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’
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
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!