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Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Mr Lee’ leaves a legacy in Norway

Chul Ho Lee escaped the horrors of the Korean War to become a pioneering immigrant in Norway and its much-loved “Noodle King,” who later was decorated by Norway’s own King Harald V. His funeral this week came at a time when his homeland is very much back in the international news, and with strong links to Norway that he nurtured through his own brand of culinary diplomacy.

“Mr Lee” gazes at an advertisement featuring himself on the wall of a 7Eleven store in Seoul. He invented his own form of culinary diplomacy between Norway and South Korea, keen on promoting and facilitating trade of food items from each country. PHOTO: Per Ståle Bugjerde

The stocky cook who saw himself as a citizen of both Norway and Korea, died last month after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, somewhat paradoxically right in the middle of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. The recent Olympics brought more recognition to the countries he loved, with South Korea as host, the last-minute participation of North Korea and Norway’s own medal haul grabbing attention around the world. That overshadowed lots of other news in mid-February, a twist of fate that may have contributed to reducing Chul Ho Lee’s obituary to just a few paragraphs in Norwegian newspapers including Aftenposten. Tributes came later, though, to the man who defied death in Korea and the challenges of being an immigrant in Norway.

“We called him ‘Archie,’ the man who became our idol and the tie that bound Norwegian veterans of the Korean War to the country we came to love,” wrote Nils Egelien, president of Norske Koreaveteraner, and Lucie Paus Falck, president of Norsk-Koreansk Vennskapsforening (the Norwegian-Korean Friendship Association) in a tribute in Aftenposten last week.

“For us Korean War veterans, Chul Ho has always been a mentor and a source of inspiration,” they added. “His presence and participation at meetings and memorials at Akershus Fortress have been very important, and heartwarming.”

Mr Lee introduced Norwegians to the wonders of instant noodles. He’s shown here eating a more elaborate variety at his favourite restaurant in Seoul. PHOTO: Per Ståle Bugjerde

To most Norwegians, however, he was known solely as “Mr Lee.” That was the name of a highly successful brand of instant noodles that he founded and later sold to Norway’s Rieber Group for more than NOK 20 million. Mr Lee’s love affair with Norway, however, began much earlier.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in Korea in 1951, young Chul Ho joined millions of fleeing civilians and lost track of his family in the process. Following a failed attempt to cross a river, he was rescued by US troops. He spoke some English and served as an interpreter for the Americans, who dubbed him as “Archie” after a popular comic book character in the US.

Later in the war, Lee suffered severe injuries in a grenade attack and eventually ended up in a Norwegian field hospital (NORMASH). Doctors there pulled strings to have the young man known as Lee Chul Ho in his homeland evacuated from the war zone to receive treatment at hospitals in Norway. That included a long recovery period at the Sunnaas rehabilitation center at Nesodden, just across the fjord from Oslo.

Lee later won permission to settle in Norway. He was the first Asian many Norwegians had ever seen, so “exotic” that the newspapers wrote about him. Poor and all alone, he supported himself by shining shoes on Oslo’s Karl Johans gate and emptying the outdoor toilets that were still found at the time in several of the Norwegian capital’s neighbourhoods. Lee eventually gained admission to secondary school and went on to become a professional cook, with additional training in Switzerland  Among his employers was the posh restaurant Speilen at Oslo’s Grand Hotel.

Mr Lee, who had also dreamed of being an opera singer, was known for bursting into song and one of his favourites was the patriotic Norwegian song Barndomsminne fra Nordland, which he performed here during a meeting of a Korea-Norway association. It was also played at his funeral at Oslo’s Skøyen Church on Monday. PHOTO: Per Ståle Bugjerde

Lee served for several years as a top executive at the Møllhausen chain of eateries in Oslo, but lost the job in 1989 when the firm was acquired by a competitor. The 1980s was a tough decade for Lee, who had also lost his German-born wife Anneliese, who died of cancer in 1984. The couple had three daughters who became highly successful themselves – Anja, now a doctor, Sonja, a well-known chef herself, and Irina, a journalist who also authored a biography of her father. Lee later remarried a Korean woman, Hae Jong, after she agreed to move to Norway.

Lee was 52 when he lost the Møllhausen job. According to Irina Lee’s biography, it was the unfamiliarity of being unemployed that gave Lee the idea to reinvent himself as a builder of business bonds between Norway and South Korea. He traded products based on Korean ginseng root, and then mounted a playful campaign over several years to introduce Norwegians to the wonders of instant noodles in cardboard cups, immodestly branded “Mr Lee.”

His many appearances on TV and in advertising in the 1990s turned Lee into a celebrity in Norway, a country he came to love so much that he would burst into patriotic songs on occasion, wear Norwegian ski sweaters and try to ski himself despite pain from his war injuries. He was known as being cheerful and funny. His daughter’s biography also notes that he once joked to his new Korean wife, who had never seen the ski boxes atop many Norwegian cars, that they were used to contain dead relatives who couldn’t be buried until the frozen ground thawed after winter.

Charity work and speaking engagements
Less known to Norwegians were Mr and Mrs Lee’s frequent trips to South Korea, where he engaged in various business projects including the marketing of Norwegian food items. He had grand ideas, like exporting snails from Norway to Korea and shipping off Norwegian fish waste to a hub in Korea, to recycle it into food products for large Asian markets. Not all of those projects materialized: Mr Lee often came across as a man overflowing with entrepreneurship and enthusiasm, and worrying less about practicalities.

In his senior years Lee also became a popular speaker at Korean universities and to other young audiences, and he supported a number of charities. He was an active member of the Norwegian Korean War veterans’ association, with Egelien and Falck also writing that when he spoke to Korean students in Norway, he would say that if it hadn’t been for Norway, South Korea wouldn’t be the country it is today. He pointed to the first secretary general of the UN (Trygve Lie of Norway) sending international forces to Korea, the NORMASH unit that saved many lives during the war, and Norwegian doctors’ role in building medical knowledge in South Korea. Norway has also long maintained business and industrial ties with South Korea, not least in areas such as shipbuilding.

Mr Lee and his life can also serve as an inspiration for all the other immigrants in Norway who have arrived after him, most of whom also face major language and cultural challenges no matter if they come from war-torn countries as refugees or as married to Norwegians but still struggling to find their place in the country. As it still reads on Mr Lee’s noodle cups, he urged consumers to spend the few minutes after pouring in the hot water “to think about something beautiful.” Many will think such thoughts about him for years to come. /staff



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