Wilai Udomphol is the creator and driving force behind the Kasem Store – a landmark in Chiang Mai for thirty years. It is a place where you can get some home-spun philosophy with your home-made cookies, if you ask! Behind the hard working Chinese face there is a peace loving proponent for good. There is also someone who likes old Rita Hayward movies! Wilai Udomphol is a very interesting woman who can give us all lessons in what ‘life’ really is.
Wilai is a Chiang Mai girl, through and through. Born in Chiang Mai and lived here all her life, I asked her how old she was and she hesitated, not the ‘bashful’ Western reticent response, but an honest ignorance of her real age. However, her niece who works in the shop worked it out for her, and the consensus was that she was 68!
Her father and mother were Chinese immigrants, and like all Chinese families, sought out the people with the same surname as themselves. As ‘family’ they would be given lodgings while they looked for work. This was menial labouring at first, but then they began to buy and sell vegetables, the inherent Chinese trader skills coming to the fore. Wilai still remembers sleeping beside the vegetables on the floor of the thatched house.
Then came the WWII years, and the ethnic Chinese were herded together, as the authorities were unsure of allegiances. Families were split up, with Wilai being sent to relatives. Despite no direct involvement with the war, these were difficult years.
After the war, the family were re-united and Wilai went to a local Chinese school; however, this was closed down by the government of the day that was afraid of ‘Chinese influences’, so she finished her schooling at Regina Caeli.
During this time, she was also expected to help out in the family grocery store in the Chinese markets, but expressed an interest in learning to play the piano. However, there was no time for such frivolous pursuits. Her father saying, “You are Chinese. You must work and make a business!” Her mother was by this stage also making pickled vegetables, so the young girl was given pickle lessons, not piano lessons!
After 10 years, there was a fire in the markets and the family had to start again. Her brother looked for a small shop and they opened a small ice cream and coffee shop. This was not too successful, but a friend suggested they offer cookies and waffles as well. “My waffles were the first in Chiang Mai,” said Wilai with pride.
This was a turning point for the fledgling business, and she added cakes to the menu. Then some overseas missionaries, who were stationed in Chiang Mai, started asking for bread. Wilai rang friends in Bangkok and asked what kinds of bread sold well, found recipes for these and began the bakery. That was 40 years ago and the business just built up from there, moving to its current location after 10 years.
She told me much about the way the Chinese business community worked in those days. “The Chinese trust each other. I would order from Bangkok and I had not met the people and they had not met me, but we could do business.” I asked if that were still the case today, but Wilai just laughed and said, “Now everyone knows me!”
Wilai is a very sprightly 68 (or thereabout) year old. When I arrived at the shop to do the interview, she was crouched down outside inspecting the mangoes to ensure they were top quality. I got the feeling straight away that there was not one item in the shop that she did not personally have a hand in somewhere. I remarked that she seemed in good health and she said that she took great care in what she ate, “Not too spicy and not too strong,” and while she was working she would practice meditational breathing. Whatever, it certainly seems to have worked in Wilai’s case.
With the second (and probably third) generations of her family now working in her shop, I asked what advice she gives to the young business people coming up. “You have to have endurance. Like the river, it goes slowly, taking many turns before it reaches the sea. You won’t make money if you do bad things. There are always two ways. You must choose the good and not the bad. You can see which one.”
I ventured into what a 68 year old Chinese shopkeeper did for relaxation. Did she have children or grandchildren to play with? “No! I have always been single. I am free!” she said, and then stood up and did a little pirouette to prove the point! I continued on down the personal relaxation theme to then discover that her outlet was movies, but not the Chinese action movies with several scores annihilated every ten minutes, or Arnie and the Terminators, but the old ‘classics’ from Hollywood. “I like the old style movies, with Susan Hayward and Elizabeth Taylor.” That was something I didn’t imagine!
From there our conversation turned towards the world situation. “I have read all the bibles, the Islamic, the Christian, the Buddhist, the Chinese. They all want the same things, love and do good. Everyone has the way inside them to make peace. We must have forgiveness. Everyone has to feel this in their heart. We should all love each other.” And of course, she is totally correct.
So with my philosophy topped up with thoughts of world peace, plus several pieces of raisin cake in a plastic bag, I returned to the hurly-burly of life in Chiang Mai. We are all enriched by meeting people such as Wilai Udomphol, and I sincerely hope I can follow the path towards enlightenment that she has shown me! The mixed fruit bread will keep me from getting hungry on the way! Thank you for a most entertaining hour, Khun Wilai!