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18 November 2020
By DEAN LAWSON
The difference between the bustling streets of cosmopolitan Hong Kong and the rural climes of Warracknabeal are obviously considerable.
One has long been a heavily urbanised melting pot, the other a place of wide-open space and agriculture.
Imagine just how amplified these differences would have been in the 1960s, especially for a wide-eyed 12-year-old who to that stage had only ever experienced life in the historic Asian city state.
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But the changing environment was one Horsham’s Leon Toy, now 71, had to quickly adapt to after making a lonely trip on his own to join up with extended family including his father and brothers in Australia.
The Toys are Wimmera family icons and a success story, having left a profound footprint on regional society, initially with a market garden at Warracknabeal and later in retail trade in Horsham.
Mr Toy has decided it is time to turn off the cookers at his Toy’s Garden Restaurant in Horsham and seek new adventures.
His departure from the restaurant business brings to a close almost half a century of vast experiences surrounding cuisine, entertainment, laughter, customers, hard work and ‘blood, sweat and tears’.
He is selling his restaurant and gardens to pursue the next phase of his life, but took time out to chat with The Weekly Advertiser to reflect on his amazing life journey.
Married to May Har and with adult children Victor, Magnolia and Melika, Mr Toy was born in China and moved to Hong Kong as a toddler.
His father Stan travelled to Australia well before him, following in the footsteps of previous generations of the Toy family who were among the many Chinese gold diggers who had sought their fortunes at Ararat’s Canton Lead.
His mother Nin Haw initially stayed in Hong Kong, only venturing to Australia in later years to join up with the family.
“My first memory of Australia came with the flight to Darwin. We had come out of a Chinese winter and when they opened the plane doors – ‘whoosh’ – I was hit with what was like hot oven air. The international airport was also a galvanised tin shed, quite different from concrete Hong Kong,” Mr Toy said.
“We then flew to Sydney and my brother Damien, who with my eldest brother Joseph was already in Australia, met me and we caught the train to Melbourne. From there it was straight to Warracknabeal and into the market-garden business in Elizabeth Avenue near where Woodbine is now.”
Mr Toy said the family had to work hard ‘simply to survive’.
“The place we rented had no sewerage and no hot water – very primitive, nothing like in Hong Kong,” he said.
“It was a big change. I didn’t know a word of English except ‘hello’, mum was still in Hong Kong and it was all hands-on work with vegetables hand-sown and harvested.
“When I came home from school it was straight to work, there was no time for social life or sport, although I did play some footy at school.”
The Toys supplied vegetables to customers across much of the Wimmera and also into Melbourne before the family branched out, Joseph working in a fruit shop in Horsham and Damien becoming a restaurateur in Melbourne.
An illness to Damien led to the Toy family briefly shifting to Melbourne to explore life in the restaurant industry, but it soon returned to Warracknabeal and resumed the garden business.
Mr Toy has natural artistic skills and at one stage contemplated pursuing these further as a profession.
But instead, connections through his brother led to Mr Toy spending four years learning the restaurant trade in Brighton.
“I started to study the theory side of art, but unfortunately found out you have to die before becoming famous and that’s not my thing,” he said with trademark humour.
When he was 22, former Horsham chemist Gil Le Plastrier, through mutual connections, approached him with a suggestion to open a Chinese restaurant in Horsham.
“He knew I was looking for a business and I soon acquired a shop site, the old Schwarz Bakery in Firebrace Street,” he said.
“It was April 10, 1974. I was 24 when it opened. And as a result I brought the whole family over from Warracknabeal.”
In the process of establishing his business, Mr Toy met his bride Mayhar during a trip to Hong Kong.
“You know, we started with nothing. But in 18 months we had paid for our house in Baillie Street,” he said.
Always in search of opportunity for his business, family and a chance to promote the attractions of his adopted home while exploiting his interest in art and culture, Mr Toy shifted his restaurant to a more spacious Stawell Road site in 1987.
“I remember talking to former Horsham promotion officer Bettina Wells about what Horsham needed,” he said.
“Horsham really didn’t have anything that great to attract visitors.
“In my mind it had to be something man-made, so I went about making something.”
The result was not only a large and busy restaurant, but also an expansive garden, laden with Mr Toy’s personal artistic touch.
Leaving nothing to chance, Mr Toy contracted professional landscape architects and then brought in an engineer to design a replica of China’s Great Wall. The garden has continued to be a work in progress.
Mr Toy said he had finally had enough of hard work.
“I have no regrets and if I was 20 again I would love to keep it going. But that’s impossible,” he said.
“Horsham has been really good to me and my family.
“I have travelled a lot and it is one of the best regional cities in Australia.
“There is a need for people in Horsham with foresight to keep things moving.
“I wanted to bring some different culture to Horsham when there wasn’t much happening and hopefully I’ve played a key role in getting the ball rolling.”
Mr Toy said he had seen a variety of different people come through his restaurant, from generations of families to all sorts of ‘curious’ visitors. He said he had served everyone from international film stars, national politicians and high-rolling business people to even a few occasional sinister and suspicious characters. But families were at the top of his list.
“There has been such a large cross-section. As a restaurateur you get to talk to people and that’s what I’ve done,” he said.
“I am a family person. My philosophy is that when you look after people, people will look after you.”
Mr Toy thanked everyone, customers to friends, who had been part of his lifetime adventure.
The entire November 18, 2020 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!