Blood, sweat and chicken tikka

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The Independent Online
BEXLEY is a mock village on the southern edge of London. There are a dozen oak-beamed pubs, a babbling brook, an old- fashioned fish and chip shop, a shop specialising in cake decoration accessories. There is also an Indian restaurant, the Maharajah. What pocket of little England would be complete without one?

At 1pm on Tuesday, the lunch crowd consisted of a large, well-dressed lady wearing gilt jewellery and a black-and-white polka dot blouse. Profit margins must have been slim that day, what with the extra cream she requested for her Irish coffee.

But in the evenings the Maharajah is packed, especially after 11pm when the pubs close. 'If they're regulars,' says 23-year-old Sanu, one of four waiters, 'we let them in.' His basic wage is only pounds 70 for six days, both shifts, but he regularly earns pounds 80-pounds 90 in tips. The chairs are freshly flocked. The owner, Mr Yaqub, who came from Bangladesh 23 years ago, has opened new restaurants in Sevenoaks and Orpington.

But Mr Yaqub - entrepreneurial, rich, currently on holiday - has become a rare beast, according to a new study of Britain's 60,000 Asian retailers. 'In reality,' report Professors David McEvoy and Trevor Jones, social scientists at Liverpool's John Moores University, 'much Asian business represents a misdirection of capital, talent and energy. Small-scale retailing demands long and anti-social hours of work for the owner and often substantial unpaid assistance from the family. The financial rewards are generally small and unreliable.'

One of the areas surveyed was Gravesend, a few miles east of Bexley, on the edge of Kent. There is a sizeable Sikh community here, people who came to work in the paper and cement industries, at the power station and on the farms.

Now the jobs are gone. Even the tissue factory, an employer for most of the century, is starting to wind down. And as a retailing centre, Gravesend was finished by huge, out-of-town supermarkets and Thurrock Lakeside shopping centre. 'There's nothing but building societies, estate agents and shoe shops,' says Jan, who works as a country park warden.

The Indian businesses, scattered along Wrotham Road, face further difficulties: the Asian community is poor. 'People will drive to Southall or the East End,' says 25-year-old Pal, who runs a grocery shop, 'and buy tinned tomatoes for 15p instead of 25p.'

Pal's parents moved to Gravesend from Birmingham in 1980, when the iron foundries closed down. They opened a shop, and at first did well, though the price was Pal's schooling: a family business needs all hands on deck.

Three years ago, another grocer opened across the road. Pal responded by cutting prices and squeezing profit margins, to 22 per cent. He opens longer hours, 7.30am to 9.30pm, 365 days a year. He has no wages to pay, since he works alone - though his brother, a truck driver, and his wife, who works at the post office next door, help out when they can.

But the future looks grim: turnover is no more than pounds 4,500 in a good week. At Christmas, his van - full of stock - was set on fire, probably by local racists. 'Everybody set up business,' says Pal, who learnt English when he came here aged 11. 'They don't realise how expensive it is. You work every day just for living, not saving. Everybody is living on bank loans. Time is so bad.'

The story is the same further up the street. 'Our profit margins used to be 30 per cent,' says Harpal Atwal who - together with her mother - owns Kay Fabrics. 'Now, if we can sell it, we sell it.' The shop is packed with women examining saris, but few are buying. Eventually, she sells a jumper for pounds 11. 'It's hard to get out once you're here,' says Mrs Cheema, who runs a fabric shop with her husband and brother-in-law.

Further up the road, Satnam is the picture of a prosperous Asian businessman. A former property developer, he is now - with his brother - in the process of setting up a chain of builders' merchants. The first store opened in Birmingham six years ago; today it is the second biggest in the city. Two years ago he set up here in Gravesend and in six months' time a branch will open in

Glasgow.

Satnam works 6am to 8pm, seven days a week, but the long hours have their rewards. Actually, Satnam is a bit vague on detail. He won't tell me what car he drives, but let's just say his last one was a Mercedes 500SL. His turnover is first pounds 500,000, then a few minutes later grows to pounds 1.5m. In fact, Satnam won't even tell me his real name. But he looks like he's doing well: young, pudgy and brash. 'Big turnover,' says Satnam, who is too busy to dally further. 'Plenty of women.'

Back at the grocery, Pal gives a wan smile. Satnam is a good friend. But the shops in Birmingham and Glasgow do not exist. The property developing turns out to be a couple of houses in Gravesend, which Satnam and his brother cannot afford to do up.

And the car? 'You know what?' says Pal. 'He drives a B-reg Orion.'

Sandra Barwick has been covering the European elections.

(Photograph omitted)

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