IT’S as if the day leapt out of a glossy holiday brochure or a travel show on TV. Beneath the tranquil blue skies lit up by radiant tropical sunshine, a kaleidoscopic scene unfolds with people of all shapes, sizes and colours mingling and milling around a small bustling port where handsome gleaming ferries are ready to whisk people off to Fiji’s idyllic isles.
Chattering tourists amble along in sun hats, summery attire and trendy shades. Families, friends, couples and some lone travelers stream down the narrow pier.
But amidst this heady bustle, one man appears out of place. Unlike those carefree souls around him, his body language speaks of a huge invisible weight sitting on his shoulders. With Australia behind him, Lance Seeto is en route for a job interview, the outcome of which he’s hoping will herald a much-needed new chapter.
“In Australia, I’d been a resort chef for 15 to 20 years. I’d also just come out of a broken relationship I wanted to escape. I didn’t realise at the time how unhappy I was. I wanted to escape from my job too — the long hours, feeling unappreciated. Then someone suggested for me to go to Fiji, it’s isolated and I’d never been there,” recalls 52-year old Seeto of that fateful day, which ended up being the turning point that changed his life in a huge and unexpected way.
SON OF FIJI
Eight years after first arriving in Fiji, Seeto is now an award-winning celebrity who’s widely acclaimed for sparking a culinary renaissance that has been inspiring people to view Fijian cuisine in a different and healthier way. His pioneering efforts earned him the prominent role of Fiji’s culinary ambassador.
Flip open local newspaper Fiji Times and you’ll find his column on food and travel. Switch on the TV and watch him hosting Taste Of Paradise, a successful TV show seen in 15 South Pacific countries. He has had books published and even keeps a solid online presence. Such is the love and dedication to his career and adopted home that last year saw Seeto receiving his citizenship, making the Australian a full-fledged son of Fiji.
One of his latest culinary projects is Malamala Beach Club, a small sandy haven in the Fijian archipelago touted as the world’s first island beach club. I’d barely made footprints in the sand after disembarking from the boat when I’m warmly greeted by the man himself — unassuming and clad in a white chef jacket.
Merely a few months old, Malamala caters purely for day visits from anyone seeking to indulge in leisurely beachside pursuits for the price of a day pass. As the Club’s executive chef, Seeto curated a modern menu fusing south Pacific and international flavours in beautifully presented dishes with halal, gluten-free, paleo-friendly or vegan options.
DOWN AND OUT
The newly-minted “Fijian” is a picture of smiles when we meet — and it’s not because his “office” comes with a sandy beach, crystal clear waters and ocean views. He refers to Fiji as the “land of the happy people” and this is where he found a renewed sense of happiness.
“Coming to Fiji is not just about sand and sun; it’s coming for a culture that lives completely different to us,” says the contented bachelor. Having observed that the concept of social pressure and discrimination is somewhat alien here, he adds: “Fijians don’t care where you come from, your skin colour, religion, whatever. That’s why I fell in love with the country.”
Born in Papua New Guinea to Chinese parents, Seeto grew up in Australia during a period when the White Australia policy, a time when laws favoured immigrants of European descent, was in force. Living in this environment with such sentiments, his concerned parents raised him to be as Australian as possible.
“They never wanted to speak Chinese to me at home. They drummed it into my head to hide the Chinese heritage” recalls Seeto.
Surrounded by stereotypical images of blond blue-eyed Australians while growing up, his identity issues were compounded by a weight anxiety. Sadly, he also disliked looking at his own reflection, to the extent of shunning the mirror to shave. Candidly, he continues: “Psychologically, this stigma probably didn’t do good things for me when I was younger so I had all sorts of issues growing up, such as depression.”
To make matters worse, his parents disapproved of his career choice. In those days in the 1970s, a cook was regarded as a low status job compared to the more financially rewarding white collar professions. Although he tried to conform, young Seeto eventually dropped out of university to pursue his culinary passion.
“We didn’t speak for many years. My cousins were doctors, lawyers or accountants, so for many years I shamed my family. You know how Chinese parents sit around the table comparing each other’s kids.
‘Oh, what does your son do?’
‘Banker,’ ...and so on. ‘What does YOUR son do?’
‘Oh, a cook!’ the relatives would say in a certain tone. ‘My son has three houses!’
‘My son’s still struggling in the kitchen...’
