Evolving the First-Ever Chinese-American Department Store for the Next Generation | Yelp

Joanne Kwong curating the jewelry exhibit at the Pearl River Market

Main takeaways

  • Work with your neighbours; fellow business owners, artists, and activists in your community can be a tremendous asset in kickstarting your business and your neighborhood
  • Create spaces for different experiences, from the loud and colorful chaos of a department store to the peaceful sanctuary of an art gallery
  • As a business owner, you are responsible for the well-being of your employees as well as your own; check in with your team regularly to find out what makes them feel comfortable and supported at work

Pearl River Mart, New York’s iconic department store, was founded on a mission of friendship. Inspired by the strained diplomatic relations between the United States and China, Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen felt compelled to bridge the gap between Chinese culture and that of their New York neighbors.

Joanne Kwong

In 1971, Mr. and Mrs. Chen founded the world’s first ever Chinese-American department store, where New Yorkers from all walks of life could find products reflecting the beauty of Chinese culture. The “Friendship Store” has since become a central hub for Chinese Americans in the city for five decades.

After Pearl River Mart briefly closed in 2015 due to rising rental prices, President Joanne Kwong—Mr. Chen’s daughter-in-law revived the store for the next generation. Today, Pearl River Mart maintains its cultural exchange mission with updated strategies, such as an engaging online presence, an art gallery featuring local artists, and community events designed to protect Chinatown during of a wave of violent hate crimes.

Yelp spoke with Joanne to learn more about the origins of Pearl River Mart, how it bridges the generation gap, and the store’s impact on the Chinese-American community.

Pearl River Mart is a beloved New York institution. How did it start?

My in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Chen, founded Pearl River Mart with three of their friends, all of whom were activists. Back then, during the Vietnam War era, young people felt motivated to protest the injustices they saw in the world. Most people were very attached to global global issues in addition to local issues. They felt they had a responsibility to interact with world affairs, even from their small central world.

Mr. Chen happened to be an immigrant from Taiwan, and his circle of friends in New York was also part of the diaspora. But none of them were from mainland China due to [U.S. and China immigration restrictions.] As ethnic Chinese, they felt it was up to them to build that bridge and explain to their new neighbors in New York that there was nothing suspicious or harmful about Chinese culture. – it was actually beautiful, thousands of years old, and had so much to offer.

So they created a friendship store that could be both local and global. On their small scale, by hosting in New York neighborhoods, they would spread the idea that Chinese culture was something precious, beautiful and worthy of the world.

How have you maintained this clientele over the years?

Pearl River Mart has become a place reserved for [the Chinese community,] but also for the neighbors of New York. It’s always been a very democratic place in a way. I think that’s part of why people feel comfortable in the store. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, your socio-economic status, your racial or ethnic background; you are not treated differently from others. We welcome everyone and talk to everyone. I think it’s something people really appreciate, especially since there are so many big box stores and not many mom-and-pop stores left in town.

This is our 51st year [in operation]. We have been so fortunate that over the past five decades we have played a part in the stories of many different people. Many of them have heard that Pearl River Mart is a place where you can find beautiful products, but at an affordable price. People will come back and say, “Oh, I still have my bowl from when I was in New York University,” or “I broke one. I would like to have another one. And I’ll say, “Yeah sure, we still have it!”

Everyone feels that Pearl River is their secret. They want to bring their family and friends to tell them about this place.

Joanne Kwong

People have those memories with us, and because of those memories, they’re very loyal. Everyone feels that Pearl River is their secret. They want to bring their family and friends to tell them about this place.

What kind of environment are you trying to cultivate in the store?

What people are really looking for, especially in the city, is connection. When you come to our stores, someone approaches you and conversations always emerge. I always say to our associates: don’t worry about working fast. If someone seems to want to chat, feel free to talk to them for ten or fifteen minutes. Because it’s our raison d’être and it’s what differentiates us from other companies. If there is a moment to impress someone and teach them something new, we must always seize this opportunity.

