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The Next Generation of Chinatown


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ew York City’s Chinatown felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic perhaps more harshly than the rest of the city. In 2020, while consumer spending in New York City as a whole dropped by 65%, Chinatown businesses saw that number fall by 82%, according to Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. And that hit started weeks prior to March, when the stay-at-home orders first took effect: as early as January 2020, as news of a contagious disease coming out of Wuhan, China, began to take hold in the US, Chinatown restaurants saw reservations slow to a trickle. Despite coinciding with the Lunar New Year, usually the busiest time for the neighborhood, business had already started to decline.

As the months kept on, Chinatown weathered storm after storm without any relief — within a year, over 150 businesses had shuttered, xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans reached unprecedented numbers, and a “mega” jail threatened the future of the community.

But despite everything, at the heart of the neighborhood is a resilience that has kept on going. When the city felt unsafe, the community walked together. When a five-alarm fire devastated a beloved institution, Chinatown marshaled support to preserve precious archives and mementos of Chinese American history. And when local businesses felt pressure to shut down, a community pitched in to keep their doors open.

Many children who grew up in their parents’ dim sum parlors, tea emporiums, and gift shops are now taking over their family businesses, bringing a renewed sense of hope and excitement to years of craft and tradition. Meet the generation creating and inspiring the future of Chinatown.

Chinatown TK

Eleanor Ting, left, and her daughter Jona out side Ting’s Gift Shop, which has been in the same spot for 64 years. Ting helped her parents ever since she was little, servicing customers who came in and watching TV during downtime.

Jingyu Lin for Insider


Second-generation New Yorker and owner of Ting’s Gift Shop

“I’m 64 years old, and I’ve been working at the store for 64 years,” Eleanor Ting likes to say.

Like many second-generation children of business owners, Ting and her two younger sisters grew up at the family store. Her dad came to America from Hong Kong in the late 1940’s, and her mom joined in 1958. Back then, it was common for families to be briefly split up due to strict immigration laws in the US.

“Mom wanted to be her own boss. When mom and dad got married, dad asked mom what she wanted to do, and she said she wanted to run a gift shop,” Ting said. “When you’re in Hong Kong, you work for other people. After a while, you want to be your own boss.”

Ting’s Gift Shop sells Chinese souvenirs, dolls, porcelain, and other knick-knacks, and has commandeered the same spot on the corner of Pell Street since 1958.

Ting and her sisters helped their parents ever since they were little, servicing customers who came in and watching TV in their downtime. As a mischievous kid, Ting played with all the toys in the shop, trying to see if they would really break.

“Everyone would say, if it can’t go through Eleanor, it’s not worth selling,” Ting joked.

Even as she grew older and got other jobs, Ting continued to work at the store, dropping by after work to help her parents. Now, it’s her daughter, Jona, who drops by the store once in a while to hang out with Ting.

Not much has changed with the shop over the years — no Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, which Ting said she’s hopeless at. Ting said preserving the shop was a conscious decision to remember her mother, who passed away in December.

“I wanted to keep it like this because it’s the comfort, it’s to know she’s here with me,” she said.

 

Alice Liu sitting in her store

Alice Liu inside her father’s store, Grand Tea & Imports. It began in the small corner in Liu’s dad’s shoe store, where he began selling tea that he brought back from China in his suitcase in 2006. The shop was also a way for Liu’s dad to make sure his two daughters, who were born and raised in America, could reconnect with their heritage.

Jingyu Lin for Insider


Second-generation New Yorker, Grand Tea & Imports

Grand Tea & Imports wasn’t the first business the Lius ran. When Alice Liu’s parents first immigrated to New York in the late 1980’s from Taishan, China, they opened, in succession, a restaurant, a DVD shop, and a shoe store.

It wasn’t until 2006, when Liu’s dad visited China for the first time since he left, that he discovered how tea brought people together.

“He’d lost contact with everyone in his past because long-distance calls were very expensive, and letters were time-consuming and costly,” Liu, who is 27, said. “After being away for nearly 20 years, he reconnected with them over tea.”

Tea wasn’t just a habitual drink, but a vehicle for socializing, Liu’s dad found. But the tea consumed in America left much to be desired: Back then, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t have tea on their menu, and Lipton tea bags and the tea served at dim sum joints were all indistinguishable from one another.


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The earliest iteration of Grand Tea & Imports began in the small corner in Liu’s dad’s shoe store, where he began selling tea that he brought back from China in his suitcase in 2006. One year later, he opened a store dedicated to selling tea.

The shop was also a way for Liu’s dad to make sure his two daughters, who were born and raised in America, could reconnect with their heritage. In addition to tea, they began to sell cultural and Buddhist goods.

Liu’s parents are still involved in Grand Tea & Imports but Liu and her sister, Karen, have taken over the ecommerce and social media aspects of the business while juggling full-time jobs. At the same time, they’re sticking to their roots by servicing old clientele.

