There are times in life when the Universe unfolds in beautiful and mysterious ways. When, despite the odds, it seems that things happen in the only possible way that they could.
Such is the story of Nhew Pramauntanya, and Jan Van Beek.
Each of them came to Canada as immigrants, and each adopted a new nickname to fit in.
Nhew, a young, Thai, restaurant entrepreneur, became Neil.
Jan, the somewhat older Dutch bricklayer, became John.
John spent his time doing a number of things in the construction industry. His last years of official employment, were spent as the head of construction for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. A&P as it was more commonly known. After spending a number of years building and renovating stores for them, he retired in 2000. But he never stopped working.
Neil, meanwhile, was still roughly a decade away from his first meeting with John. He was busy trying to keep his Toronto restaurant afloat, and beginning to consider the possibility of a new location. One outside of the crowded, and super-competitive landscape of Canada’s largest city.
And so, from time to time, he began to venture into other communities; scouting new locations on the few free hours that he had. Often his wife Yong would go with him, as she too, was a vital part of the family business. The pair wandered the GTA from Oshawa to Oakville; Milton to Thornhill, but couldn’t seem to find anything that was substantially different from what they had. The search continued in expanding circles, until one day Neil and Yong decided to drive around to the other side of Lake Ontario, and take a look at a potential spot in Port Dalhousie, a suburb of St. Catharines.
It was Neil’s first time across the Skyway Bridge, and as he looked at the view of the industrial east end of Hamilton, he wondered about the city that surrounded it. When the search in Port Dalhousie proved futile, as many others had, Neil made a spontaneous decision to make a quick detour, on his way home. Having never been through Hamilton before, he managed to get lost, and found himself on the outskirts of Ancaster. Running out of time, he took a route recommended by Google, and found himself driving down the Niagara escarpment, and into the town of Dundas.
“ Dundas looked unique.” says Neil, from the back of his clattering restaurant kitchen.
But on that day, he didn’t have the time to give the town a good look, so he and Yong went home to Toronto, and continued their search.
John Van Beek, knew a thing or two, about Dundas. His daughter Ellen, one of three children, had set up shop on the main street, pedalling her own unique clothing designs out of a store named “Berry Ellen.”
Ellen’s mom Catherina, known as “Chris”, practically lived in the store, helping to manufacture, and sell the handmade jackets, skirts and sundries designed by her daughter. And so, by osmosis, John the Elder could frequently be found at Ellen’s store; fixing this, changing that, building something else.
Ellen’s sister Mary-Ann also pitched in on a part-time basis.
“ My mom was working with Ellen, and I think my dad had different visions of how his retirement would work out. I know my dad went through a tough period, and I think he was just a little bit resentful that she had somewhere to go, and he didn’t. And I think he said, ahhh Christ if I can’t beat ’em I’ll join ’em.”
“He felt useful. He didn’t want to retire.”, says Ellen. “Dad’s whole being was about being useful and helpful to people, and he totally, totally enjoyed it.”
“He just couldn’t sit still.” says his son – also John. “He retired, and he just couldn’t sit still.”
The building Ellen leased, was owned by John Paul Yeun and, through Ellen, Yuen met John and quickly came to the conclusion that he was a handy guy. Frequently Yuen would attempt to hire John to fix any one of a number of things that needed to be fixed, in the century old properties that he owned.
John would always agree to do the work, but refused the money.
Yuen’s own personal history with Dundas had some deep, and colourful roots.
Yeun’s grandparents, Du, and Sue Wong, had been restaurant operators like Neil, and the Dundas restaurant they owned, became a local legend.
“The Deluxe”, was what some would call a classic, ‘greasy spoon.’
It was the kind of place that locals would flock to, but visitors might resist.
The interior was finished in classic coffee shop chic from the late ’50’s, and it occupied a prime location on the main street, just a few doors west of the landmark Collins Hotel, a notorious local bar.
The “Deluxe” operated successfully for more than twenty years, until the day in 1973, that John Paul’s grandfather, Du Wong, died. Just days later, his grandmother walked from her apartment across the street, locked the door of the restaurant, and never opened for business again.
For 36 years “The Deluxe” remained frozen in time; everything exactly as it was on the day that Du died.
Occasionally, Hollywood would come calling, using the vintage restaurant decor as a set, for a number of television and film productions; most notably “Man of The Year”, starring Robin Williams and, for a few scenes in the NBC drama “The West Wing”.
But for John Paul’s family, the location maintained a special significance. Perhaps that was why he declined more than a hundred different offers to lease the old restaurant, including one from Starbuck’s.
Neil, meanwhile, was still looking for a new location, and his mind kept drifting back to the unique little town that he had stumbled upon by accident. Unable to forget Dundas, he finally insisted to Yong that they drive back, and take another look. It was on that trip, that Neil found the Deluxe. He knew almost immediately, that this was the place he’d been searching for. He could not, however, find John Paul Yuen. Frustrated, he jotted down Yuen’s number from the sign on the building, and went home to Toronto, again.
Neil called Yuen repeatedly. Ten. Twenty times. But couldn’t connect with him.
“Something was calling us to come back.” he says.
And, unable to resist that call, Neil made yet another trip back to Dundas. By sheer luck, John Paul Yuen just happened to be walking through the restaurant with another prospective tenant. He told Neil to come back, but Neil waited – for nearly two hours. Finally, he got a chance to talk to John Paul directly, and the two felt a connection. It took a few more conversations and meetings, but finally John Paul Yuen decided that Neil Pramauntanya, was a successor worthy of the Deluxe legacy.
