Chinatown: How A Fifth-Generation Entrepreneur Is Reinventing The Business

November 3, 2022

For Mei Lum, the oldest-running business in Manhattan’s Chinatown (just 20 minutes from Harlem) is at once a symbol of the neighborhood’s resilience and an informal living room where she came of age.

In the space tucked behind Wing on Wo & Co’s modest red storefront on Mott Street, she shared meals with her family, took Chinese lessons with her grandparents, and helped out with the cash register as a young girl.

In 2016, her grandmother planned to sell the porcelain specialty shop and its building, which the family owned and whose estimated worth neared $10m.

Lum, who was preparing to study international relations at Columbia University in Harlem, decided to take over the store…

… not only to preserve its cultural value, but to create a community hub. Her newly imagined iteration of the family business would be a shop that was also a clubhouse for activists and artists to address local issues like gentrification and displacement…

…both of which she said would have been exacerbated by the building’s sale to an outside developer.

“My desire to take over came from wanting to blur the lines of what the storefront could be,” Lum, 32, said. “A business doesn’t have to be so economically driven. There can still be genuine connections, and that’s what sustains a community.”

As the fifth-generation owner, Lum’s sights aren’t only on the future. She’s been helping Wing on Wo return to its late 19th-century roots. When it was still a startup, the shop functioned as a gathering space, credit union, and informal post office for poor Chinese workers during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration to the US and barred Chinese immigrants from receiving US citizenship.

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More than 100 years later, Wing on Wo remains first and foremost a family operation. Lum’s father, Gary, has been manning the counter and chatting up customers for the past three decades. Her mother, Lorraine, processes orders and manages the website. Even her nonagenarian grandmother, Nancy, helps promote rare porcelain on the store’s Instagram page, including hand-painted wine cups, fish-shaped glazed vases, and elaborate dinner plates.

The pandemic pushed Lum to throw herself into e-commerce, digital marketing, and social media. She’s also added a host of new initiatives, including youth programs, an artist residency, and a ceramicist fair, to ensure that in addition to preserving tradition, the business is shaping the future of Chinatown.

Read the entire article by The Guardian here >

Photo credit: Three generations (source)

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