George Thaung had such a big heart that he once gave a whole week’s pay to a stranger who reminded him of his mum.
Born in Myanmar, Kyaw “George” Thaung would later become the chef behind Canberra’s late-night food destination The Mandalay Bus.
But, since his death last week, it was George’s best-known quality — his kindness — that had left the biggest hole in the hearts of many in the Canberra community.
“He would always tell stories, usually about kings and queens in Burma, but they all had these really strong morals,” George’s son Stu said.
“I remember one where the moral was just ‘love long, hate short’. That was good.”
A friend to Canberra’s elite and those down on their luck
After coming to Australia in the 1950s — bearing scars from World War II, when he was shot in the leg by a Japanese soldier — George originally worked at the Myanmar embassy as a chef and chauffeur.
It was not until later, when he became the shearer’s cook and caretaker at the Yarralumla Woolshed, that he began to rub shoulders with Canberra’s elite as the next door neighbour to the Governor-General.
“There was one day Paul Hasluck was driving along and he ordered his driver to stop because he saw dad,” Stu said.
“He knew he was Burmese and there was news about the coup, so he said, ‘oh quick, I’ve got to go tell George’ and he got out and read the paper to him.”
George’s “huge smile” earned him many more friends in high places.
In the late 1960s he received a letter from then minister for primary industry Doug Anthony thanking him for the “marvellous feast” George had prepared for his wife’s birthday.
The letter went on to state:
We are both prepared to give testimony that you are one of the finest cooks in Canberra. Yes George — a really magnificent dinner.
Everyone thought it was superb and no-one has been reported dead yet!
But George’s kindness towards others was not only reserved for the upper echelons of society.
Throughout his time as the man serving food from the recognisable double-decker yellow bus, George would often take care of those who were down on their luck.
“When I was a kid, I remember seeing all of these postcards from all over Australia from travellers, who would remember dad and always write to him,” Stu said.
“He knew all their names and was always good to them.”
A testament to George’s good deeds occurred a few decades later, once Stu had taken over the bus, when a man showed up out of the blue with opals to repay George for his kindness.
“He said ‘it’s not much, maybe a few thousand dollars’, but he always remembered George,” Stu said.
A run-in with an escapee and ‘the worst Summernats ever’
But despite George’s hospitality towards others, sometimes, late at night, people could be less than accepting.
In order to ward off troublesome characters, George took to keeping a gun under the counter of the bus — something the police, who dropped in for regular feeds, chastised him for.
On one occasion he drew and fired the weapon at an escapee from Long Bay Correctional Centre, when the man showed up at the back door of the bus with a large knife.
George inflicted the same wound to the man’s leg that he still carried from fighting in the Burmese Army and the man was returned to police custody.
But the violence reached a boiling point in 1992, during the annual car festival Summernats, when George was bashed with a baseball bat, causing him to lose an eye.
“I was there. I was 14,” Stu said.
“I ran over to try to cover him, but this guy just kept hitting him while he was knocked out.
“I got hit on the back of my head and had to have stitches, but the bat got dad’s eye.
“It was out of control, it was the worst Summernats ever.”
Bus sat idle for over 20 years
From that point the bus remained closed for two decades, but George continued to renew the licence every year.
It was not until the lead up to Canberra’s 100th birthday in 2013, and a redundancy payout from Stu’s job, that the food bus got back up and running.
“We opened again on dad’s 90th birthday,” Stu said.
“It was a mad rush, and bad timing just after Christmas, but we did it.”
Now, in its permanent position in a carpark near Haig Park in Braddon, The Mandalay Bus continues to showcase Burmese food and flavours amongst its other offerings — something Stu said was important to continue, given the bus’s early beginnings.
“In the 70s everyone wanted Chinese food,” Stu said.
“It was all sweet and sour pork and beef and black bean sauce.
“But eventually he started cooking Burmese food — it was what he was known for.”
A proud heritage and a proud family
In George’s house in Canberra’s north, a shrine of flowers and candles sit surrounding his picture in the living room. In a bedroom, chants from Burmese monks ring out.
“He’d listen to the chant every night without fail, he knew all the words,” Stu said.
“And he was always on the phone to friends and family in Myanmar.”
Stu said his dad was “very proud to be Burmese”, but he thought he would be just as proud — and probably more excited — to be remembered for his role in the Canberra community.
“He’d be so happy we’re doing this,” he said.
A celebration of George’s life will be held on Tuesday at Gold Creek Chapel, after which he will be buried next to his wife Evelyn at Gungahlin Cemetery.
The Mandalay Bus remains open.
Topics: human-interest, community-and-society, canberra-2600, act
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