Chinatown Meat Market Closes after Half a Century

Price list and orders on the refrigerator at Han May (Photos by Yue Li via World Journal)

The abacus, in use for 50 years at Han May.

Thomas Lee, owner of Han May.

Ox bone incense holder.

When a traditional business faces challenges in changing times, even those brand names built up over several generations sometimes can go under water. Han May Meat Co. in Chinatown was one such business. The longtime fixture of Chinatown closed for good last month. The owner, Thomas Lee, said that nowadays markets that specialize in one major product, like Han May did, can no longer compete with the supermarkets.

Located at the intersection of Mulberry Street and Bayard Street, Han May was a typical family-owned business that passed from one generation to the next. It had maintained the traditional trade and business model for half a century and always promised to cut the meat for customers the way they liked, so it attracted many loyal customers.

The current owner, 66-year-old Lee, speaks only English and basic Cantonese. He said his parents started Han May when they emigrated to the U.S. from Taishan, Canton province, in the 1950s. He grew up in Chinatown and still lives here. He started to help his parents in the shop when he was not yet 10 years old. At age 17, he quit college and came home to take over the family business. Even the tiniest item in the shop carries a lot of memories for him. “I never doubted my decision to quit college and spend most of my adult life in this shop. And I don’t feel sad about my retirement now either. This is an inevitable evolution of my personal life as well as of society. The only thing I can do is face it and accept it calmly,” said Lee.

Lee said a lesson he learned is that the success of a business depends a lot on whether it can fulfill the needs of customers at the present time. He said the traditional businesses that survive change are those “who can figure out what customers want next before the customers themselves figure it out.” But many traditional businesses still only serve customers whatever they demand. So they are being squeezed out one after another.

Lee’s father passed away a long time ago. When his mother died two years ago, he started thinking about retirement. Although he has two daughters, Lee doesn’t want them to keep working in the shop. This is a job that requires one to work long hours in a not-so-pleasant environment – the shop was open 12 hours a day, and on holidays, Lee had to come to work as early as 5 am.

Compared to supermarkets, “traditional small retail shops that focus on one kind of merchandise have no edge,” Lee sighs. Supermarkets can sell various goods including seafood, meats, processed food, sauces and snacks. And they even have the meats available in different cuts, so customers can find whatever they need once they walk in the supermarket. But his shop only sells meat. He retained customers by offering good service, and the business benefited from the orders from restaurants year after year.

Lee said the hardest time for the business was after 9/11. Fewer people came to Chinatown to shop and all businesses here suffered a lot. In addition, the rapidly growing Chinese communities in Flushing and Sunset Park offered more business opportunities. And with narrow and crowded streets, scarce parking and skyrocketing rents, Manhattan’s Chinatown is no longer an ideal place for businesses.

Although many meat markets, big and small, have abandoned manual scales for digital ones, Lee still keeps his clumsy old-style iron scale. He said: “This scale is history. I wish someone would collect it as an antique.” Other than the scale, there are other historic items in the shop, including the traditional-style name board written in a golden color, a few incense burners hand-made of ox bone in the 1960s by Lee’s mother, and the abacus that is as old as the shop. But these, Lee said, are things he wants to keep in his own collection.

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