People turned in countless directions for comfort amid the height of the pandemic.
Their routines flipped upside down, many tried new hobbies or developed new skills.
For those within Asian communities, cooking large meals went on as normal, said Cing Cing Hlamyo, owner of Shwe Market International Foods.
She opened her Asian grocery store in December 2016 on Vandiver Drive. Over the past two years of COVID-19, there was an increase in the number of customers who sought out her store, she said.
“Most of the pandemic, most restaurants were closed and people wanted to cook more. My main customers are Asian and they like to cook,” Hlamyo said with a laugh. “Even if it is one or two people together, they will cook a lot of food, and they like to cook more than before in the past two years.”
Previous coverage: Columbia’s refugee population has another success story
Residents started to seek out places like Shwe to shop for groceries and other supplies, Hlamyo added.
The inspiration behind Shwe
Tuesday was a particularly busy day this week as Hlamyo received a shipment of about 40 pounds of blue crabs, which sold out on the same day.
She also got in fresh pandan leaves, described by online magazine Saveur as the vanilla of southeast Asia. Saveur notes the flavor of pandan is floral like vanilla and also has similar flavors to coconut and even bubblegum. It is used to flavor rice, as it wraps around meat and rice, and can be used in desserts.
When Hlamyo is getting something special, she spreads the news by word-of-mouth and through social media.
Hlamyo typically sources her inventory from U.S. wholesalers who are importing products from Asia. They typically are located in Chicago or California, she said. Due to supply-chain issues, there were times during the pandemic when Hlamyo would visit St. Louis or Kansas City in order to get what she needed to restock shelves.
Hlamyo and her family first came to Columbia in 2009 as refugees from Myanmar.
She opened Shwe in late 2016, wanting to provide a wide variety of items to the city’s Asian community.
“A lot of Asians live in Columbia,” Hlamyo said. “If we want specific, like Thai style, we have to go to Kansas City or St. Louis, so I was thinking if we have that here in Columbia, it will help a lot of people.”
When Hlamyo and her family first moved to Columbia, there were barriers to getting a piece of home, including an inability to drive.
This was the inspiration behind Shwe — to help and be a local resource, said Hlamyo.
Part of creating the market was about creating a better life for her children, Hlamyo said. The store provides more for her family than if she was working in a factory, she added.
‘Oh, they have it!’
The store features a wide variety of Asian staples such as curry pastes and fish sauce, which are top-sellers, Hlamyo said. The Three-Crab brand of fish sauce is the most popular of the selection she carries, she said.
A couple of items customer Bill Pilger stops in for are sausages and sweet potatoes, he said. He will also buy some canned fish or Balut to feed stray cats.
What Hlamyo brings to her customers is her knowledge of the groceries she supplies, ideas for what to cook and comfort in providing unique pieces of home.
“I have a drink that is called 100-plus. It is like a diet soda from Malaysia,” she said. “Those from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, they know that drink. When these customers saw it, they screamed, ‘Oh, they have it in the U.S.!'”
That excitement pleases Hlamyo and is a favorite part of running the store, she said.
Sharing culture with Columbia
May marks a celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures, which is something else Hlamyo brings to Columbia with Shwe, along with other specialty grocery stores of Lee’s Market and Hong Kong Market.
While a majority of Hlamyo’s customers come from Columbia’s Asian community, she sees a wide variety of visitors to her store.
“American, Middle Eastern, Hawaiian all come in,” she said, noting she does not often see college-aged students, though, due to her location.
Because Hlamyo’s customers know her and her family’s schedules so well, there are times when they drop in before regular hours to pick up some groceries.
Sometimes shipments of items, such as fresh vegetables, come in late at night, which Hlamyo’s husband, Soethu, will oversee.
Once a shipment arrives, he tends to stay at the store until opening instead of returning home, Hlamyo said. Customers who work night shifts and are finished by 7 a.m. can sometimes visit the store before regular hours to get groceries if Soethu was there during the night waiting to receive a shipment, she said.
“They know my husband is here,” Hlamyo said with a laugh.
Charles Dunlap covers courts, public safety and other general subjects for the Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected], or CD_CDT on Twitter. Please consider subscribing to support vital local journalism.