FRANCIS Neoh was backstage at a Roxette concert when the pop-duo, having eaten at his restaurant days earlier, surrounded him after their performance.
"Everyone thought dad was a big celebrity," Francis' son Mike Neoh recalled of onlookers at the time. "He was there because he was the first person they met in Victoria."
The larger-than-life Warrnambool character died on Thursday at the age of 84, his family said, after health complications due to a battle with kidney cancer.
He had hosted countless celebrities at his Warrnambool restaurants, particularly in the 80s at Restaurant Malaysia, and had hundreds of photographs with them.
Mike recalled people were drawn to Francis because they could "relate" to him.
"He treated everyone the same whether they were international celebrities or our regular customers," Mike said. "It was just his passion for life and chatting to people."
Francis arrived to Australia as an engineering student at Geelong in 1957, before starting his career overseeing the Gellibrand water pipeline's construction and then working for decades at the Warrnambool and then Moyne shires.
The south-west coast reminded him of his birthplace in Malaysia's Penang Island.
He is best known for being front of house in his restaurants, where his wife Majory led the kitchen's "engine room". His family said hospitality for Francis was a "vocation rather than a job".
He also owned Green Jade Satay Bar in the 70s, and in the 80s Bee Lam Malaysian Restaurant, a word meaning "beautiful south" with family connections traced to China.
Mike credited Francis with bringing satay skewers to Warrnambool and even likely Victoria.
"In terms of new cuisines he was a trailblazer," he said. "His was one of the first Malaysian restaurants in regional Victoria."
In his younger days he was an elite sportsman and played badminton for his home state. That passion led him to volunteer at the Sydney Olympics in the Athlete's Village, where he even met the Queen.
Mike said his family was "very proud" of Francis and overwhelmed with the community's support.
"He is a first generation migrant," Mike said. "It was difficult for them to come out here and start a new life in a new country, we have a lot to thank them for, for their cuisine, the culture and the fabric of Warrnmabool."
Francis leaves behind wife Majory, and children Helina, Michael, Melinda and Theresa.
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