Born and raised in Hong Kong, Simon Ma moved to P.E.I. more than 40 years ago and has owned and operated many businesses ever since with his wife Marilyn. Their most recent is the BoardWok in Cavendish. Colin MacLean/Journal Pioneer
CAVENDISH – Simon Ma does not handle retirement well.
The Summerside restaurateur has tried — and failed — to pack up his woks and ladles at least three times, only to grow restless and go back to work.
Over his long career as a chef and businessman, Simon, along with wife, Marilyn, has owned at least five different Chinese food restaurants on P.E.I.
He opened his sixth in Cavendish earlier this month.
“I’m back,” chuckles a gleeful Simon, taking a break from his new kitchen in the Board Wok across from the Cavendish Boardwalk.
Many Islanders would know Simon’s former restaurants, most of them have retained their names.
* 1981 - Golden Wok in Charlottetown
* 1985 – King Wok in Summerside
* 1992 – Lotus Garden in Kensington
* 2003 – Bamboo Garden in Stratford
* 2009 – Lilly Garden in Bloomfield
* 2014 – Board Wok in Cavendish
He’s either purchased, or started from the ground up, each of those in the year listed, plus he had another short-lived takeout shop when they first moved to the Island.
Simon’s reputation as a cook even has something of a cult following — he regularly sees the same faces wherever he opens a new business.
That’s the kind of respect that takes a lifetime to build and it’s something Simon could have only hoped for when he started his career.
He grew up in Hong Kong but moved to P.E.I. in the 1970s, following a brother who was already here.
He and Marilyn, who is from Amherst, N.S., married in 1980 and have three children, Eric, Jessica and Alex.
The Mas first attempt to retire after they sold the Lotus Garden in the early 2000s, but Simon didn’t do well with time on his hands.
“He gets bored,” said Marilyn, “he misses the excitement of it, I guess.”
“It’s the only thing I know, cooking. And I don’t have very many hobbies,” said Simon.
After a couple of years with nothing to do, you start to get crazy ideas about how much you used to enjoy being in the kitchen, he added.
The heat doesn’t seem so oppressive, the work doesn’t seem so draining and the hours not quite so long.
So Simon started again with a new establishment and stuck himself right back in the kitchen. Which is where he usually stayed for a few years, 12 hours a day, six days a weeks.
“Working is good. Keeps you more active, keeps your mind better. When I’m not working my brain isn’t working. I get fat,” he laughed.
“It really give him a reason to get up in the morning. Whereas if he’s not working – he can’t seem to find things to do,” said Marilyn.
But inevitably, the exhaustive work catches up with him, he sells and attempts to go back into retirement.
But with this latest venture, the Mas are hoping they’ve finally found a good middle ground with work. Cavendish is a seasonal community, so by opening there they can get their fix of work then take the winters off to recharge.
But the end of the tourist season is far from Simon’s mind.
He’s just happy to be back in a kitchen doing what he loves.
“That’s the dream for any cook,” he said.