When we were little, my mother used to drag us to China Town especially to See Woo Chinese Supermarket on Lisle Street at least twice a month to stock up on essentials. She was so happy that China Town existed – at least she can feed her children properly and it would be the closest thing to fitting in. She was so happy to find coriander! And eventually she managed to buy other things like sweet basil, or mangos, logans and so on. As the years went by, the more we were able to eat the wonderful things we were born to eat from the far east.
It was pure delight and happiness when she would bring home, say, a pomegranite in the late 80s or even in the 90s with her eyes shinning bright and her smile would cross oceans and say – remember when we used to eat this in Sai Gon?
When President Clinton lifted the embargo on Vietnam in the 90s, we saw even more things in the shop and See Woo doubled in size and I had to wait in the car double the time! I knew this shop like the back of my hand as my mum dragged me around whilst she and her friends are browsing noodle brands, fish sauce, dried mushrooms and frozen fish.
Nowadays, my corner shop is a Vietnamese grocery store – I couldn’t be luckier to be able to hold supper clubs and Vietnamese cooking classes with a store a stone throw away. So I hadn’t visited in a while.
This week, I was invited to have dim sum at The Royal China Club in Baker Street with Stanley Kwai Chun Tse – the founder of See Woo (which he told me means ‘four brothers’) because they want to promote a range of their products which is the Way-On Chilli Sauce (which is really nice by the way) or the Pearl River Bridge- this one I have nothing against but never use.
I got talking to Stanley, a lovely 68 year old man from Hong Kong. He founded See Woo in the seventies before I had even set foot on this earth. Stanley was like the grandfather, the uncle or even the father I never had – a charming, wise and happy man who was accompanied by his beautiful daughter, Lucy.
Stanley told me how he used to earn £7 a week when he first came over from Hong Kong and would have his hair cut for shillings/ crowns. His brothers and him saved up and managed to open a restaurant called Lantern House. But frustrated with the lack of authentic ingredients available to them they started a small shop in Soho.
From a small business to a growing empire. See Woo now supplies to restaurants as well as local Oriental shops in the UK. Stanley has done well with his saved shillings. A great rags to riches story from a man who is so humble and gracious has been the pioneer of oriental foods in the UK. He is the one who gave us all the lovely ingredients we thought we would never have again and made growing up with Vietnamese food in London a possibility.
I took such a liking to him because his eyes smiled all the time. Even when he was not talking to anyone, he looked so kind and he offered me fruit and poured me tea. I miss a sense of having a male role model in my life. Stanley told me how he often goes to Vietnam because many of his supplies are from there. So one day, I hope to be meeting him there for a bowl of steaming hot Pho. I will be checking out their Greenwich branch for supplies.
Les Hausen, Lucy & Stanley Tse
The Chef who made all the nice food at Royal China Club