September 22, 2023
How a fifth-generation entrepreneur is reinventing a Chinatown landmark | US small enterprise

For Mei Lum, the oldest-running enterprise in Manhattan’s Chinatown is without delay an emblem of the neighborhood’s resilience and a casual front room the place she got here of age. Within the house tucked behind Wing on Wo & Co’s modest crimson storefront on Mott Avenue, she shared meals along with her household, took Chinese language classes along with her grandparents and helped out with the money register as a younger woman.

In 2016, her grandmother deliberate to promote the porcelain speciality store and its constructing, which the household owned and whose estimated value neared $10m (8.8m). Lum, who was getting ready to review worldwide relations at Columbia College, determined to take over the shop not solely to protect its cultural worth, however to create a group hub. Her newly imagined iteration of the household enterprise can be a store that was additionally a clubhouse for activists and artists to deal with native points like gentrification and displacement, each of which she stated would have been exacerbated by the constructing’s sale to an outdoor developer.

“My need to take over got here from desirous to blur the traces of what the storefront might be,” Lum, 32, stated. “A enterprise doesn’t should be so economically-driven. There can nonetheless be real connections, and that’s what sustains a group.”

Because the fifth-generation proprietor, Lum’s sights aren’t solely on the longer term. She’s been serving to Wing On Wo return to its late nineteenth century roots. When it was nonetheless a startup, the store functioned as a gathering house, credit score union and casual submit workplace for poor Chinese language staff in the course of the period of the Chinese language Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese language immigration to the US and barred Chinese language immigrants from receiving US citizenship.

Greater than 100 years later, Wing On Wo stays initially a household operation. Lum’s father, Gary, has been manning the counter and chatting up clients for the previous three a long time. Her mom, Lorraine, processes orders and manages the web site. Even her nonagenarian grandmother, Nancy, helps promote uncommon porcelain on the shop’s Instagram web page, together with hand-painted wine cups, fish-shaped glazed vases and elaborate dinner plates.

The pandemic pushed Lum to throw herself into e-commerce, digital advertising and marketing and social media. She’s additionally added a bunch of latest initiatives, together with youth packages, an artist residency and a ceramicist honest, to make sure that along with preserving custom, the enterprise is shaping the way forward for Chinatown.

How a fifth-generation entrepreneur is reinventing a Chinatown landmark | US small enterprise
Lum is the fifth-generation proprietor of Wing on Wo & Co in Manhattan’s Chinatown. {Photograph}: Alex Lau

Why did you determine to take over the store as an alternative of going to graduate college?

Mei Lum: The choice got here out of a sequence of conversations concerning the gentrification of Chinatowns throughout the US, and shadowing a researcher as she carried out interviews with totally different artists, activists, small property homeowners and different stakeholders in Chinatown. That supplied context for me about how letting go of the enterprise and the constructing may exacerbate among the cycles of gentrification that [are] occurring. The intention was to make it possible for my household can proceed to have an area to collect, and that my grandparents and grand-aunt can age in place. I grew up coming right here as a child each day, serving to out with the money register, having meals and Chinese language classes with my grandparents. All these recollections helped me discover who I’m, and make sense of what it means to be Asian American.

What have been among the greatest modifications you’ve seen the shop undergo?

Lum: Within the early days, Wing on Wo was a basic retailer that bought canned items and roast meats. It was additionally a credit score union and casual submit workplace. When my grandmother took over in 1965, she determined to deal with porcelain particularly. Wing on Wo didn’t have entry to Chinese language items straight till the opening of China within the late Nineteen Seventies (following the Cultural Revolution). Our heyday was the late 70s to the late 80s. A number of our items got here from Hong Kong, the place my grandfather grew up.

Household-run companies like Wing on Wo have outlined Chinatown for greater than a century. What has it been like operating the store collectively as a household?

Lum: We’re a porcelain store, however it’s far more than simply objects in a retailer. It’s extra concerning the recollections that they maintain, and the rituals {that a} teapot, for instance, can encourage for somebody. We are able to return to the unique incarnations of what Wing on Wo was within the Nineties: a gathering place the place folks can inform tales and preserve observe of one another.

‘We see our store as a place for conversation for Asian Americans.’
‘We see our retailer as a spot for dialog for Asian People.’ {Photograph}: Ricky Rhodes

What sort of challenges did your loved ones encounter within the twenty first century?

Lum: Chinatown is seen from the skin as a neighborhood that has low cost eats and low cost items. In some ways in which’s been a detriment to us and what vacationers anticipate once they come right here. So it’s actually vital for me to reframe our merchandise and clarify the cultural traditions and delicate hand-painting of the porcelain that we sourced. I needed to supply straight from ceramic studios in Jingdezhen (a metropolis in Southern China often known as the porcelain capital of the world) so folks can perceive that we’re supporting small artists. We don’t supply from huge factories.

Wing on Wo is in a really fascinating second the place we’ve had the previous seven years of regeneration. Covid pushed us to convey our full store on-line, get into e-commerce, digital advertising and marketing and social media. We’re seeing a variety of alternatives open up for us in wholesale and enormous collaborations, however we’re struggling to develop as a result of exterior components like inflation and provide chain points.

How did you provide you with the thought for the WOW Challenge, a grassroots arts initiative that goals to guard Chinatown’s inventive tradition?

Lum: We see our retailer as a spot for dialog for Asian People, or Asian diasporic folks, who make up most of our buyer base at this time. They’re nostalgic about household historical past and custom, and interested by their cultural identification. We would like them to study their identification via our porcelain or our snuff bottles, or at our occasions. We host open mic nights, artwork reveals, youth internships and dialogue panels on issues like utilizing artwork as a way to withstand gentrification. We’ve targeted on working with Asian, queer and trans youth as a result of the way forward for Chinatown will depend on the longer term era. We wish to be sure that they really feel a way of belonging and possession over this group, and we wish to give them the instruments to honor the legacy of those that got here earlier than them.

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