi goreng, noodles, steamed rice, and vegetables. There is one server per guest so that we all eat together, and they are perfectly synchronised as they spoon helpings of each dish onto our plates. We are relatively quiet while we eat, beguiled by the way the food keeps coming, each dish with its own distinct flavours.
Lim Kok Thay tells us about his father Lim Goh Tong. “This is his legacy,” he says, his hands held palms outwards and gesturing towards the Highlands. “This resort of Gentings: was his idea; his baby; his desire to bring the rest of the world to our beautiful country, whilst also providing work to many people for generations to come.”
I raise my glass and suggest that we can all see the pride in his face, which is truly justified by our magnificent surroundings. We drink to Gentings, and to our host.
He nods graciously. “My father believed in hard work. When this resort was under construction, many workers complained that Sundays no longer existed because they did not exist for my father.” He smiles at the memory. “But he also believed in rewarding people for their loyalty. My father did not create this resort for himself, he created it for Malaysia, for the people. It was his gift to them.”
Putera nods. “He took me under his wing. He saw that I was a lad who was travelling in the wrong direction and he brought me here when it was little more than a pile of foundations. ‘You know where this is going, Putera?’ he asked me. ‘It is going up. Do not ever think that you cannot do the same.’” He shrugs and sips his champagne. “And here I am eating food with you amazing people.”
Olivia’s eyes seem to fill with tears, and I wonder if Putera’s speech has resonated with her. It was only this morning – although it feels like days ago – that she told me she was simply a girl from Surrey. I hope that tonight she feels like a princess.
“My father wanted his workers to feel harmony,” continues Lim Kok Thay. “‘A happy man is the man who works hardest,’ he always said. I hope that this visit brings happiness to you all.”
“It is extremely generous of you,” says Leann. “I hope that one day I can repay the gesture when you visit Singapore.”
“Most kind,” he says, “but there is no need. If Lucas agrees to write my biography and elevate me to the heights of my beloved father, I will be most satisfied.”
Olivia winks at me and whispers, “No pressure, Lucas. No pressure at all.”
I think of it as a work-in-progress. Life is not a race.
I ask our host if he has any further plans for the resort. He replies, “It is constantly evolving. As newer methods of working and more advanced technology come into play, I will always be looking to enhance the resort where possible. I think of it as a work-in-progress. Life is not a race.”
“As Miley Cyrus once sang,” says Olivia, “it ain’t about how fast you get there, it’s the climb.”
“Oh, I love that song,” says Beth.
“Maybe you could sing that song in karaoke later,” suggests Putera.
“Karaoke?” Olivia’s eyes widen as though she has been caught eating the last biscuit in the packet.
Putera laughs. “Did you not notice the stage behind you?”
Olivia turns around and eyes up the platform, which is discreetly framed by palm trees and columns, and deliberately unlit. “I assumed that was for weddings, or entertainment.”
“Oh, I have no doubt karaoke will be entertaining,” says Leann with a smile.
“You obviously have never heard me sing,” says Olivia.
“Maybe a duet with someone,” suggests Putera.
Olivia glances at me and I hold my hands up and tell her that the closest I ever get to performing a song is singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in the shower.
“I think ‘Sweet Caroline’ will be perfect,” says Leann. “I cannot wait to hear it.” I ask Leann which would be her song of choice.
“Should I ever be persuaded onto the stage to sing in front of you all, which is highly unlikely, I would probably choose a song from a musical, one that you could all sing along with, or …” she pauses, getting into the spirit of the occasion, “… a song by Cher.”
“‘If I could turn back time’!” Olivia exclaims. “That’s you sorted, Leann.”
A discussion follows in which we learn that Tuah would sing a Bon Jovi song, Putera would choose ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, and Cathie would opt for a Taylor Swift tune. The IHG guys try their best to refrain from commenting, but when pressed, suggest they would attempt their best Elvis and Barry Manilow impressions after a few beers and provided everyone signs a non-disclaimer forbidding them from laughing. This statement causes everyone around the table to laugh at which Tony holds up a hand and says, “You’ve all missed your chance, sorry guys.”
Even Lim Kok Thay is laughing along with the rest of us. I notice how he eats slowly, his fork resting on his plate between each mouthful giving him the opportunity to savour the food. It is in complete contrast to Olivia who eats as though each meal may be her last.
“I’ll duet with you,” Beth says to Olivia when the laughter subsides.
Olivia smiles and sips her champagne. “I’ll need a couple more of these first.”
As if the servers have been following the conversation, one steps forward now with another bottle which he pops easily beside Olivia before refilling her glass. He removes the empty bottle from the ice bucket and half covers the replacement with a white linen cloth.
I tell Olivia she has no excuse now. The boys have been quiet during the discussion, polite and well-behaved as ever but especially now that their grandfather has returned from his business trip. I ask them if they would like to choose a song to sing and tell them they can go first to show the rest of us how it is done. They put their heads together and then announce that they would like to sing an Ariana Grande song, ‘One Last Time’.”
“Good choice.” Olivia claps exuberantly. “Bernard?” she asks. “You’re keeping very quiet.” Bernard waves his hand and dabs his mouth delicately with a napkin. “Boys,” she continues, “choose a song for your grandfather, and make it a good one.”
The eldest boy watches his grandfather for several moments while his brother tugs at his sleeve. He lowers his head and the younger lad whispers in his ear. A brief hushed conversation follows, in which we are all holding our breath and waiting for their decision. “We were going to suggest a Drake song,” says the eldest lad, “but we didn’t think Grandfather would be too impressed.” He glances at Bernard who shakes his head exaggeratedly. “So, instead we have decided that Grandfather should sing Grandma’s favourite song, ‘Lady in Red’.”
“Excellent choice,” says Leann. “If you are singing, Bernard, I may even be persuaded to take to the stage myself.”
I suggest that it’s a done deal and ask our host if he will also be performing. “Of course,” he nods, setting his fork diagonally across his now empty plate. “My boys here know that I love karaoke,” he gestures to Tuah and Putera, “and they will also tell you which song is my speciality.”
Tuah nods at his boss, and says to the table in general, “He always sings, ‘Daydream Believer’ and is usually the best singer here.”
I sense that Lim Kok Thay is like everybody’s favourite grandfather. He watches the conversation growing more animated as the evening progresses, content in the knowledge that everyone is having fun. I would not be at all surprised if I glance around at some point in the evening to find that he has slipped quietly back to his apartment without anyone noticing.