Reflections on oranges, Lai Loi and Deptford

Words by Megan Miao

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It is about this time every year, without fail, that a big crate of oranges would appear in my family home back in Singapore. The oranges in question would be glossy, plump, with a stalk of leaves attached to each. In a few weeks’ time Chinese New Year will descend upon the island, and everyone will busy themselves with visiting relatives and friends, swapping stories of their previous year, all the while peeling and sharing these oranges. It is the singularly most festive period of the year and an important time for large extended families to gather and celebrate the coming lunar year. This Chinese New Year is the third I will spend in London. But that does not mean that the traditions that I have grown to love and welcome will die over the immense geographical distance.

In fact, it has already started. On a cold wintery December morning back in 2013 I sat on the sidewalk outside Lai Loi on Deptford High Street with a crate of oranges, offering them to passers-by in exchange for stories, or just a smile and a bit of information about themselves. I told some people about the significance of Chinese New Year and oranges, and also learnt more about the people of Deptford along the way. Some people lingered long enough for me to explain that I was doing an art project about sharing stories and travelling.

The story starts a few weeks earlier when I received an email from the curator collective Something Human about the possibility of staging a performance art piece outside a Vietnamese grocery shop. Something Human is an organisation that I have gotten to know through a friend, and whose work bears striking similarity to some of my own concerns. Immediately the possibilities started to flow and I recognised the numerous parallels in my personal life and the location that was to be the backdrop of my work.

I am not exactly a stranger to Deptford, having lived down the road in New Cross in my first year in London. One of my favourite things to do on a sunny day would be to walk all the way down the road to the Deptford Market, losing myself in the crowds clutching a few pounds to spend on whatever I fancy. One day I found some old scrapbooks and another day an old Monopoly set that has provided us with a lot of joy and tears since acquiring it. My boyfriend once journeyed back from Birmingham just to cut his hair at Chaplin’s of London, and we still make time to eat at both Panda Panda and the The Big Red, despite no longer living in the area.

My return to Deptford started at the Vietnamese grocery store Lai Loi that has been operating in its current location for the past 17 years. Two generations of the family work there tirelessly, day in day out, stocking up on Asian grocery products ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to spices to beverages to traditional outfits. I spent about an hour there on my first day, talking to the sisters who were running the store that day, looking around the corners of the shop. We quickly decided that the inside of the shop gets too crowded for me to stage my work, so we discussed the possibility of me sitting outside the store. The conversation kept drifting back to the shop and I was eager to find out more about its history as well as the way it is run and the types of customer it gets. I was captivated by how much it reminded me of the blurry edges of my memory.

In Singapore we have something called “mama shops”, little family run businesses taking up a laughably small space at the void decks of certain high-rise apartments. The stores were always badly lit, selling small things you never seem to need but to want — candy, crackers, drinks, cigarettes and magazines. Sometimes they sold games too. They always seemed to be on the verge of closing down but children swarmed to them during every available break from school. As part of a project I went around to some of the last mama shops that had survived into the late 00s. Shrouded in darkness on even the brightest summer days, the shops nonetheless attracted a steady stream of customers, cluttered and orderly in their disorderliness.

In the same way I immediately felt a sense of closeness with Lai Loi. I work part time at a large oriental supermarket and I have grown to enjoy the different conversations that I have with customers, as well as recommending options and recipes for them to try out. Food is inextricably linked to cultures, and to stories. When one thinks of the identity of a place, food often comes up as one of the first triggers. I talked to the sisters about this as well, and thought about how travellers to a place will sniff out eating spots, not just for nourishment on a long journey, but also as a part of discovering a culture. Some restaurants capitalise on this, with many eating places in London advertising themselves as a “journey for your taste buds”; armchair travelling for the hungry gourmet.

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Art and south-east London are inextricably tied in my mind. It is where I live and create work and where I traverse time, finding hints of my past in the cracks on the pavement and the tilted traffic barriers. It’s always much easier to make the move across continents than to live for the next few years completely at ease.

