At Chelsea Market, Pearl River Mart Redefines the Mom-And-Pop Paradigm

Inspired by Hong Kong parades, the Pearl River team was determined to make their own LED-powered lion costume. A dancer from the Wan Chi Ming Institute performed a dance in costume on opening night to bless the new space. Photo by Asiya Khaki.

BY REBECCA FIORE | In the center of Pearl River Mart’s newly opened Chelsea Market location is a large bright red round table. It has three tiers, which can be moved about for displaying clothing and other assorted goods. The center can be removed, which transforms the table into a stand and the displays into benches. At Nov. 15’s opening night reception, a DJ stood in the middle spinning songs to friends and longtime customers, said Joanne Kwong, president of Pearl River Mart.

“The two things that distinguish this place from [the other location] are the focus on merchant designers and this,” Kwong said as she pointed to the red table, “which is a flexible event space. You could have a brush painting class, or calligraphy, or dumpling-making. So when it’s not in use it’s a display area, but we can turn things around and have a talk, a book signing, a performance.”

Kwong has been thinking a lot of about transformation. Just a year ago, she took on her in-law’s business when, after nearly 50 years, they decided to retire due to outrageous rent price hikes at their 30,000-square-foot Soho location. Pearl River Mart has had five locations in the past, moving around lower Manhattan. Currently, the mom-and-pop shop has two locations — its flagship in Tribeca and its considerably smaller 3,500-square-foot Chelsea Market store.

“About two years ago we knew that our lease [in Soho] was ending and our rent was going to quintuple. We were already paying over a million dollars a year and it was going to go to six million dollars a year, which is a really incredible amount for any business really, but for a small mom-and-pop business it’s unsustainable,” she said.

On the ground floor of Chelsea Market, the brightly lit, L-shaped store has an open layout to allow shoppers to roam around freely. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

Kwong knew the Chelsea Market location had to be more than just a store, because the mart itself started off as more than just Chinese trinkets and tchotchkes. To do so, Kwong decided to bring her in-law’s vision into a new era full of social media, community outreach, and local Asian American artists.

Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen were never originally storeowners, but rather academics and activists. They emigrated from Taiwan, and in 1971 the couple opened Pearl River Mart in Chinatown as their way of introducing New Yorkers to Chinese traditions.

During that Vietnam War era, Kwong noted, Chinese people and culture were subject to suspicion. The mission-driven store was created to combat negative myths and stereotypes.

“Even Chinatown at the time was an enclave,” Kwong recalled. “It wasn’t what it is now. It was a place you really probably wouldn’t go to as an ordinary New Yorker, unless you were Chinese. Mr. Chen felt that if people just get to know each other, sit down have actual conversations, day-to-day contact, and start seeing each other as members of families and communities, then people will understand we have more in common than differences — and these barriers will fall down.”

Kwong, who grew up in New York City in the 1980s, said there wasn’t a lot of Asian representation around her in the media or in retail. She remembered Pearl River Mart “as one of the only cross-over businesses that appealed to Chinese people and the greater New York.”

Kwong also said she realizes that in 2017, New Yorkers don’t need to be introduced to Chinese culture anymore, but believes there’s more of a need to celebrate all that’s emerged since.

“Before it was culture in Asia, and then American culture. But there was nothing in the middle. In the 50 years since, now there’s an Asian American culture which has developed,” Kwong said.

Many of the current designers seen on a white rotating display case in the Chelsea Market store’s front section are Asian Americans, some born and raised in Chinatown. The mart features artists such as Wonton In A Million, who used her father’s restaurant as inspiration behind her cartoon dim sum and bao buns; Patricia Chang, an Instagram influencer whose streetwear incorporates whimsical food and animal designs; and CYNONYC, a fourth-generation Chinese American whose metalworks and silk-screening combine Chinatown and classic Americana styles.

Pan-Asian snacks and beverages were the most popular items sold during the first 24 hours of operation at Chelsea Market. Japanese Kit Kats come in classic flavors such as green tea and raspberry. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

“We still have fun wacky stuff that has nothing to do with Asian culture, which is a product of the Chens and their sense of humor. You might have beautiful brocade purses right next to a little coin purse that says ‘weed’ on it. It’s kind of always been that place, a little quirky, colorful, and loud — kind of like New York itself.”

While the store has a mostly Pan-Asian appeal, including Japanese ceramics, Korean facemasks and Indian incense, other goods come from Nicaragua. Kwong said she considers the mart a place of discovery.

Beyond a new look, open floor plan, snack wall and fashion rack, Kwong also changed the company’s online presence. She created a Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook account to both brand the mart and find potential merchants to feature.

“We became much more active on our social media channels and we built much more content for those channels,” Kwong said. “So that even if somebody is in the middle of the country and can’t get to a bigger city where they can get goods from Asia, at least you can get the info you might need and order online. If you need information on how to celebrate Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival, or what the significance of lucky cats are, you can still come to our website and enjoy that content. And if you would like something, we can ship it to you. We are building those tools for the store, which three years ago we didn’t really have.”

Pam Friedman was ecstatic that Pearl River Mart had a Chelsea location, since it’s closer to her daughter’s place in Manhattan. Friedman was purchasing bags of shrimp chips she grabbed from the rainbow-colored wall of snacks.

Pam Friedman always makes sure to stop at Pearl River Mart for their shrimp chips and wontons, snacks she can’t find back home in Columbus, OH. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

“We’d always go to the Soho shop before. I can’t get these [chips] anywhere by me,” the Columbus, Ohio resident said. “So I’m always sure to come here when I need to stock up on snacks.”

For more information, visit Follow Pearl River Mart on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Back row, L to R: Gene Hu (son of owners), Joanne Kwong (president of Pearl River; owners’ daughter-in-law and Gene’s wife), Ching Yeh Chen (former president; Joanne’s mother-in-law), Ming Yi Chen (founder; Joanne’s father-in-law). Front row, L to R: Milo Hu, Griffin Hu (Gene and Joanne’s sons). Photo by Asiya Khaki.

One Response to At Chelsea Market, Pearl River Mart Redefines the Mom-And-Pop Paradigm

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