A family at work
80 year old Wilai Udompon (or Yai Ghee as she’s known) sits down with me, and a couple of cats, in the back garden of the flagship location of Kasem Store, just around the corner from Warorot Market on Ratchawong Road. I was going to interview her the day before, until I found out that she was napping. She only works mornings these days, and naps in the afternoon.
“I’m the second generation,” she tells me, of three generations that have been running Kasem Store, Chiang Mai’s first western goods shop, and western style bakery, for around 55 years – none of the extended family that I talked to knows the exact date the shop was first opened.
“My father was Mr. Kasem,” she says. “I started helping him when I was about 16.”
Back then her father, a Thai/Chinese man, had a shop selling Chinese groceries. The niche in western products only came when Chiang Mai University opened, bringing with it more demand for western goods with the influx of students, and teachers, who, along with American missionaries, made up most of the farang in Chiang Mai.
“We moved from the market when our store burned down in a big fire,” Yai Ghee says. The Warorot Market fire destroyed the entire northern part of the market as well as Ton Lam Yai Market on February 13th, 1968.
It was only when Kasem Udompon opened the new shop, their present location, that western missionaries started buying their products, and also enquiring about western food.
“We couldn’t bake,” Yai Ghee tells me, “but we learned. The missionaries taught us how to bake. The first western food we started selling was waffles.”
The missionaries, she says, saw that they had an oven at the shop, and so showed them how to make bread. Word got around, and soon Thai royalty were making orders for western goods when they were in Chiang Mai staying at Phuping Palace. Yai Ghee recalls a Chinese chef who worked in the royal household: “He was called Goyok. He made food in the palace kitchens, and when he was in Chiang Mai he taught my brother how to make western food.”
Kasem Store was born, and the name became synonymous with foreign food in Chiang Mai.
That was back in 19… Yai Ghee ponders the past, but can’t remember the exact date it all started.
“It was quiet then,” she says, referring to Chiang Mai. “More of a neighborhood. It was better back then.”
She tells me she’s not too impressed with the modern Chiang Mai, a city she feels is growing too fast. “People used to go to market around 3 or 4 a.m., then by noon everyone had returned home, and it was quiet.” Not at all, she says, like the present Warorot area, which is packed with traffic and shuffling feet throughout the day.
Yai Ghee reminisces about all the people from China coming to Chiang Mai during her youth, and tells me her father would have to travel all the way to Bangkok to buy Chinese goods. “He took the train to Bangkok so that he could go to Yarowat Road (China Town) and buy products,” she says. It was a long journey back then, and her father was the only one in the family who made the trip. He wasn’t keen on his young daughter studying. “If my dad saw me learning he’d say ‘stop learning, and do some work. It’s not necessary for a Chinese girl to study.’” But now Yai Ghee feels it’s absolutely necessary, and it’s education, she says, that is the most important thing for the young ones in the family.
“The world is not like it was before,” she muses, and tells me that now it’s necessary to have a global education.
Later in life Yai Ghee would travel around the globe, to other Asian countries, and to the US and Europe.
“I like travelling, but home is better. Chiang Mai is the best place to be; it’s easy, simple.” Although her trips abroad were useful, and she says she’d always return home with new cookbooks.
“Do you have an old photo?” I ask her, and she replies in the negative. “We had no time back then to think about things like that; sometimes we’d work for 24 hours.”
“And now, what about this generation?” I ask. She smiles, and motions a selfie action with an empty hand.
Mother and daughters
The new Wing 41 Store
Kasem number two, that was for 14 years on Nimmanhaemin Road, has just moved to the small road off Suthep that adjoins Wing 41.
“Kasem Udompon passed away about 30 years ago,” explains Mr. Mo, who married into the family business and now runs the second branch along with his wife.
The cheerful, bespectacled Mo tells me how everyone seems to think his auntie, Yai Ghee, is called Kasem. “Everyone calls her that, but it’s actually her dad’s name.”
Mo, like all the members of the family I met – around seven people – exudes a kind of innate pleasantness, a distinctly personable charm.
“It’s a family business,” he says. “We are bakers, or sellers, and now we are on the third generation of people working in the stores.”
“I’ve actually told this story many times,” he says laughing, as the Kasem name is now historical, and students from the university often come to listen to the story of Kasem.
Mirroring what his aunt says, Mo explains how foreigners, and Thais who had travelled, presented Chiang Mai with a new demand.
Back then? “We couldn’t even make apple pie!”
So they found a supplier in Bangkok and learned which ingredients went into many western baked goods. Turn the clock 50-odd years forward and Kasem is now a cornucopia of colorful western brands, baked goods, and fresh produce. And, “absolutely no preservatives” says Mo. “No chemicals…waste after three days!” he says proudly.
Kasem Store, even after all these years, is here to stay. Check out their new branch, left off Suthep Road towards the Wing 41 entrance, about 50 metres down on your left.
Kasem Store One:
19 Ratchawong Road
Tel: 053 234 986
17/5 Sanarmbin Gao Road
Tel: 053 808112
Kasem caters for parties, conventions, and sells wholesale.