At this point, Ellen had been in Dundas for nearly four years, and John, had fixed just about everything there was to fix, inside her shop. That was fine with Ellen. Her father had suffered a mild heart attack in 2002, and soon after, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The family was urging him to slow down – mostly without success.
“ He’d get mad at you if you said he couldn’t drive.” Ellen says.
And so John, had become a handy man in search of new projects, while Neil had a few projects, in need of a handy man.
John Paul Yuen, put the two of them together, and they bonded immediately.
“ He never asked for money.” says Neil, “He just give me a hand to help. Just help. He was so kind. When I needed help to do something he would fly from Binbrook ( John’s home ) to my place right away.”
It was exactly what John needed.
“Neil never said no. Dad built the patio, stage, water feature … and Neil never said no. I damn well know that that was why he was there all the time.”, says John the younger. “He needed some thing to do, and purpose, and they gave him purpose.”
With John’s help, Neil transformed the old “Deluxe”, into the “Bangkok Spoon”, a sleek and modern Thai food eatery. The process, transformed their friendship, as well.
“ They just took to him like a duck to water.” says Chris.
“ It was just organic. It just happened. And you know what, it made him happy.”, says John.
Neil, for his part, can’t really explain the bond.
“ I don’t really know why we clicked. We all just loved him. It takes more than words to explain.”
By now, John was down at Neil’s restaurant two or three times a week. Mary-Ann says a typical conversation in Ellen’s shop went something like this:
He’s gone to the Spoon for lunch.
He went to the Spoon for lunch?
Well he didn’t have anything to do, and he wanted to see Neil.”
“They had something called Big John soup. It wasn’t even on the menu. I don’t even know what was in it. It was some spicy thing.” says John.
But the soup was just an excuse according to Ellen.
“ It wasn’t for the food. That was a bonus. And the food was damn good. It was for the camaraderie.” she says.
At a time in life when people might think that their most significant relationships are already established, or gone, John’s friendship with Neil was quickly becoming one of the most genuine he’d ever had.
“ I’d go shopping with him.” Neil recalls. “I took him to a Chinese market where he’d never been before. I took him to a Vietnamese restaurant and taught him to use chopsticks.”
“ Him and John got along like a house on fire.” Ellen says.
“ It was so easy to become friends with him. It was a wonderful experience. We are family.” , says Chris. “He called John his twin brother.”
And, emulating his “twin”, Neil never asked John for money.
By now, time and illness were catching up to John Van Beek, and his close friendship with Neil was destined to be tragically short.
John was gravely ill. The cancer had metastasized. Bones. Spine. Brain. He died on Good Friday, March 25, 2016, at the age of 80. It was very difficult for Neil.
“About 2 or 3 months before he passed away, we tried to visit him, we tried to cheer him up.
The last day we saw him, he looked really bad. We were all crying. We lost a really, really, nice man.”
“For me, John – he is so special, even though I know him not too long. Only seven years.”
Through the constant cacophony of dishes, you can still hear the emotion in Neil’s voice.
“Neil was taken aback by my Dad’s generosity.” says Mary-Ann. “By his eagerness to help. Sometimes people are just blown away by acts of generosity in general.”
And if that was the case, Mary-Ann believes that Neil Pramauntanya, was more than ready to return the kindness to his dying friend.
“ He would stand at the foot of my Dad’s bed, and just rub his feet. There was no talking. He would just stand there. Or he would put his hand on his shoulder, and just touch him.”
There’s a saying in Thailand that goes something like this: ‘A cart’s wheels, fall into the track.”
It means that, like Karma, deeds repay. Good, or bad.
Perhaps that explains the mural on the patio of the Bangkok Spoon. Neil had always wanted to incorporate something from his native homeland into the space that he and John had built, and he settled on the image of a tuk-tuk; the small, taxi-like vehicles that are ubiquitous throughout southeast Asia.
When she heard of the project, Chris laughingly suggested that she and her life-long friend, Jeannie Tottenham, could be painted into the vehicle as the passengers,. To her surprise, Neil instantly agreed.
Yong Pramauntanya, took a look at the unfinished mural on the back patio, and knew that something was missing. She told her husband Neil, what it was.
“My wife said, if we’re going to paint Chris and Jeannie, why don’t we paint John?”
Neil knew it was the right thing to do. And so John, in paint, and spirit, became the driver of the tuk-tuk.
“Whatever I can do for his family now, I will do.”, says Neil.
Mary-Ann thinks that, with the mural, Neil may already have done more, than he will ever know.
“Here he is with us, every time we go.”
John’s memorial was held at Neil’s restaurant. He took care of everything that was needed. He closed the Bangkok spoon for the day. Not even a question. He just did it.
“I wish John would know, but I guess he would know, how good a friend he had in Neil.”, says Chris.
On the day that the mural was finally ready, Neil asked Chris, Jeannie, and the family to come and see it. Ellen knew that her father was in the painting. Jeannie and Chris, did not. She was shocked, at first.
“ I cried. It was very unexpected, but I can look at it now, and it’s ok.”
“ It was very emotional. And it’s so well done.”
“We look good, but John looks better. And he’ll be there forever.”, she says.
“ We know how much we think about him, but what they thought of him …”, Ellen’s voice tails off.
When asked what he will remember most about his friend, Neil’s answer is brief.
“ His smile.”
It was something that John was known for, and Chris says the likeness depicted by the artist in the mural, is remarkable.
“ He caught John like a photograph. It’s perfect. It is perfect.”
Just as if it was meant to be.