How two Tang brothers became the supermarket emperors of Paris

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2016, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2016, 9:05pm

French gastronomy may arguably be the best in the planet, but Asians in Paris must indulge their periodic craving for dumplings, nems or noodles.

With its kind of inventory, the Tang Frères supermarket would fit right in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok or Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district. Shelves filled with condiments, from japchae sauce to Thai curry paste, and obscure ingredients like bamboo leaves and dried black mushrooms, guarantee that grandma’s recipes can be executed thousands of miles away.

The enterprise began with a grocery store specialising in Thai soy sauce and rice cakes, opened in 1976 by Chinese-Laotian businessman Bounmy Rattanavan, also known as Mr Tang, with the help of his elder brother Bou (the name Tang Frères means Tang Brothers in French).

A Chiuchow family from Canton, now known as Guangdong, the Rattanavans made a comfortable living in Laos, with a rice farm, a shoe factory and a lumberyard.

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In 1971, Bounmy left Vientiane to study engineering in Lyon. Four years later, other family members fled Laos as the Communist movement gained power, joining the wave of migrants from Indochina escaping war and seeking asylum in France.

Tens of thousands ended up settling down in what came to be known as the “Golden Triangle” or the Chinatown of Paris, in the 13th arrondissement. Bounmy, according to a French newspaper, has objected to stereotyping or “ghettoising” the area, and has encouraged migrant youth to engage in politics.

Tang Frères mirrors the diversity of its neighbourhood - with staff coming from France, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Algeria. The butcher is Egyptian, and the security guard Haitian.

As China grew, the brothers looked eastwards, investing in beer production, homoeopathic and acupuncture treatments. In France, their ventures have expanded to restaurants, real estate and film distribution.

But the two are known for keeping a low profile despite their success.

“The greasy pigs better make one wary, they are the ones who get eaten first,” Bounmy was once quoted as saying.