Next in our series, Harry Seymour talks to Johnny Chung, barman at Hong Kong’s oldest hotel for more than half a century, about the moment Clark Gable introduced the city to the Screwdriver.
In 1957, a fresh-faced fifteen-year-old with big ambitions named Johnny Chung landed his first job at The Peninsula — a glamorous hotel on Hong Kong’s Kowloon Bay better known to locals as the ‘Grand Old Lady’. "I was following in my father’s footsteps," Chung tells me one evening from across the dimly lit countertop at The Peninsula’s cosy, wood-panelled bar. "He was a Captain of the hotel’s iconic lobby."
After just a few months, the young Chung was promoted from Messenger to Busboy in the Lobby Cocktail Bar, an intimate watering hole that, back then, consisted of just ten seats and six tables, which opened daily from 11am until 1am. "It was a lively place where guests popped in for pre-lunch aperitifs and late snifters," he recalls. It wasn’t long after Chung’s promotion that he had his most infamous guest encounter, when the ‘King of Hollywood’, Clark Gable, stopped by for a drink. "A screwdriver, please," Gable said as he sat down, requesting the cocktail that got its name from American oil rig workers in the Persian Gulf discreetly stirring vodka into orange juice using the only implements they had to hand. "I was very confused," Chung explains, adding that the relatively new drink hadn’t reached the Far East yet. Chung called down to the hotel’s maintenance department for assistance and a toolbox. Eventually, he found a screwdriver and handed it to the bemused actor. "No, it’s a cocktail," laughed Gable, stepping behind the bar to help Chung. "He told me it was simple — fresh orange juice, vodka and ice. But he didn’t have a ratio, so I worked on it and found 2:3 parts vodka to juice worked best." And with that, the first Screwdriver was served in Hong Kong.
How many Screwdrivers did Gable stick around to drink? I ask as Chung pours me my own. "A barman never tells…" he replies. The story (which like all good bar tales has several versions), became the stuff of legend and, more than 60 years later, Chung is still serving the recipe perfected between the pair. "Some Guests come to see me specifically for one of Gable’s Screwdrivers," beams the octogenarian. While Chung’s ratios have stayed the same, the city around him has changed drastically. "Now Hong Kong is a high-tech place with skyscrapers," he says.
The Peninsula even added its own skyscraper in the 1990s, complete with two heliports, but it still retains the same allure it had when it opened in 1928. Billed as the finest hotel ‘East of the Suez’ by its owners, the Kadoorie brothers. Thanks to its location on the harbour where ocean liners docked, and a reputation for white-glove dinners and black-tie dances, it soon attracted stars like Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen. When Frank Sinatra stayed at the hotel, he famously hid inside his room — much to the delight of the waiters, who each received a $50 tip each time they entered. Even if it was just with water.
Today, The Peninsula is one of dozens of five-star hotels in Hong Kong, but it possesses a quality that makes it unique amongst the competition — maybe because it serves more than 250 glasses of champagne a day and chauffeurs guests around in its fleet of 14 ‘Peninsula Green’ Rolls Royce Phantoms (the manufacturer’s largest ever order). "It’s the pinnacle of elegance and part of the fabric of the city," says Chung when I ask what he thinks the key to the hotel’s longevity is. "Everyone has their own precious memory of The Peninsula." And what does the expert with more than half a century of experience think makes the perfect barman? "That’s really for my guests to say, but a little bit of magic helps."
The Peninsula Hong Kong’s Screwdriver
Two large balls of ice
100 ml of Absolut Vodka
150 ml of freshly squeezed orange juice
A slice of orange
Place the vodka in a tumbler, not a highball (as specified by Gable)
Add the ice with tongs
Pour the orange juice over the ice from a glass jug
Stir several times and garnish with the slice