He said: 'Taste this'

Updated: 2012-11-11 13:44

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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He said: 'Taste this'

S.C. Van intended for his stay in Denmark to be temporary, but first war and then a Danish wife made him rethink his plans. Provided to China Daily

The year is 1960 and a charming young Chinese man looks straight out of the TV, into practically every living room in Denmark. "The spring roll lies well on the stomach," says Sai-chiu Van in perfect Danish.

"I was just a young boy then, but I remember it very well," says Friis Arne Petersen, more than 50 years later.

"At that time, we had no McDonald's, no KFC. Italian food hadn't gone global yet," says Petersen, now Denmark's ambassador to China. "Danish people then, like today, were very focused on food and food quality, but food was local. Going out to a restaurant was not so common - we ate at home."

But Van, a personable farmer's son from Hangzhou, had a good idea at the right time. His spring roll company offered food that was intriguingly exotic, delicious - and a good value. By the time young Petersen was a college student, spring rolls from Daloon (Great Dragon) were the late-night snack food of choice after clubbing.

Petersen says even his father, a traditional meat-and-potatoes man, loved Van's spring rolls.

A hundred years after Van's birth, Hangzhou recently celebrated its native son's success with a party for a new book, The Adventure of the Spring Roll, by Danish author and law professor Ditlev Tamm. In Danish and Chinese, Tamm tells the story of how Van emigrated to Denmark in 1935, after his father urged him to pursue advanced studies in agriculture, in Denmark.

"Danish agriculture was already very innovative, with technology focused on small parcels of land but making it very productive," Petersen says.

Van expected to study hard, earn his degree, and bring his newfound knowledge back to the family farm business.

But the Japanese invasion had become all-out war consuming all of China by 1937, and Van's family decided he was better off staying in Europe. He earned his master's degree in agriculture science and went to work in Denmark's growing pharmaceutical industry, before starting his own companies producing soy oil and soy sauce. He became a Danish citizen in 1952.

Van's first spring rolls were produced in his basement in Charlottenlund, a city north of Copenhagen. His first order came from a hot dog stand in the capital's famous amusement park, Tivoli, in 1960, and Van became the first person to manufacture spring rolls in Denmark.

But he wasn't alone. A generous immigration policy brought many Chinese to the country at that time, and small mom-and-pop restaurants became commonplace.

Van's appealing presence on TV helped Chinese food become accepted and popular among locals as well as immigrants, and in 1970 Van opened the first Daloon "factory" in the Danish city of Nyborg.

Spring rolls are still Daloon's top product, though the company today produces more than 100 different products. By the time of his death in 2003, he had built what observers said was arguably the biggest frozen-food brand in Denmark, and one of the strongest food trademarks in the country, while Daloon also earned significant export revenues.

Today Daloon's products are widely sold in Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

Van was 90 when he died on Feb 14, 2003, but his youngest son, Hemming Van, has continued the business.

Former Chinese ambassador to Denmark Zhen Jianguo, who had a close relationship with the Van family and wrote the foreword in the Chinese edition of the biography, was also in Hangzhou for the book-launch party.

"In my family, we will celebrate our father's 100th birthday on Dec 31," says the elder Van's daughter Lissen Stokholm. "We still honor him very much."

The spring-roll maker's legacy also includes a foundation (www.scvan-fonden.dk) that provides grants to students of "primarily" Chinese origin who live or temporarily stay in Denmark to earn a higher education degree.

It's as if Van, though he's gone, is determined to make sure that "the next Van" enjoys the same opportunities he did.