“We try not to be trendy. Culture doesn’t just come and go with trends,” Liu told Insider. “We just try to be authentically ourselves.”

 

Paul Eng portrait standing in the kitchen

After Paul Eng’s father passed away, his older brothers took over. But Fong On couldn’t compete with large manufacturers who cranked out massive quantities at undercut prices. They started losing money, and closed the business in 2017. So Eng decided it was up to him to revitalize the shop. He returned to the US from Moscow and re-opened Fong On as a tofu pudding store in 2019.

Jingyu Lin for Insider


Third-generation New Yorker and owner of Fong On

Fong On’s story involves a couple of lucky wins and several million pounds of tofu.

In 1930, Paul Eng’s grandfather first landed in Cuba from Taishan, a quaint and impoverished village in southern China. He immigrated by himself, as many men did back then due to restrictive immigration laws, and worked and sent money back home. Soon after, he won a lottery and moved to New York. His streak of luck continued: In 1933, he won another lottery that allowed him not only to bring his ten-year-old son, Eng’s father, over to the US, but also to start a tofu shop.

The original Fong On, which means “grand peace,” sold tofu made out of laboriously hand-ground soybeans. When Eng’s father took over the business in the 1950s, he realized he could speed up the process by using a makeshift press made of large stones atop wooden soda crates. Over the years, they upgraded to pneumatic presses and stainless steel frames.

Then, luck began to dwindle. After Eng’s father passed away, his older brothers took over the shop. But Fong On, which sold most of its tofu wholesale at 50 pieces for $12, couldn’t compete with large manufacturers who cranked out massive quantities at undercut prices. They started losing money, and closed the business in 2017.

“It was sad. My childhood was disappearing,” Eng said.

So Eng decided it was up to him to revitalize the shop. He returned to the US from Moscow, where he was a photographer, and re-opened Fong On as a tofu pudding store in 2019.

Paul Eng

When Eng’s father took over the business in the 1950s, he realized he could speed up the process by using a makeshift press made of large stones atop wooden crates. Over the years, they upgraded to pneumatic presses and stainless steel frames.

Jingyu Lin for Insider


“I was trying to figure out what was special to me about the business. Tofu can be indistinguishable — it’s the same source of beans, same processes… what’s the point,” Eng said. “But when I went on a fact-finding trip to Taiwan and had tofu pudding for the first time, it was a lightbulb moment.”

Toppings — from red bean and taro balls to fried shallots and pickled radish — could be a “gateway” to tofu, Eng realized. Fong On has since attracted much younger, non-Asian customers with its sweet and savory tofu puddings. Despite the changes, Eng said he wouldn’t have been able to do it without his family’s history.

“My father always mentioned growing up that I’d take over the business one day, and my answer was hell no,” Eng said. “My homage to my family is not necessarily visible from the outside: The store has physically changed and so has the business model. But the thing that preserves their legacy is their continued way of adapting to survive.”

 

A woman sits on a bench in a shop full of porcelain goods.

Mei Lum grew up in the back kitchen of the shop and would always stop by after school. Her mom would be cooking dinner in the kitchen, and her grandfather would be waiting to give her a Cantonese lesson. Extended family members and neighbors were also frequent guests at the shop.
“It’s always been our informal family living-room.


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Fifth-generation New Yorker, fourth-generation owner of Wing On Wo

For Mei Lum, Wing On Wo has always been a community hub.

Lum’s great-grandfather first opened Wing On Wo in 1890, when Chinatown had only just begun to coalesce in New York. The shop operated as a general store selling canned goods and postage stamps, and became an informal watering hole where local immigrants gossiped and sent letters to friends and family in China.It wasn’t until 1964, when Lum’s grandmother, Po, took over the shop, that Wing On Wo began to focus on selling porcelain ware. When China opened up trade with the US in 1979, business flourished as Americans became more interested in Chinese products.

Lum grew up in the back kitchen of the shop and would always stop by after school to say hello to her grandparents. Her mom would be cooking dinner in the kitchen, and her grandfather would be waiting to give her a Cantonese lesson. Extended family members and neighbors were also frequent guests and celebrated birthdays and anniversaries at the shop.

“It’s always been our informal family living-room. It’s natural for us to welcome community folks into the space,” Lum said.

Mei Lum outside Wing on Wo

By weaving in storytelling and sourcing porcelain in a way that traces her grandparents’ steps, Lum (pictured here with her grandmother, Po) wants to continue to pay homage to the history of both her family and the wider community. She also founded the W.O.W. Project, a community-led nonprofit that highlights the works of women, non-binary, and queer youth to help preserve Chinatown’s creative culture.

Jingyu Lin for Insider


Lum took over the shop in 2016, but her family — including her parents, her great-aunt Betty, and her grandmother — are still involved in some of the daily operations and marketing. During the heat of the pandemic, Lum enlisted the help of her grandmother to select her favorite products every week to feature on Wing On Wo’s website and Instagram story series, “Po’s Picks.”

