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How 5th Generation Entrepreneurs Reinvent New York City's Chinatown Landmarks | US Small Business

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debtOr Mei Lam, the oldest in Manhattan’s Chinatown, both a symbol of the neighborhood’s resilience and the casual living room she grew up in. Mott In a tucked away space behind the modest red storefront of her Wing on Wo & Co on her street, she dines with her family, takes Chinese lessons with her grandparents, and speaks young I used to help with the cash register.

In 2016, my grandmother planned to sell the family-owned porcelain specialty store and its building, bringing the estimated value closer. $10 million.Lam, who was preparing to study international relations at Columbia University, decided to take over the restaurant. but also maintain its cultural value, Create a community hub. Her newly envisioned iteration of the family business will be a shop that is also a clubhouse for activists and artists to address community issues such as gentrification and displacement. She said it would have been much worse had the building been sold to an outside developer.

“My desire to take over the store was born out of a desire to blur the lines of what a store should be,” Lam, 32, said. may still exist, and that’s what keeps the community alive.”

The future is not the only goal of the 5th generation owner, Mr. Lam.she has helped wing on war return To the roots of the late 19th century.The shop when it was still a startup In the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration to the United States and barred Chinese immigrants from obtaining U.S. citizenship, meeting houses, credit unions, and informal establishments for poor Chinese workers It worked as a post office.

More than 100 years later, Wing on Wo remains first and foremost. Family run. Ram’s father, Gary, has spent the last 30 years manning the counter and chatting to customers. Her mother, Lorraine, processes orders and manages her website. Even her teenage grandmother, Nancy, advertises rare porcelain on the store’s Instagram page, including hand-painted wine cups, fish-shaped glazed vases, and elaborate dinner plates. I’m helping

The pandemic forced Lam to commit suicide For e-commerce, digital marketing and social media. In addition to keeping tradition, she also business is Shaping the future of Chinatown.

Lam is the fifth generation owner of Wing on Wo & Co in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Photo: Alex Lau

Why did you decide to take over the restaurant instead of going on to graduate school?

Umebayashi: The decision stems from a series of conversations about the gentrification of Chinatowns across the United States. Interviews with various Chinatown artists, activists, small property owners and other stakeholders. It provided context for how letting go of businesses and buildings can exacerbate some of the cycles of gentrification. [are] Happening. The intention was to continue to have a space for my family to gather so that my grandparents and great-aunts could grow old in the place. I grew up eating with him and taking Chinese lessons. All of those memories have helped me find who I am and what it means to be Asian American.

What is the biggest change the store has experienced?

Ram: Originally, Wing on Wo was a grocery store selling canned goods and grilled meats. It was also a credit union and an unofficial post office. When her grandmother took over her household in 1965, she decided to devote herself specifically to porcelain. Wing on Wo did not have direct access to Chinese goods until China opened up in the late 1970s (after the Cultural Revolution). The heyday was in the late 70’s to late 80’s. Many of our products come from Hong Kong, where my grandfather grew up.

Family-run businesses like Wing on Wo have defined Chinatown for more than a century. How was running the store together as a family?

Ram: We are a porcelain shop, but it is not just the objects in the shop. It’s about the memories they hold and the rituals that, say, a teapot can inspire someone. A meeting place where people can tell stories and track each other.

“We think of our store as a conversation place for Asian Americans.” Photo: Ricky Rhodes

What challenges has your family encountered in the 21st century?

Ram: From the outside, Chinatown is a city of cheap food and cheap goods.In some ways it’s a disservice to us and what tourists expect when they come here. I wanted to source directly from a ceramics studio in Jingdezhen (a southern Chinese city known as the porcelain capital of the world). To let people know that we support small artists. We don’t source from big factories.

Wing on Wo is in a very interesting moment after the last seven years of rebirth. Covid has forced us to bring our entire stores online and get into e-commerce, digital marketing and social media. While many opportunities are opening up in wholesale and large-scale collaborations, external factors such as inflation and supply chain issues have made growth difficult.

How did you come up with the idea for W?What is the “W Project”, a grassroots art activity that protects the creative culture of Chinatown?

Ram: We see our store as a conversation place for people of Asian American or Asian diaspora who make up the majority of our customer base today. They are nostalgic for their family history and traditions and curious about their cultural identity. . It hosts open mic nights, art exhibitions, youth internships, discussion panels on the use of art as a means of resisting gentrification, and more. We have focused on working with Asian, queer and trans youth because the future of Chinatown rests with future generations. We want to give them the tools to honor the legacy of their predecessors.