I arrived the morning of 6th December 2013 with a suitcase and a hot water bottle, right as the stalls were being set up. Dropping by Deli X to meet Something Human, I found myself starving as I glanced at their menu and settled for a spinach lasagne. We had a bit of a laugh over how tired everyone was and then immediately jumped into the swing of things. I borrowed a chair for myself and put the oranges into the suitcase.

During my day in Deptford the weather kept changing, from sunny to cloudy. The temperature kept dipping lower and lower and people started to thin out, but most people had a smile for me. I asked most people, “Hi, would you like an orange for free?” Some people were out buying groceries with their children and most of the people I talked to lived in the area. One man stopped by for a long chat as we talked about the significance of oranges. In the past, he said, oranges were such a luxury that for Christmas Day he would run downstairs to turn his Christmas stocking inside out to find one single orange inside it, and his siblings would get one each as well.

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Yu Sheng, a popular Chinese New Year tradition

We live in a time when fruits travel frequently across oceans to reach grocery stores in far-off shores, but it must not have always been so. Durians, a spiky, pungent tropical fruit native to Asia, can often be found in oriental grocery stores nowadays, a thought that must have seemed quite ridiculous at some point in time. Similarly, too, oranges were an exclusive export of Asia, and the tradition of putting an orange in Christmas stockings started in America when Japanese immigrants received the fruit from their families in their faraway homes. The practice became popular amongst the rest of the population and the arrival of oranges began to herald the beginning of the festive season.

The term “oranges” actually refers to a shocking number of different varieties of the fruit, which originated from South-East Asia. As all citrus trees are interfertile, they are a symbol to me of what happens to culture when travel and transport become more possible; there is a great intermingling leading to cultures changing, taking different forms, and even giving birth to subcultures. In Chinese society they are a symbol of good fortune, with the common practice of bringing a pair of oranges when visiting relatives during Chinese New Year. The peel of the orange can also be put in the fridge to absorb odours, or dried for medicinal purposes. It was evident to me from the one day that oranges are almost universally enjoyed, the one fruit that you rarely find people disliking.

When the stream of people thinned down, I talked to my new friends at the store. They generously refilled my hot water bottle periodically as I started to shiver, and would wander out to arrange some fruits and to chat. It was from them that I learnt that there is a big Vietnamese community in the area and that a lot of non-Asian people frequent the store because they, too, love Asian food. It is not surprising given how friendly and accommodating they are. I also learnt from our conversation that part of the perfect recipe of Lai Loi is how much all the siblings enjoy talking about the products they are selling and the food that they love.

I remember finding it funny that there were so many Asian takeouts in my area, selling strange dishes that I have never heard of in my time in Asia. We are sometimes too quick to dismiss the neon “Sweet and Sour Pork” or “Beef in Black Bean Sauce” as forgeries of the real cuisine back home, but I would like to imagine they reflect what happens when a culture migrates overseas. It becomes something else of its own right and, whether or not “Singapore fried rice” is actually Singaporean, it is equally loved.

Eventually the sun began to set and the temperate dipped too low for me to continue. A man hurried by and I gave him an orange. “Where are you off to?” I asked casually. He looked at me for a single second, seeming quite shocked that I had spoken. “I guess I’m just drifting. That’s all I do in life; drifting.” I don’t know if it was the cold that caught in my throat but I didn’t reply in that moment. I almost wanted to say I do the same myself, but I had a purpose in mind and a place to go. I make these plans to stop myself from drifting away, I suppose, because when you move away from home, you try and fashion every place into it. I felt quite at home on the sidewalk beside Lai Loi that evening as I packed up and chatted with them before I boarded the cab home. Deptford reminds me of home, because of its people, the crowds, the sincerity, the wetness of the market, the loud bawdiness and the moments of quiet serendipity, and mostly because all these exist within such a small place.

‘If on a Winter’s Day’ was a collaborative project between the newly-formed Deptford Society, Something Human, A.P.T. Gallery, the Deptford Lounge and this website (among others) to promote Deptford’s markets, independent shops and businesses. Click the button to subscribe to our mailing list:

Lai Loi is at 180 Deptford High Street and is open 8am–8pm Monday to Saturday and 10am–6pm on Sundays.

For more information about Megan’s work, visit hanqingmiao.com.