Uthai Phonphong’s family remember ‘adored’ father killed in wrong-way Tauranga Eastern Link crash

Uthai Phonphong was one of life’s givers and a “friend to everybody” including homeless people who came into the restaurant where he was head chef to ask for food.

That’s how his family are remembering the “adored” Pāpāmoa father of two after this week seeing the man responsible for his death sentenced to four years and eight months in jail.

Benjamin George Dods, a mechanical engineer from Kinloch, admitted manslaughter and two drugs charges after crashing into Uthai’s vehicle while travelling the wrong way on the Tauranga Eastern Link at 10.53 pm on January 17.

Dods, 30, had been drinking and used meth that day, and was speeding in an unwarranted ute at the time of the head-on crash, the court heard.

Uthai, the 38-year-old chef of the Kwang Chow Chinese restaurant in Mount Maunganui, had been on his way home from work to his wife and daughters, aged 10 and 15.

He died at the scene.

His wife, Minyi Jiang, known as Ivy, works as a waitress at the restaurant.

Uthai is also survived by his mother, Malee Batt, step-father, Ken Moodie, brother, Topp Phonphong, 31, and sister, Ying Wood, 29,who all live in Tauranga,and brother, Supachai Phonphong, 41, who lives in Rotorua.

His father, Phoon Phonphong, a baker, lives in Thailand.

Topp said his late brother had been married for 16 years and there was an instant spark when he met Ivy at a social gathering in China about 19 years ago.

They married at St Enoch Church in Tauranga in 2005 and were devoted to each other.

Topp, who works at the 88 Chinese Restaurant in Cameron Rd, said learning of his brother’s death about 4 am on January 18 came as a “massive shock”.

His mother had tried several times to get hold of him after a police officer knocked on her door about 3 am and she was sobbing uncontrollably on the phone to him.

“Initially, I thought Uthai was in trouble with the police and in a panic I rushed from Bethlehem to Pāpāmoa. I never imagined he had been killed.

“It was quite challenging for us as due to New Zealand’s laws we weren’t able to touch Uthai [at the morgue] until the coroner released his body.”

At the morgue, three monks from the Welcome Bay Thai Temple performed a ceremony and blessed Uthai, which was comforting to the family, he said.

Topp also said his brother had worked at Kwang Chow for about 19 years, starting out as a dishwasher and quickly rising through the ranks to head chef.

“It was a job that Uthai was really passionate about and he loved feeding people.”

Topp’s fiancee, Meryle Pan, said Uthai was one of life’s givers.

“Uthai was very cheeky, very friendly and became a friend to everybody he met. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was a real people person,” she said.

“He welcomed everybody regardless of their background or socioeconomic status, including the homeless who came into the restaurant to ask for food,” she said.

Pan said an example of that was after Supachai’s wedding feast Uthai loaded up some of the plates of food for the local homeless to enjoy.

“Uthai was a real giver and gave so much of himself to others,” she said.

Topp said his sister-in-law still cannot come to terms with her husband being gone.

“Ivy was the love of his life and she felt the same about my brother.

“She’s only holding it together for her girls. At the moment Ivy’s taking a break from working at the restaurant so she can spend more time with them.”

The girls’ schools had been “amazingly supportive”.

Topp said his late brother was a”very hard worker”, spending 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week at the restaurant.

“Any free time Uthai had, he loved to spent time with his kids. It was all about his children and one of the biggest enjoyments they shared was visiting the local amusement arcade Time Zone. It was their thing and they spend countless hours playing fun games together.

“He absolutely adored his daughters and they adored him.

“Uthai couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance. But he was the self-claimed best guitarist and after learning how to play from YouTube he also taught his daughters guitar and Thai.

“He loved playing pop-rock tunes from Loso, who is a very famous artist in Thailand.”

Topp said Uthai’s death left a “huge hole” in their family’s lives. He was their father’s “favourite son” and his parents were struggling to come to terms with him having gone.

“No amount of living can ever fill that hole … We have tried to soften the blow for dad, who has terminal cancer and cannot travel, by not telling him too much about the crash.”

Topp said attending Dods’ sentencing was harrowing. It was the first time they had heard all the details of Dods’ actions leading up to the crash.

They were “shocked” to learn there were missed chances to stop him from driving before the crash.

“Why did no one take his keys away, or phone *555 so the police could have stopped him earlier?

“We really hope that he [Dods] is sincere in his expression of remorse. But actions speak louder than words, and if he is genuinely remorseful then given time I can forgive him.”

Helen Lin and her husband, Alan, own 88 Chinese Restaurant and were Uthai’s former bosses at Kwang Chow.

Lin said she was devastated by his death.

“The close relationship we had was like we were brother and sister. Uthai was a lovely boy and a fun-loving caring young man. He was a quick learner, smart, a hard worker and friendly to everybody. The way he looked after his family is one of his greatest legacies.
We miss him a lot,” she said.

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