James Ohene-Djan: The world's traders on London's streets

Digital columnist and WinkBall founder Ohene-Djan delves into the colourful, wonderful world of London's multicultural businesses

Coming home from a night out in the West End, on the last Saturday night of our recent Indian summer, I was a businessman who fell in Love with London (geddit, LondonlovesBusiness.com readers?) all over again.

Not just because I’d had a lovely evening and the weather was Mediterranean at the beginning of an English autumn. But because everywhere I looked there were businesses catering for all of the different tribes of London. Along every pavement, a multitude of diverse cultures spilled outside their chosen destinations, each business catering to its specific clientele: exclusive members clubs, catering for the international rich, next door to 24-hour kebab shops, next door to a gay bar, next door to a shisha and internet café, next door to a Russian tea house…

At a time when retail businesses and high streets are accused of replicating the same old brands, making London’s “collection of villages” look the same as everywhere else - and this trend does exist - it reminded me of the reality beyond the corporate homogeny. The individual proprietors who bring their heritage from their corner of the world to the corners of London’s streets. Often – with their family and friends – working long, hard hours.

I wanted to celebrate what I believe is London’s unique collection of multicultural businesses, and enable them to speak to the world, to let the unique aspects of their business shine through their passion – and there’s no better medium for this project than video. It’s applying a technology that’s as old as time – face-to-face communication – with 21st century technology, so that millions of people can share it, too.

As part of WinkBall’s Business Video directory, I asked our reporters to target businesses to represent this idea, and the results are on the video wall below.

Food and more

Some utilised the medium of video to its full advantage: the head chef & owner of Pickle & Rye in East Sheen directed our reporters’ camera down to a massive, mouth-watering roast joint of meat, the speciality ingredient in their all-American sandwiches! And Island on the Rise, a family-friendly restaurant serving Caribbean food “with flavour, soul and heart” arranged their mixed race staff to all appear in the video, embodying the restaurant’s northwest London’s base and thus its potential customers.

The great thing about London’s multicultural businesses is that they are by no means all food outlets, as I initially supposed. When the French-Cambodian owners of Aime, a French boutique specialising in French design – from clothes, to homeware, to children’s goods – opened 12 years ago, they chose the Notting Hill area specifically because there are prominent French schools nearby, whose previous pupils have grown up in the area, as well as other French outlets and brands in the nearby neighbourhood. Additionally, Gaby form Gaby’s Hot Stuff finds Covent Garden’s central London location perfect for Central America hottest chilli sauce company, as it feels like the centre of the world, packed as it is with people from all over the planet.

Historic ties

Other businesses prided themselves in having an historical connection to their multicultural business in London. The British Boot Company were the first to sell seminal footwear Dr Martens boots and shoes – in 1958! SEN introduces Chinese wisdom into health and beauty treatments, and benefits from London being a multicultural destination as many of their customers are in town from the booming Asian economy, as well as Londoners who appreciate the holistic Chinese approach due to the community’s extremely long history in our capital city. And the Rose Issa Projects arts space was one of the first in London 24 years ago to promote artists from the Arab World, Iran, Middle East and North Africa.

Other businesses can also boast of trading in the wares of the world’s most unusual cultures: Crystal Palace art dealers Myjumbie supplies original work from all over the world, and specialise in working with charities to support indigenous tribes’ art. Four & Twenty Blackbirds is a calm oasis featuring retro shopping items that supports a spiritual space, supplying books on shamanism and tarot readings, catering for a vast array of different spiritual pathways.

The Islamic Bookshop welcomes anyone with a fascination for the amazing Arabic language - Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And Christian bookshop Pauline Books and Media enjoys and benefits from multicultural London, and makes an effort to serve the community in return: they serve a vast array of different cultures who have made London their home, but who are all still searching for the same thing – for God. Therefore they aim to give the world a home: in the middle of Kensington High Street.

Unique offers

Other multicultural business claim to offer something completely unique to Londoners. The charming couple who run Mi Concina Es Tuya (“My Kitchen is Yours”) assert it to be the only Venezuelan café in London; similarly, Hala Restaurant – proud winners of a five-star rating from Time Out and four-stars from Haringey Council – claim their traditional Turkish cooking methods are unique in North London. And others boast of their traditional cultural service – for example, Naga restaurant explains the amount of returning customers to their Vietnamese & Chinese food bar and restaurant is due to happy service from the bottom of their hearts – as does French patisserie Macaron, who welcome you with their friendly French attitude.

This tiny sample of London’s multicultural businesses betrays a vast assortment of businesses that are both speciality and popular.

Londoners have always been enthusiastic consumers of multicultural goods – in my mind, Thai is fast overtaking Indian as our favourite national dish – and you wont need to go far to find someone to tell you enthusiastically of their first impressions of some exotic food or other (for me, Chinese was the most exotic and delicious thing ever when I was 13!). Do you remember yours?

Dr James Ohene-Djan is Managing Director of WinkBall and has spearheaded a UK internet phenomenon in a US-dominated market. James’ passion for video communication began when he combined the knowledge gained from being a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the prestigious and fashionable Goldsmiths, University of London, with a realisation of the potential of video on the web in an increasingly faceless internet. WinkBall has grown into a global brand with nearly 40 million hits.