And it went on like that.”
It was only when Seeto arrived in Fiji and learnt about the story of its people and their pride in their heritage that he realised he’d been doing things the wrong way.
LAND OF THE HAPPY PEOPLE
Outside the casual dining area where we’re seated, an earlier drizzle has started to clear, making way for pockets of blue and sunshine to break through the clouds. Enthusiastically, Seeto continues to explain about the indelible impression that the locals made on him.
“These are people who are genuine and haven’t had to pretend to be someone else or rise to a level that’s socially acceptable. If you’re comfortable living in a shack, live in a shack. Here, you can be whoever you want to be.”
Seeto felt an affinity with their contented vibes straightaway, and soon, that pressure for social conformity that had weighed him down thus far slowly began to fade. No one judged him from his looks, race, weight or profession. Living on an island immersed in their culture left him with no choice but to let go of his stresses, shed his old life and learn about the joys of simple living.
“One of the secrets to Fijian happiness,” reveals the chirpy chef, “is that money isn’t important to them. It’s needed but they don’t stress if they haven’t got it. Unlike in the money-driven Asian cultures and capitalism-driven Western cultures.”
He explains how this relaxed attitude has been largely shaped by a unique history that helped define the Fijian people today. They have virtually remained uncolonised. The British did arrive but didn’t colonise the locals nor displace them because the Fijians back then were ferocious warriors and cannibals, too fearsome to engage in battle. “So the British came in and developed alongside the Fijians who got to keep their culture and their land. By keeping their land, they had control over their destiny.”
Today, more than 95 per cent of land in Fiji is still owned by indigenous people. Even Malamala Beach Club sits on land that’s leased from the native landowners who previously visited the island for its medicinal plants and trees.
When Seeto first saw the local people, he assumed they were poor because they were living in villages or unsophisticated housing. Nodding silently, I recall having the same thought while passing through simple towns, farmland and undeveloped terrain. Reflecting back, he says: “I learnt quickly that I was wrong. They’ve got money but they don’t display it and use it like we do.”
This whole experience in Fiji hasn’t only transformed Seeto’s outlook but has also turned family relationships around. The affable chef recalls that his father, an import/export trader, still hadn’t accepted his son’s career path, even after he’d migrated to Fiji. But a trip to his son’s adopted home would change all that.
His eyes dancing, Seeto recalls the day his father made the trip. He was in the kitchen when a staff member informed him that his dad was dancing with the girls. “I said, ‘You must have the wrong Asian man. My father doesn’t dance or smile.’ The reply was ‘No, it’s your father’. So I came out, hid behind a pillar and saw my father with a big smile. And dancing! I’d never seen my father dance!”
Smiling, Seeto goes on to share that his father experienced the same feeling as his son upon meeting the locals. Misty-eyed, Seeto’s voice lowers, saying: “My father was brought up in Papua New Guinea and used to have the same feeling there with the natives. He told me he temporarily forgot who he was, he forgot the stresses and started dancing. That was amazing.”
The real turnaround, believes Seeto, came when his parents took a Fiji Airways flight to visit him. Within the pages of the inflight magazine was a story about an inspiring Chinese-Australian chef on a remarkable mission to improve Fiji’s cuisine and the diet of the local people.
“I didn’t tell them the article was in there and they read it. There were some 200 passengers on the plane. My mum walked down the aisle to every seat and asked, ‘Do you want your magazine? No? Great.’ She left the plane with a stack of magazines!’ says Seeto, chuckling at the memory. “She went back to Australia and handed them out to all those relatives who for years had told her that her son wasted his life. This was the time that my cousins were getting divorced, losing their properties due to the recession and stuff.
“They asked where I was and my parents proudly replied, ‘Oh, in the South Pacific. Just look at the smile on his face! He took a different path but ended up at a place where everyone aspires to be’,” shares Seeto, beaming.
Days before meeting him, my arrival in the country on Fiji Airways was greeted with the customary announcement by the pilot. A tad mystified then, I now understand what the captain meant when he said in his dulcet tones: “Welcome to Fiji. Welcome to happiness.”
Malamala Beach Club
A day pass provides:
• Hotel pickup and drop-off from most nearby hotels and resorts
• Round-trip vessel transfers
• Use of snorkel equipment, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards
• Complimentary Wi-Fi and towel services