In 1971, Ming Yi Chen and Ching Ye Chen decided to open a store in New York City with the sole purpose of providing Chinese goods and merchandise to Americans and Chinese alike. At a time when the world knew little about life behind the Red Curtain, the Chens wanted to puncture the shroud of mystery and deliver a bit of Chinese culture to the American public — a radical notion at the time.
Nixon had not yet made his momentous visit to China and trade restrictions only just begun to loosen. Importing goods was a challenge and, according to their daughter-in-law, Joanne Kwong, illegal, but they found a way. Pearl River opened its first store on Catherine Street. It became an instant hit and a New York institution.
When the Chinese and the Americans eventually signed wide-ranging trade agreements, goods from mainland China arrived freely into the U.S. market — and to Pearl River.
The store would move several times — to Elizabeth Street, Canal Street, Broadway in SoHo, among other locations — but loyal customers followed.
In 2015, their lease for the SoHo location was coming to an end and the rent had gone from $1 million to $6 million — a forbidding price. The family thought the store’s and their legacy were coming to an end. But the Chens’ daughter-in-law, Joanne Kwong, seized on an opportunity to keep Pearl River alive.
“I was working at Columbia at the time,” said Kwong, now Pearl River’s president. “I was counsel to the president and vice-president of communications, so I knew about branding, marketing and digital development. I think when my in-laws saw what I could offer, they realized we could move forward and open another store.”
When customers found out the SoHo location would close, there was an uproar from the community. “That reaction was extremely rewarding for my in-laws. They had been with this store for over 40 years.” Kwong explained. “It made them see this store made an impact.”
The family opened an outlet on Broadway just below Canal Street last year. It’s a two-floor space with an added art gallery to display the work of Asian-American artists. No long afterward, Kyle Allen, the retail scout for Chelsea Market, approached Kwong and asked if she wanted to open in a vacant Chelsea Market spot.
“It was crazy,” Kwong said. “We had just opened our Tribeca store. But Kyle was an amazing partner to have in retail and so we jumped on the idea.”
Eight weeks ago, a new, roughly 3,500-square-foot Pearl River outlet opened its doors in Chelsea Market and, equipped with a 12-year lease, will continue the store’s mission of introducing Asian, and particularly Chinese, culture into an American market.
But what makes Chelsea Market a challenge is the clientele. Around 6 million tourists frequent the market annually. Kwong realizes that the goods in the store need to appeal to a much larger audience of people, unlike at the Tribeca location, which attracts more locals and loyal customers.
The goods span Pan-Asian products and even some more touristy tchotchkes. The store houses traditional Chinese dress, pottery and candies only available in China. One could think the identity of the original Pearl River is lost in the unmistakably commercial aspect of Chelsea Market. And with a recent announcement that Google would be buying the Chelsea Market building, the market’s creative mandate could be compromised.
But Kwong doesn’t see it that way. “I think when hard core old timers come back and see the items they remember, they don’t care about how we’ve changed overtime. They’re just happy that we’re back,” she said. “The mission of the store has always been to introduce new cultural items, new traditions, new holidays, to New York – you don’t have to introduce Asian culture anymore. But there is still the need to have a place of cultural sharing, especially when society is really divided.”
Kwong also wants to support Asian artists by selling their wares and wants to facilitate programming and workshops. She has already finalized programming to celebrate the Lunar New Year festivities, which begin February 16.
“We’re bringing Chinatown to a new neighborhood,” Kwong said. “Pearl River’s mission is to discover new cultures. That’s happening here in Chelsea and that’s really exciting.”
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