This 130-Year-Old Porcelain Shop Claims to Be the Oldest Store in New York's Chinatown. Its 5th-Generation Owner (and Her Grandmother) Used Instagram to Save It From the Pandemic.
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Wing On Wo opened its doors in 1890. It nearly closed them for good a few years ago. That’s when the founder’s great-great-granddaughter, Mei Lum, started thinking about her family’s legacy — and how much its survival depended upon her.
It happened in an unexpected way. In 2016, Lum met a woman who was researching gentrification in Chinatowns across the country, and Lum was so interested in the project that she began accompanying the woman on her interviews in New York City. As she did, Lum, 30, began to think about the impact her own family had on Chinatown’s character and culture. Their store, Wing On Wo, began as a general store but evolved into a porcelain shop. At the time, it was operated by her grandmother — but Grandma was 86, slowing down and couldn’t run the store much longer.
Lum wanted the shop to stay open — and realized she had the power to do it. “Letting go of Wing On Wo would be something very deeply sad for our family and our Chinatown community,” she says. She took over as the owner that year.
Wing On Wo has always been more than a storefront. Growing up, Lum’s grandfather gave her Chinese lessons in the back office. As a teenager, she helped with the cash register and accompanied her grandparents on sourcing trips to Hong Kong. The family has long eaten dinner in the store’s kitchen.
A space in the basement hosts their artist residency program. Every year, the family holds the Asian American Ceramists Fair, in which they invite a handful of contemporary ceramists to show their work in the space. Recently, the store donated 10 percent of merchandise sales to Red Canary Song and Asian American Feminist Collective. “Everything I do is driven by a social mission,” said Lum.
Keeping an old store open is hard under any circumstances, but the past year really tested Lum. Following the murders in Atlanta and the rising anti-Asian violence, Lum wanted to make the shop feel like a safe space — just as it was in its earliest days, when it provided refuge for recent Chinese immigrants. But that hasn’t always been easy. The store wasn’t able to operate normally, and, aside from a few sidewalk pop-up shops, much of its sales moved online.
Boosting online sales has been a family effort. “That’s been the silver lining of moving in this direction,” said Lum. “All of us rising to the occasion.” Lum’s mother, a pattern and design maker, was laid off during the pandemic and now helps with the e-commerce back end. Lum’s father handles the shipping and packaging. And her grandmother has stepped up as an influencer. During the pandemic, Lum came up with the idea of hosting an Instagram Story series called Po’s Picks. (Po means “grandma” in Chinese.) In the series, her grandmother showcases her favorite pieces in the shop. “She’s our 91-year-old marketing girl now,” said Lum.
Even though Lum has continued to maintain the shop similarly to how it has operated for decades, she also believes it needs new life to survive. “I’d joke with a lot of my friends, ‘It’s like, ha ha, I’m working at a 100-year-old startup,’” she says.
As a fifth-generation owner, she has learned to go with her own instinct and accepted that she wasn’t going to come fully formed into the role. Her family members live within a four-block radius of one another and are still involved. Lum thinks of them more as creative collaborators rather than employees. She wants the business to adapt and grow—particularly in terms of rolling out e-commerce — and having the family’s blessing has helped motivate her.
“I don’t think I could have grown Wing On Wo without the people who have been cheering me on and supporting me,” she says.