How a fifth-generation entrepreneur is reinventing a Chinatown landmark | american small business
For Mei Lum, the oldest business in Manhattan’s Chinatown, is both a symbol of the neighborhood’s resilience and an informal living room where it grew up. In the space tucked away behind the modest red storefront of Wing on Wo & Co on Mott Street, she shared meals with her family, took Chinese lessons with her grandparents and helped with the cash register when she was young.
In 2016, her grandmother planned to sell the specialty china shop and its building, which the family owned and whose estimated value approached $10 million (8.8m). Lum, who was preparing to study international relations at Columbia University, decided to take over the store – not only for to preserve its cultural value, but to create a community hub. His newly imagined iteration of the family business would be a store that was also a club for local activists and artists to tackle local issues like gentrification and displacement, both which, according to her, would have been exacerbated by the sale of the building to an outside developer.
“My desire to take over came from wanting to blur the lines of what the showcase could be,” Lum, 32, said. “A business doesn’t have to be so focused on the economy. There can always be real connections, and that’s what sustains a community.
As a fifth-generation owner, Lum isn’t just looking to the future. She helped Wing On Wo back back to its late 19th century roots. When it was still a startup, the store functioned as a gathering space, credit union, and informal post office for poor Chinese workers during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited Chinese immigration to the United States and barred Chinese immigrants to obtain US citizenship.
More than 100 years later, Wing On Wo remains above all a family farm. Lum’s father, Gary, has been manning the counter and talking to customers for three decades. His mother, Lorraine, processes orders and manages the website. Even her nonagenarian grandmother, Nancy, helps promote rare china on the store PageInstagramincluding hand painted wine cupsglazed in the shape of a fish vases and elaborate plates.
The pandemic caused Lum to throw himself in e-commerce, digital marketing and social media. She also added a host of new initiatives, including youth programs, an artist residency and a ceramics fair, to ensure that in addition to preserving tradition, the company is shape the future of Chinatown.
Why did you decide to take over the store instead of going to graduate school?
Mei Lum: The decision stems from a series of conversations about the gentrification of Chinatowns across the United States and the surveillance of a researcher as she led interviews with various artists, activists, smallholders and other Chinatown actors. It provided me with context on how abandoning the business and the building could exacerbate some of the cycles of gentrification that [are] event. The intent was to ensure that my family could continue to have space to gather and that my grandparents and great aunt could age in place. I grew up coming here every day as a kid, helping with the cash register, having meals and Chinese lessons with my grandparents. All of these memories have helped me find who I am and what it means to be Asian American.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the store?
Read: In the beginning, Wing on Wo was a general store that sold canned goods and roast meats. It was also a credit union and an informal post office. When my grandmother took over in 1965, she decided to focus specifically on porcelain. Wing on Wo did not have direct access to Chinese products until China opened up in the late 1970s (after the Cultural Revolution). Our heyday was the late 70s to late 80s. A lot of our merchandise came from Hong Kong, where my grandfather grew up.
Family businesses like Wing on Wo have defined Chinatown for more than a century. How did you experience managing the store as a family?
Read: We are a china store, but it’s more than just items in a store. It’s more about the memories they hold and the rituals that a teapot, for example, can inspire in someone. We can go back to the original incarnations of what Wing on Wo was in the 1890s: a meeting place where people could tell stories and follow each other.
What kind of challenges has your family faced in the 21st century?
Read: Chinatown is seen from the outside as a neighborhood that offers restaurants and cheap goods. In some ways it detracted from us and what tourists expect when they come here. It is therefore very important for me to reframe our products and explain the cultural traditions and the delicate hand painting of the porcelain we purchased. I wanted to source directly from the ceramic studios in Jingdezhen (a city in southern China known as the porcelain capital of the world) so that people understand that we support small artists. We do not source from large factories.
Wing on Wo is in a very interesting time where we’ve had the last seven years of regeneration. Covid pushed us to bring our entire store online, to get into e-commerce, digital marketing and social media. We see many opportunities opening up to us in wholesale and large collaborations, but we are struggling to grow due to external factors such as inflation and supply chain issues.
Read: We view our store as a place of conversation for Asian Americans or people from the Asian Diaspora, who today make up the bulk of our customer base. They are nostalgic for family history and tradition, and curious about their cultural identity. We want them to discover their identity through our porcelain or our snuffboxes, or during our events. We host open mic nights, art exhibits, youth clinics, and panel discussions on things like using art as a means to resist gentrification. We focused on working with young Asian, gay and trans people, because the future of Chinatown depends on the next generation. We want to make sure they feel a sense of belonging and ownership of this community, and we want to give them the tools to honor the legacy of those who came before them.