Rolling my hungover body out of bed and onto a southbound train one cloudy morning in April, I'm preparing to embark on a pilgrimage to an East Asian mecca.
But I'm not leaving the country, nor even the capital. I'm making my way to Wing Yip in Croydon.
With superstores in Manchester, Birmingham, and London, over 300 employees, and a stock of nearly 5,000 ingredients and utensils, the Wing Yip Chinese supermarket chain has been keeping Britain in Asian groceries for over 40 years. It all started in 1969, when Woon Wing Yip became frustrated by the lack of good Chinese products needed to run his Clacton-on-Sea restaurant, prompting him to set up his own shop.
It was a savvy move. Wing Yip now has an annual turnover of £80 million and in 2010, Woon was awarded an OBE for services to the food industry.
As my train rolls into Zone Five territory, I see Wing Yip's familiar jade green-tiled pagoda in the distance and my heart starts to race. This may be a side effect of the hangover but it also comes from the anticipation of reliving weekends spent running around Wing Yip aisles as a kid, revelling in the array of colourful Asian snacks and sweets.
"I remember the excitement I felt when I saw the Chinese pagoda," agrees my friend Amy, who joins me on my trip down memory lane and back to Wing Yip. "It felt like I had walked into a little piece of Hong Kong in London."
At the Croydon branch, "Wing Yip" refers to the supermarket and wholesale side of the business, with the remainder of the 4.2-acre site rented out to other Asian outlets. You can find everything from accountants and bakeries to herbal medicine practitioners and shops selling ancestor-worshipping wares.
"Some of my fondest childhood memories were our dim sum Sundays, grabbing fresh buns from the bakery and doing the weekly Chinese supermarket shop, while trying to hide Chinese sweets like haw flakes in the trolley so my parents would buy them for me," remembers Amy. For me, it was White Rabbit sweets, which my brothers and I would chew on while playing hide-and-seek in the walk-in fridges.
Stepping inside Wing Yip all these years later, Amy and I head straight for Tai Tung, one of the main Chinese restaurants in the complex. Feasting on fluffy white barbecue pork buns, dumplings, and pu-erh tea, we feel ready to take on the huge grocery section.
As we walk into the supermarket, we're greeted with free samples of soya milk and diced Chinese sausages. They're foisted upon us by Christine Mak, an events manager who provides samples to customers across the Wing Yip branches.
"We go around touring the different Wing Yip locations to test out our newest food products on customers, to try out what they like and don't like," she explains. "We want to see what works and what doesn't."
As well as freebies, Mak also helps stage live cooking demonstrations.
"Our goal is to try and get more people into the kitchen," she says. "To teach them how to cook with unusual ingredients and learning new recipes."
Wandering through the endless aisles of herbs, woks, curry pastes, and dried noodles, we bump into stock assistant, Alan Ng. He tells us that he has worked at the Croydon Wing Yip branch for over three years.
"Working here is great," he says. "You meet all kinds of people who want to know more about Oriental cooking, they want to learn more about some of the weird and wonderful food we stock here."
He's not wrong with the "weird and wonderful" part. Which other UK supermarket sells whole frozen durian fruit and lets you lets you pick live lobster straight from the tank?
As I remember from my childhood Saturdays, no Wing Yip trip is complete without a visit to Tai Pan, the superstore's traditional Chinese bakery selling flaky egg custard tarts and coconut cream eclairs.
"All the bakes here are made fresh in store everyday," explains baker Anissa Feng, who has worked at Tai Pan for 22 years. "We get up at 4 AM, don our aprons, and get to work. We have a lot of personalised cake orders from birthdays, weddings, and even Chinese New Year cakes."
Feng tells me her most popular items are the barbecue pork buns and soft triangle cakes.
"Sometimes we're so busy that we have to restock most of baked goods by 10 AM," she adds.
As Amy and I conclude our East-Asia-via-Croydon trip, our bellies full of dim sum, arms cradling bags of Chinese cakes, and smelling like pandan leaves, I turn to take a final look at the Wing Yip wonderland—only to be given a parental bollocking from Feng.
"You don't need a plastic bag for your cakes," she says. "You should be saving the planet!"
Not for the first time today, I feel just like a child.
For more British Chinese cuisine, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.