“We needed to double down on marketing, but I wanted to make sure we’re staying authentic to who we are. That meant involving my family members in the process,” Lum said.

Doubling down on e-commerce through creative marketing on social media has helped Wing On Wo attract a new, younger audience. Before, most of the foot traffic came from Chinatown tourists.

Mei Lum Quote



Insider


By weaving in storytelling and sourcing porcelain in a way that traces her grandparents’ steps, Lum wants to continue to pay homage to the history of both her family and the wider community. She also founded the W.O.W. Project, a community-led nonprofit that highlights the works of women, non-binary, and queer youth to help preserve Chinatown’s creative culture.

“When we talk about the porcelain ware and pieces in the shop, it’s almost a documentation of a moment in time — a living memory that exists in nostalgia and family history, but is also so current to making sense of who we are now as Asian Americans and the Asian diaspora,” Lum said.

 

Karen Huang standing in Kwok's Food King

Karen Huang, at left, and her brother Wayne, right, grew up in Kwok’s Food King. They did their homework and slogged through 400-page workbooks as her parents chatted with customers, the phone constantly ringing in the background, and filled up tiny mustard cups or made wontons in the kitchen.

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Second-generation New Yorker, Kwok’s Food King

Huang’s parents, Henry and Lisa, immigrated to New York in the early 1970s from Fuzhou, China. At first, they had a tough time because of the language barriers, but gradually picked up more English while working at restaurant bars.

They knew from the start that their ultimate goal was to start a business to support their family. In 1975, they opened Kwok’s Food King, using Lisa’s maiden name to honor their grandfather.

“It was a very family-oriented start. They wanted a place in their community, which had welcomed them so warmly,” Huang said.


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Their customers watched Huang and her older siblings, Linda and Wayne, grow up. The restaurant was their after-school spot, where they did their homework and slogged through 400-page workbooks that weren’t nearly as interesting as people-watching. Huang watched, enrapt, as her parents chatted with customers, the phone constantly ringing in the background, and filled up tiny mustard cups or made wontons in the kitchen.

“We weren’t allowed to help out. Our parents would always say, ‘Hey, go back to your workbook,'” Huang said with a laugh.

When Huang’s dad passed away when she was in the fourth grade, her mom ran the restaurant on her own for a while. And, when the pandemic hit in 2020, Huang and her siblings became fully involved, taking over the business.

It was a divide-and-conquer strategy for the Huangs. Linda, the eldest, runs the day-to-day operations of the restaurant with her husband, while Wayne, their middle-child brother, runs the tech side of things. Huang described herself as the “creative, operational person,” tweaking the branding and switching up the menu, like adding a create-your-own stir fry option.

On top of continuing to perfect their parents’ original recipes, like spicy shredded chicken and pork lo mein, the Huangs also honor their parents by running business decisions by their mom — the true food king.

 

Jefferson Li and his father

Jefferson Li, left, and his father, Peter Zhi Chao Li, right. Peter took over a grocery store and turned it into a butcher shop, driving cabs at night to keep the shop afloat. More than 25 years since 47 Division first opened, Li said he’d like his 61-year old father and 59-year old mother to retire.

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Second-generation New Yorker, 47 Division St Trading

47 Division wasn’t originally the Li family’s, nor was it a butcher shop.

When Jefferson’s father, Peter Zhi Chao Li, first immigrated to America from Guangzhou in 1985, Chinatown was a lot smaller, which meant there weren’t many options when it came to work.

“If you were coming here from China, unless you came from money, you’d be a waiter, a busboy, or work at a laundromat,” Li, who’s 29, said. “When you’re a poor piece of sh-t immigrant, you do poor piece of sh-t jobs.”

The morning after he landed, Peter set out to find a job and landed one at a grocery store in Chinatown. He took over the business just three months later when his boss said he was folding, renamed the shop “Li’s Market.”

His brothers chipped in, but it was Peter who kept the store running over the years, driving cabs at night to keep his business afloat. Li and his sister have worked at the store since they were kids, stocking shelves, packing eggs, and serving as “basically the f-cking mascots,” according to Li.

Jefferson Li Quote



Insider


Eventually, Peter, who’d worked in the meat industry in China, decided to turn the store into a dedicated butcher shop. Li put in minimum 30- to 40-hour weeks, juggling step team and dragon boat practice at Brooklyn Tech High School with work at the shop. After a few years at the Coast Guard, which he joined when he was 18 years old, Li returned to the family business.

Working at a butcher shop can be a grind, involving long days and grueling manual labor. But working with family can be even tougher.

“I’m a grown ass man, but in their eyes, I’ll always be a little kid. It’s hard to break the barrier of filial duty when you’re a family and you work together — there are still times when my father and I will get into arguments about what to do with the store,” Li told Insider.

More than 25 years since 47 Division first opened, Li said he’d like his 61-year old father and 59-year old mother to retire.

“The family business is important, but not more important than my family,” Li said.

 

 

 

 

 

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