New Blood in an Old Chinatown Shop

Mei Lum in Wing On Wo on Mott Street in Chinatown. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Mei Lum in Wing On Wo on Mott Street in Chinatown. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Walking into Wing On Wo, an antique shop located at 26 Mott St., is like getting into a time tunnel. From the objects displayed in the shop, one may get a sense of what Chinatown looked like in the old days. But Mei Lum, the third generation of the family that owns the shop, is trying to do something new.

She wants to offer more products that cater to young people, and bring the business out of Chinatown and into the night market in Queens. She is even considering following the model set by her grandfather, the former auxiliary police commander in the 5th police precinct, Shuck Seid, to make the shop a public space in Chinatown where the community can get together to discuss the future of the neighborhood. These are not easy decisions because just three months ago, the shop was on the edge of being closed for good.

Lum graduated from the Asian studies program at Mount Holyoke College. Upon graduation, she was awarded a fellowship that supported her working in the nonprofit sector in China, Thailand and Laos for three years. Six months ago, she came back to New York and planned to apply for graduate school. But soon after she came back, her family started talking about shutting down the shop. “My grandmother has been running the business for more than 50 years. She is 86 now and too tired. So we only had two choices: One, sell the business, and two, find someone in our family to help grandma to take care of the shop. Now we don’t have many customers. We need to make changes. So I volunteered myself,” said Lum.

In an Internet 2.0 era, more people like to hang on the Internet than shop on the street. Wing On Wo’s name has been forgotten by many people. So Lum decided to adopt social media to promote the shop. She opened a Facebook account for the business in March to share her surprising historical findings inside it. Among the treasures are the sign board of the shop in 1925 that she found in the basement and a picture of her grandparents taken in Hong Kong in the 1980s when they went there for business matters.

Other than preservation, Lum has also been trying to reshape the business. For example, she launched new lines of T-shirts and fabric bags and rented vendor stands at the Queens night market.

According to Lum, customers said they like the changes. And in the future, she may even include some food and beverages among the products. “But I want to do it gradually rather than suddenly,” she said.

Also, inspired by her grandfather Seid, a local legend who had served the community for four decades before he retired in 2014, Lum hopes to make Wing On Wo a public space in Chinatown where people can gather together. And she wants to follow the footprints of her grandfather to “do a lot of meaningful things in Chinatown.” Therefore, she started the W.O.W Project online to collect opinions and ideas.

At 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on May 19, the W.O.W Project is going to hold its first offline forum at the shop and invite young entrepreneurs in Chinatown to share their thoughts on the future of the neighborhood. The forum will be moderated by Diane Wong, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. The panelists include Mike Tan, owner of Eggloo, Tommy Leong and Cory Ng, co-founders of Mott Street Cycles, Chris Banks, owner of the hamburger shop Breakroom, Amy Li, founder of Amy Li Projects and Lum herself.

Lum said Wong came to Chinatown to do field research about race, gender and gentrification issues three months ago. She interviewed the owners of many shops in Chinatown including Lum’s family. They became good friends. “She is close to my family, and she visits us every week,” said Lum.

Lum said the panelists were all born and raised in Chinatown. And now they all own their businesses here. “In the future there might be more young Chinese coming back to Chinatown. And then they’ll enrich the neighborhood,” said Lum.

Check out the Facebook page for Wing On Wo & Co. to learn more.

2 Comments

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