For Mei Lum, the oldest-running business in Manhattan’s Chinatown is at once a symbol of the neighborhood’s resilience and an informal living room where she came of age. In the space tucked behind Wing on Wo & Co’s modest red storefront on Mott Street, she shared meals with her family, took Chinese lessons with her grandparents and helped out with the cash register as a young girl.
In 2016, her grandmother planned to sell the porcelain speciality shop and its building, which the family owned and whose estimated worth neared $10m. Lum, who was preparing to study international relations at Columbia University, decided to take over the store – not only to preserve its cultural value, but to create a community hub. Her newly imagined iteration of the family business would be a shop that was also a clubhouse for activists and artists to address local issues like gentrification and displacement, both of which she said would have been exacerbated by the building’s sale to an outside developer.
“My desire to take over came from wanting to blur the lines of what the storefront could be,” Lum, 32, said. “A business doesn’t have to be so economically driven. There can still be genuine connections, and that’s what sustains a community.”
As the fifth-generation owner, Lum’s sights aren’t only on the future. She’s been helping Wing on Wo return to its late 19th-century roots. When it was still a startup, the shop functioned as a gathering space, credit union and informal post office for poor Chinese workers during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration to the US and barred Chinese immigrants from receiving US citizenship.
More than 100 years later, Wing on Wo remains first and foremost a family operation. Lum’s father, Gary, has been manning the counter and chatting up customers for the past three decades. Her mother, Lorraine, processes orders and manages the website. Even her nonagenarian grandmother, Nancy, helps promote rare porcelain on the store’s Instagram page, including hand-painted wine cups, fish-shaped glazed vases and elaborate dinner plates.
The pandemic pushed Lum to throw herself into e-commerce, digital marketing and social media. She’s also added a host of new initiatives, including youth programs, an artist residency and a ceramicist fair, to ensure that in addition to preserving tradition, the business is shaping the future of Chinatown.
Why did you decide to take over the shop instead of going to graduate school?
Mei Lum: The decision came out of a series of conversations about the gentrification of Chinatowns across the US, and shadowing a researcher as she conducted interviews with different artists, activists, small property owners and other stakeholders in Chinatown. That provided context for me about how letting go of the business and the building might exacerbate some of the cycles of gentrification that [are] happening. The intention was to make sure that my family can continue to have a space to gather, and that my grandparents and grand-aunt can age in place. I grew up coming here as a kid every day, helping out with the cash register, having meals and Chinese lessons with my grandparents. All those memories helped me find who I am, and make sense of what it means to be Asian American.
What were some of the biggest changes you’ve seen the store go through?
Lum: In the early days, Wing on Wo was a general store that sold canned goods and roast meats. It was also a credit union and informal post office. When my grandmother took over in 1965, she decided to focus on porcelain specifically. Wing on Wo didn’t have access to Chinese goods directly until the opening of China in the late 1970s (following the Cultural Revolution). Our heyday was the late 70s to the late 80s. A lot of our goods came from Hong Kong, where my grandfather grew up.
Family-run businesses like Wing on Wo have defined Chinatown for more than a century. What has it been like running the shop together as a family?
Lum: We’re a porcelain shop, but it’s much more than just objects in a store. It’s more about the memories that they hold, and the rituals that a teapot, for example, can inspire for someone. We can return to the original incarnations of what Wing on Wo was in the 1890s: a meeting place where people can tell stories and keep track of each other.
What kind of challenges did your family encounter in the 21st century?
Lum: Chinatown is seen from the outside as a neighborhood that has cheap eats and cheap goods. In some ways that’s been a detriment to us and what tourists expect when they come here. So it’s really important for me to reframe our products and explain the cultural traditions and delicate hand-painting of the porcelain that we sourced. I wanted to source directly from ceramic studios in Jingdezhen (a city in southern China known as the porcelain capital of the world) so people can understand that we’re supporting small artists. We don’t source from big factories.
Wing on Wo is in a very interesting moment where we’ve had the past seven years of regeneration. Covid pushed us to bring our full shop online, get into e-commerce, digital marketing and social media. We’re seeing a lot of opportunities open up for us in wholesale and large collaborations, but we’re struggling to grow due to external factors like inflation and supply chain issues.
How did you come up with the idea for the WOW Project, a grassroots arts initiative that aims to protect Chinatown’s creative culture?
Lum: We see our store as a place for conversation for Asian Americans, or Asian diasporic people, who make up most of our customer base today. They’re nostalgic about family history and tradition, and curious about their cultural identity. We want them to learn about their identity through our porcelain or our snuff bottles, or at our events. We host open mic nights, art exhibits, youth internships and discussion panels on things like using art as a means to resist gentrification. We’ve focused on working with Asian, queer and trans youth because the future of Chinatown depends on the future generation. We want to make sure they feel a sense of belonging and ownership over this community, and we want to give them the tools to honor the legacy of those who came before them.