Raw footage of life at Plymouth’s first Chinese shop

Hundreds of archive videos showing Plymouth over the last hundred years have been made available thanks to the BFI.

The British Film Institute has collaborated with the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA) to host their fascinating documentary footage online for free.

SWFTA which is now based in Plymouth’s brand new £46million attraction The Box, has banked up a huge selection of videos spanning both black and white, colour, and the silent era.

The clips cover a variety of different topics from a 1970s Devon Derby, to Yacht Races around Plymouth Sound in the 1950s.

In one such archive piece narrator Andy Price visits Plymouth’s first Chinese shop – the four-minute long footage can be viewed in full here.

While Chinese Supermarkets are readily available and well used around the city in this era, a shop of this kind was very unusual during the 1960s and viewed very curiously by passersby.

The venue which was opened on Harwell Street some time in the late 1960s was never referred to by name but featured a variety of Chinese symbols on the shop front above the door.

As the first shop in the city of this particular variety, presenter Price seems very taken aback by some of the novelty items on the shelves like dried octopus and ‘century egg’.

The store stood loud and proud on Plymouth's Harwell Street
The store stood loud and proud on Plymouth’s Harwell Street
(Image: Penny Cross)

“Have you ever tried to buy Chinese beansprouts in Plymouth?” begins the voice-over from Andy in 1968.

“If you have you’ll know that you’re up against it. But not if you’ve ever noticed a small and rather unprepossessing shop here in Harwell Street.”

He continues, with a turn of phrase that seems out of place watching back in the 21st century:

“Run by Chinese for Chinese, it sells all sorts of ingredients for Chinese food they can’t get elsewhere.”

The presenter is given a walk-through of the little venue by a friend from Plymouth’s Chinese community.

She points out a basket of dried octopus which have been imported from China.

“This is salted and dried, you can either steam it up or use it with soup again.

“We do drink a lot of soup, you can eat it as well.”

Andy is then shown a lumpy looking object in a cardboard box which is described by his friend as a ‘hundred-year egg’, although she does inform him it’s not actually a hundred years old.

This Chinese delicacy which is also known as a century egg or pidan is a type of preserved egg coated in mud and rice husk.

Asking if the unusual concoction tastes nice, his companion replies: “It’s quite nice like an egg, like pickled onions.”

Andy is also shown a salted duck egg which appears to be black in colour, but as the footage is filmed in black and white, it’s hard to tell.

The salted egg is soaked in brine and packed in a layer of salted charcoal paste.

Traditionally they are often boiled and eaten with congee a type of rice porridge from Guangdong, the province around Hong Kong.

Scooping up all of the unique ingredients into his arms, Mr Price finally asks what food item is inside the boxes at the far end of the shop.

The answer is the infamous birds nest soup.

The nests come from the solidified saliva of different birds usually swifts and swallows and are harvested from caves for bird’s nest soup creating a gelatinous delicacy and pound for pound, one of the most sought after and expensive animal products in the world.

While the contents of Andy Price’s shopping basket seems bizarre enough, the real eye-opening moment of the video is the shopkeeper using an abacus to tally up the bill.

The shop owner uses the classic Chinese abacus of five and two with five beads on the lower half and two beads on the upper to calculate the price of £3.2s.6d.

Even though the calculation is included in the video for viewers to watch, it still makes absolutely no sense to me.

The price is equally amazing because bird’s nest soup can sell for around £600 to £3,000 a pop these days to have it fresh, so I’m not entirely sure what was in those boxes.

50 years later and the unnamed Chinese shop on Harwell Street is no longer.

The small street that links Western Approach to North Road West is predominately comprised of residential housing and not much else.

It’s hard to imagine now where the specialist shop might have once stood but if you have any memories or experiences from the quaint little store, please do let us know in the comments.

Plymouth Live