With NYC's Asian American community facing a difficult time, when hate crimes against them are at an all-time high, Joanne Kwong's role as president of Pearl River Mart is more important than ever. On its surface, it might not be obvious, but her position holds a lot of responsibility. Being at the helm of a 50-year-old Chinese emporium means that she is a sort of culture keeper, a bearer of history—whether it lives on or fades. When her in-laws, Ming Yi Chen and Ching Yeh Chen, decided to close up shop due to too high rent in 2015, she had a moment of clarity. "It felt like there was nothing more important than continuing this legacy," she tells us. "There were only a few people who could help continue it...and I would rather take that risk than not try."
Since she took over as president, Kwong, who has a background in law, has launched an e-commerce website, reopened the store in Tribeca (which is now moving to Soho), another at Chelsea Market and at the Museum of Chinese in America and, in October 2020, a fourth location (and second in Chelsea Market)—Pearl River Mart Foods, a "love letter to Asian food in NYC."
The store has always been a de facto gathering place in Chinatown, Kwong says, but keeping it alive through these different iterations and updating it to jive with a younger crowd is key to its survival.
But also on Kwong's mind is the survival of her neighborhood. Chinatown's businesses have taken a major hit over the past year with fallout from the pandemic, including xenophobia. Last year, she joined the Light Up Chinatown initiative, which installs paper lanterns to up the street in these dark times and inspire New Yorkers and tourists to stop by and visit hurting restaurants and shops.
"Chinatown has always been so busy with hustle and bustle, so has been really painful for a lot of us to see what happened in March and April last year because of the xenophobia," she says. "Businesses are run by elders ... and they didn't want to come into work so there were not a lot of places open. Light Up Chinatown was friends and neighbors coming together and figuring out how to make the neighborhood brighter."
This type of collaboration is nothing new for Kwong. The 45-year-old serves on the Mayor's Small Business Advisory Council and works every day to advocate for her neighborhood.
"We're all going through this moment and it's really tough for the Asian-American community," she says. "They need people advocating on all different levels of government and in activism, media and business as well, not just from within the community but from allies and friends and other neighborhoods."—AR
What’s a new habit that’s become part of your routine during lockdown?
My husband and I get excited for “Halal Night” every Thursday from Halal Guys on the UWS. We don’t share with the kids; we wait for them to sleep. I’m not sure why it makes us so happy but it does and all the guys who work there are so nice when I come to pick it up.
What are some other great NYC businesses to keep an eye on?
I’m so inspired by the businesses that are finding interesting ways to pivot and who have chosen to double down on their communities. These are the places that will be leading us out of a miserable economy—with warmth, creativity, and innovation. Nom Wah has pivoted brilliantly with frozen dumplings, meal kits and partnerships; Kopitiam has been feeding elders culturally appropriate meals; 886 has brought together business owners to combat anti-Asian violence; 46 Mott in Chinatown is a tiny bakery that has been feeding frontline workers and the homeless since Day 1 of the pandemic. I’m also proud of Chelsea Market, where we have two stores. They have been so supportive of us small business owners, keeping in constant contact and brainstorming all these ways to keep us in business.
Favorite food spot in NYC?
Oh this is too hard! Let me cheat a little and put it this way: If you’re not regularly eating your way through Chinatown, you’re missing out on not just incredible meals but also the most dynamic, authentic, historic neighborhood in NYC. Here are five spots in my regular rotation: Wo Hop, Big Wong, Dim Sum Go Go, Wok Wok, Deluxe Green Bo. Jing Fong when it reopens, for sure. Equally as exciting to my stomach is eating through the East Village. Top five: Ho Foods, 886, Jeepney, Mala Project, Nowon.
Favorite spot to go when you need some solace in NYC?
The very end of Pier I in Riverside Park never fails to take my breath away. The view, the quiet, the water always makes me want to cry! And then go tackle my biggest problem. It’s a very rejuvenating spot.
Get in on the action: Check out pearlriver.com and #LightUpChinatown on Instagram.