In our flagship store, we have a hidden art gallery in the back. The store itself is very colorful and loud, and when you enter this threshold it is a very quiet and humble little gallery. We use this as an opportunity – a subtle way of offering peace and quiet to our customers, but also a chance for them to learn something new. [about artists in their community].

How has the mission expanded or evolved over the years?

We try to keep the same mission, but it will always evolve. The spread of cultural exchange means something different to my generation and my children’s generation than it does to my in-laws’ generation. [For the founders back in 1971], the cultural exchange was more about introducing Chinese culture to the people of New York. For my generation, you really don’t need to introduce yourself anymore. Chinese culture is quite prevalent in New York.

Now, I think cultural exchange is more about inclusion. It’s a matter of equity and community development. When I started in the company, it was important to be able to show and demonstrate all the layers of our community that are so different: artists, comedians, toymakers, all these different people who are so creative. I think our store follows the generations in a very distinct way, different from a regular department store. It really is a store of cultural goods.

If not, how has Pearl River Mart’s presence grown since 2016?

Since I joined the company in 2016, I have been approaching [marketing] from my generation’s point of view. Digital content is important, and it’s something we really haven’t done for the 46 years before I arrived. We’re active on Instagram, a bit on Twitter, and we have a strong e-commerce site. When we started [on Instagram] in 2016, it was still the era of beautiful pink dishes, really beautiful, polished and perfect. And that just wasn’t our aesthetic. Our store is something of a cacophony; it attacks your senses. So we started doing what felt right to us.

It was a focus on our family and our team. It was about emphasizing things that we thought were inspiring in the news. Every Monday, we do a “Monday Motivation” – something that has motivated or moved us, whether it’s Grammy winners or other funded Asian American businesses. We all encourage them because I think their success helps our community as a whole.

Our store is no longer in Chinatown, but we are very close and adjacent to it. Chinatown’s destiny is also our destiny. Immediately in February 2020, business plummeted for the entire neighborhood due to rhetoric about the origins of COVID-19. It was devastating for the company and for my employees, who felt targeted by wearing their masks.

The road has been difficult, but it has also been nice to see how the communities have come together. In November 2021, I worked with a group of friends and neighbors to “light up Chinatown”. We have placed lanterns in all of the historic streets of Mott, Bayard and Elizabeth streets to bring foot traffic back to the neighborhood. Small businesses were closing early and our Asian American seniors felt unsafe on the streets. So we developed this idea with friends and neighbours, including Patrick Mock of 46 Mott Street Bakery.

It meant a lot to see Chinatown be resilient and be creative in a way that was an example for other neighborhoods in the community.

Joanne Kwong

The project was entirely self-funded. We came up with the idea to sell each lantern, so people can write messages at the bottom and visit their lantern. Pearl River Mart ended up supplying the lanterns, [which emerging artists decorated with auspicious Chinese characters]. When the lights came on in December, we were so happy and inspired. It ended up becoming a huge tourist attraction for the neighborhood and brought people back to the neighborhood. It meant a lot to see Chinatown be resilient and be creative in a way that was an example for other neighborhoods in the community.

What advice do you have for current or aspiring business owners?

Be gentle with yourself. Running a business is really difficult, and many market forces are working against you. It can be difficult to resist all the problems that come your way, whether it’s employee departures, crimes happening in your store, or just trying to stay profitable. It’s hard to maintain your sanity.

And you’re not only responsible for your own mental health; you are also responsible for your employees because their problems are your problems. If they don’t feel safe on the subway or if they have to pay for a babysitter, that affects you too. I got involved very early with my employees because people felt more or less comfortable in the store. I never forced anyone to come back [during the pandemic]; I just stayed in touch with them. I used to drive around and visit them and send little care packages to my team.

I’m trying to keep that commitment now that the world is getting back to normal. I always tell my employees, “Treat the store like it’s your store. Do what feels comfortable to you. It’s so important to be gentle with yourself right now.

Editorial contributions by Emily Moon; Pearl River Mart pictures