In February 2020, Chinatown businesses fell due to criticism around COVID-19. The community showed their resilience by creating lanterns for which people could leave notes and visit afterward.
The first-ever Chinese American department store, Pearl River Mart, supplied these lanterns that emerging artists decorated with auspicious Chinese characters. When the lights turned up in December, Chinatown became a tourist destination and brought people back to the neighborhood.
Pearl River Mart, founded in 1971, sells Asian-inspired home goods, clothes, and everything in between. It has become a symbol of NYC’s distinctiveness, authenticity, and multiculturalism.
Mr. and Mrs. Chen, both from Taiwan, studied chemistry and economics as graduate students in the U.S. They arrived in New York as idealistic Chinese political activists.
The idea to create a store retailing items from mainland China was originally political. What better way to pierce the mystique surrounding “Red China” than to provide appetizing cuisines and functional home goods to Americans? That is all where it started.
Today, the Chens are joined by their daughter-in-law Joanne, who serves as President, and occasionally, their grandsons Milo and Griffin, co-heads of the toy and snack testers. Pearl River Mart’s president is a daughter of Chinese immigrants from the Philippines who grew up in Astoria, Queens, and Seoul, Korea. She attended NYC public schools and became a lawyer.
Yelp recently interviewed Joanne on how she bridges the gap between generations and the store’s influence on the Chinese American community, and here are some incredible things that we thought are worthy to share.
Pearl River Mart has retained its client base for years because of its welcoming atmosphere, not only for the Chinese community but for everyone. “It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, your socioeconomic status, your racial or ethnic background; you’re treated no differently from everyone else,” Joanne tells Yelp.
The department store’s president also encourages employees to interact with their customers and connect with them which differentiates them from other businesses, she advises them “Don’t worry about working fast. If someone looks like they want to chat, feel free to talk to them for ten or fifteen minutes.”
Joanne also made a point that “Spreading cultural exchange means something different to my generation and my kids’ generation than it did or does to my in-laws’ generation.” The store has evolved over the years but they also try to keep its mission, and she believes that cultural exchange is more about inclusion, equity, and community building.
Every Monday, they undertake “Monday motivation” to celebrate the achievement of the people or businesses in the AAPI community in various industries as they consider it the success of the whole community.
Lastly, Joanne gave advice for current and aspiring business owners to be gentle with themselves and to take care of their mental health, “Running a business is really difficult, and there are many market forces working against you. It can be hard to withstand all the problems that get thrown your way—whether it’s employees moving on, crimes that happen in your store, or just trying to stay profitable.”