It's easy to get the impression that all things Chinese are in the ascendant in London this year, with both the Mayor and the PRC's own Cultural Office sponsoring major events and exhibitions at almost every venue in the city. In this same year, however, London's Chinese community is suffering two serious blows in the collective stomach.
First came February's revamp of the visa system, creating a crisis in the UK's £5 billion Chinese catering industry as restaurants struggle to find employees with the skills and experience to survive the particular rigours of a Chinese kitchen. Then came the first of June and the long-feared death of North London's Oriental City at the hands of developers keen on a new B&Q. While this monolithic shopping complex has only been around since the early 90s, when it began life as a branch of Japan's Yaohan superstore, the impact of the closure on its devotees is like bulldozing Brick Lane in a single night.
Oriental City was not, of course, all about the Chinese; as the only Oriental shopping centre in the country, it served all communities of East Asia, providing everything from Malaysian roti canai to Korean television serials. And even that does not give full credit to its place in London. Yesterday afternoon, as the hour of the Colindale apocalypse drew nigh, the faithful crowds packing their beloved food court represented not just Eastern communities but a whole cross section of North London, a spontaneous manifestation of the kind of comprehensive cultural diversity that Thames Festival carnivals strive to assemble. The mood was celebratory and solemn by turn, with both customers and employees capturing memories on camera as they shared end-of-the-line comraderie and steaming bowls of noodles.
As afternoon turned into evening, customers began to receive some truly astounding portions as the chefs piled duck and pork onto plates with abandon. Outside the food court, the last of the retailers hurried to liquidate their dwindling stocks. One vendor of particularly miscellaneous wares offered "Buy 1 Get 2 Free," a deal producing an irresistible pull on the most primitive part of the consumer brain. The Oriental City Supermarket, on the other hand, didn't have to cut any prices: their shelves were already picked almost completely clean, with only a few dusty packets of the least popular of pickled vegetables and fish pastes to be found. At seven o'clock, to applause from the food court, it was all over, and Colindale became a far less interesting location on the tube map of Londoners' hearts.
The closure has been a messy affair from the start, and the future is still unknown. When the new complex opens years hence, there may be space for current tenants to return, but most of them say they can't wait around that long. The supermarket is moving within the month to a much more central location at 26 Queensway, Bayswater, and other businesses are dispersing to other corners of the city. A longstanding
promise from the developers to find temporary accomodations is still in the air, but details are vague. Watch this space.
Words & images by Paul Cox