Sanu Miah, Businessman
“Spitalfields is my life,” admitted Sanu Miah with a shy smile, when I sat down with him during a rare quiet half hour in his modest office above a restaurant in Brick Lane, where he works each day, selling plane tickets, doing money transfers and brokering mortgages and loans. We met at the doorway on the street, as Sanu arrived looking fresh and serene in his cool Punjabi against the heat of the day, coming from the mosque and ready to start business. In the peace of the morning, before his customers came tramping up the stairs, Sanu disclosed his story to me plainly yet with a certain dignified reticence – an emotional restraint that served to reveal something of the quiet courage of this unassuming man.
“I have been here since I arrived in London in 1979 at the age of fifteen years old.” he began, “Brick Lane was the first place I came to on the tube, travelling from Heathrow to Aldgate East with my uncle Zillul. I saw Bengali, English and Jewish people, and my uncle explained that Brick Lane was the place every immigrant arrived and then eventually moved out. That was my first day.
I tried to forget about Bangladesh because I knew I was now in a rich country where I had the most opportunity to lead my life, but when I woke up next morning I was a bit upset to discover the house was empty – life in Bangladesh and Brick Lane are completely opposite! I was used to seeing so many people around in the countryside, friends, family and neighbours. At five, my father came home from work and took me to Brick Lane to do the shopping, where I met a few of his friends and that cheered me up again, starting to think about my future. My first priority was going to school and getting a good education.
Unfortunately, I had the problem of language where I could understand yet not speak English, so I went to classes at night and after six months I learnt a bit of English. Then I started looking for a school but as I was nearly sixteen nobody would take me. So I did special classes in English, Maths and Immigrant History and took City & Guilds exams, and I had a place at Jubilee St Sixth Form College. And then my family went back to Bangladesh – but it was too important an experience here for me to leave. Now the problem was how to get an education and feed myself too.
So I took a job as a machinist and did part-time study, until 1985 when I started in business at twenty-one years old, a restaurant in partnership with my uncle in Brick Lane. It wasn’t doing very well, so I carried on working as a machinist by day and in the restaurant at night. After a year it picked up so I left work to concentrate on the restaurant, it wasn’t making any profit but there was a small income. I had a hard time when my father died in 1986 and I visited him for six weeks, that’s when I stopped my education. My uncle and I decided to sell the restaurant and again I went back to work as a machinist and doing part-time study. Eventually, again in partnership with my uncle, I bought another restaurant, in Manchester and each weekend I went up there and helped them out, until the building got compulsorily purchased and demolished.
Next I found a job in insurance, I was looking for a better job that was less tiring than being a machinist. I did it for six months but then I quit because although my East End clients spoke to me nicely, they were back biting and one introduced me as “an insurance thief.” Returning to being a machinist, I became a manager since I knew the trade.
In 1990 when I was twenty-seven, I married Shelena Begum and it was a happy time because we had a son in 1991, our first baby. I had the opportunity to buy another restaurant and my brother managed it for me. By this time I was searching for further study and I started a course in motor vehicles at City & Islington College, but there was a disaster at the restaurant and I had to go and run it. I managed it for two years and there were so many battles, I had to give up my course – even though my ambition was not to be a restaurateur, but to study and do something professionally.
Then one day my son’s teacher said to me, ‘Mr Miah, I have found your son very aggressive, even though he is a good student.’ I was surprised. I couldn’t understand what was wrong. I put a manager in the restaurant on Saturday and Sunday, and I spent two hours each day with my son taking him to school and bringing him back, I talked to him everyday. I was spending more time with him than at work, I was trying to give him comfort. I realised the problem was that when I left he was at school and when I came home he was asleep. I took a few weeks off to be with him, but most parents would not be able to do as I have done.”
Sanu Miah no longer works days in a clothing factory and nights in a restaurant. That is behind him now he has achieved the professional career he always aspired to. What is remarkable about Sanu’s account is that it is a testimony of unceasing labour, counter-balanced by a hungry appetite for learning and study which continues to this day. Coming to London from Bangladesh, work and study were the paths of personal advancement Sanu pursued tenaciously in spite of all the obstacles, until the needs of his own son caused him to re-evaluate his priorities. I asked Sanu if he felt any sense of loss that he left his country of origin and worked all through his youth. Not in the least cynical or world-weary, he is adamant that the opportunities he had, even to labour so many years in menial employment and devote all his spare time to study, were more than worth any sacrifice.
Today the fifteen year old boy who arrived on the District Line – like so many others before him – and walked out of Aldgate East tube station and up Brick Lane in 1979 to seek his own future, has become a respected businessman. After such a long journey and so much work, we are now witnessing the apotheosis of Sanu Miah. “I think I will be here in Spitalfields all my life.”, he reflected soberly, acknowledging past tensions yet hopeful of the future too, “Although there was once hatred between the whites, the Bengalis and the Pakistanis, that was because of the language problem. We could not communicate so we knew nothing of each other. People have changed, learning the language and meeting socially together. Everybody has the habit of living together here. I would like to meet other communities and know different people – because you are in this world not for very long and you have to live with other people…”
Sanu on the left, pictured with friends on the day he left Bangladesh at fifteen years old to come to London in 1979.
Where Sanu’s journey began.
In the rural world of Bangladesh.
Working in a Brick Lane video store, 1986.
The evolution of a young businessman.
Sanu with cousins, 1982