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Evolving the first-ever Chinese American department store for the next generation

Pearl River Mart was the first-ever Chinese American department store when it opened in 1971. Five decades later, President Joanne Kwong is nurturing its mission of cultural exchange for a new generation.

Joanne Kwong arranging the jewelry display at Pearl River Mart

Key business takeaways

  • Work with your neighbors; fellow business owners, artists, and activists in your community can be a huge asset in reviving your business and neighborhood
  • Create spaces for different experiences—from the loud, colorful chaos of a department store to the quiet sanctuary of an art gallery
  • As a business owner, you’re responsible for your employees’ well-being as well as your own; check in with your team regularly to learn what makes them feel comfortable and supported at work

Pearl River Mart, the iconic New York City department store, was founded on a mission of friendship. Inspired by fraught diplomatic relations between the United States and China, Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen felt compelled to bridge the gap between Chinese culture and their New York neighbors.

Joanne Kwong

In 1971, Mr. and Mrs. Chen founded the world’s first-ever Chinese American department store, where New Yorkers of all backgrounds could find goods that reflected the beauty of Chinese culture. The “friendship store” has since become a central hub for Chinese Americans in the city across five decades.

After Pearl River Mart closed briefly in 2015 due to rising rent prices, President Joanne Kwong—Mr. Chen’s daughter-in-law—revived the store for the next generation. Today, Pearl River Mart maintains its mission of cultural exchange with updated strategies—such as an engaging online presence—an art gallery featuring local artists, and community events meant to protect Chinatown during a surge in violent hate crimes.

Yelp spoke with Joanne to learn more about the origins of Pearl River Mart, how she bridges the gap between generations, and the store’s impact on the Chinese American community. 

Pearl River Mart is a beloved New York institution. How did it start?

My in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Chen, founded Pearl River Mart with three of their friends, who were all activists. At the time, around the Vietnam War era, young people felt motivated to protest injustices they saw around the world. Most people felt really strongly about global issues in addition to local ones. They felt like they had a responsibility to interact with global affairs, even from their small core world. 

Mr. Chen happened to be an immigrant from Taiwan, and his circle of friends in New York City were also part of the diaspora. But none of them were from mainland China due to [U.S. and China immigration restrictions.] As ethnic Chinese people, they felt like it was up to them to build that bridge and explain to their new neighbors in New York City that there wasn’t anything suspicious or nefarious about Chinese culture—it was actually beautiful, thousands of years old, and had so much for offer.

So they created a friendship store that could be both local and global. In their small way, by integrating with the surrounding New York City neighborhoods, they would be spreading the idea that Chinese culture was something valuable, beautiful, and worthy of the world. 

How have you maintained that customer base over the years? 

Pearl River Mart has become a place that is for [the Chinese community,] but also for New York City neighbors. It’s always been a place that was very democratic in a way. I think that is part of the reason why people feel comfortable in the store. 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. We welcome everybody and talk to everybody. I think that is something people really appreciate, especially since there are so many big box stores and not many mom-and-pop stores left in the city.

This is our 51st year [in operation]. We have been so lucky that, throughout these past five decades, we have played a role in many different people’s stories. Many of them heard that Pearl River Mart is a place where you can find beautiful products, but at an affordable price. People will come back and say, “Oh, I still have my bowl set from when I was studying at New York University,” or “I broke one. I’d love to have another.” And I’ll reply: “Yeah, sure, we still have it!”

Everybody feels like Pearl River is their secret. They want to bring their family and friends to tell them about this place.

Joanne Kwong

People have those memories with us, and because of those memories, they are very loyal. Everybody feels like Pearl River is their secret. They want to bring their family and friends to tell them about this place. 

What kind of environment do you try to cultivate in the store?

What people are really looking for, especially in the city, is connection. When you come to our stores, somebody will approach you, and conversations always emerge. I always tell our associates: 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. Because this is what we’re all about and this is what differentiates us from other businesses. If there is a moment to make an impression on somebody and teach them something new, we should always grab that opportunity. 

In our flagship store, we have an art gallery hidden at the back. The store itself is very colorful and loud, and when you enter this threshold, it’s a very quiet, small, humble gallery. We use that as an opportunity—a subtle way of providing quiet and calmness to our customers, but also a chance for them to learn something new [about artists in their community].

How has the mission expanded or evolved over the years?

We try to keep the mission the same, but it’s always going to evolve. Spreading cultural exchange means something different to my generation and my kids’ generation than it did or does to my in-laws’ generation. [For the founders back in 1971], cultural exchange was more about introducing Chinese culture to New York City locals. For my generation, you don’t really have to introduce anymore. Chinese culture is pretty prevalent in New York City. 

Now, I think cultural exchange is more about inclusion. It’s about equity and community building. When I first started at the company, it was important to be able to show and demonstrate all the layers of our community that are so different: artists, comedians, toy-makers—all of these different folks who are so creative. I think our store tracks the generations in a very distinct way that’s different from a regular department store. It’s really a cultural goods store. 

How else has Pearl River Mart’s presence grown since 2016?

Since I joined the company in 2016, I approach [marketing] from my generation’s view. Digital content is important, and that’s something that we really didn’t do for the 46 years before I came. We’re active on Instagram, a little bit on Twitter, and we have a robust e-commerce site. When we started [on Instagram] in 2016, it was still the era of beautiful, pink flat lays—really nice, polished, and perfect. And that just wasn’t our aesthetic. Our store is kind of a cacophony in a way; it attacks your senses. So we started just doing what felt right to us. 

That was a focus on our family and our team. It was a focus on things that we thought were inspiring in the news. Every Monday we do a “Monday motivation”—something that motivated us or that we were moved by, whether that’s Grammy winners or other Asian American businesses getting funded. We cheer for all of them because I think their success helps our community as a whole.

How does Pearl River Mart connect with the Chinese community?

Our store is no longer in Chinatown, but we’re very close to it and adjacent to it. Chinatown’s fate is our fate too. Immediately in February of 2020, business plummeted for the entire neighborhood because of rhetoric about the origins of COVID-19. That was devastating for the business and for my employees, who felt targeted wearing their masks. 

It’s been a difficult road, but it’s also been lovely to see how communities have come together. In November 2021, I worked with a group of friends and neighbors to “light up Chinatown.” We put lanterns all across the historic streets of Mott, Bayard, and Elizabeth Streets to bring foot traffic back to the neighborhood. Small businesses were closing early, and our Asian American elders didn’t feel safe walking the streets. So we developed this idea with friends and neighbors, led by Patrick Mock from 46 Mott Street Bakery and Chung Seto, who is a political strategist and activist.

It meant a lot to see Chinatown be resilient and be creative in a way that was an example for other neighborhoods in the community.

Joanne Kwong

The project was self-funded with donations from individuals. We came up with the idea of selling each lantern and inscribing every donor’s name, so people could visit their lanterns. Pearl River Mart ended up supplying the lanterns and recruiting local artists to decorate the lanterns. It was really a team effort and labor of love to get them installed.

When the lights went on in December, we were so happy and inspired. It ended up becoming a huge tourist attraction for the neighborhood and bringing people back to the neighborhood. It meant a lot to see Chinatown be resilient and be creative in a way that was an example for other neighborhoods in the community.

What advice do you have for current or aspiring business owners?

Be gentle with yourself. 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. It’s hard to maintain your mental health. 

And you’re not just in charge of your own mental health; you’re also in charge of your employees because their problems are your problems. If they don’t feel safe on the subway or if they need to pay a babysitter, that affects you as well. I made a commitment early on to my employees because people felt varying levels of comfort in the store. I never forced anybody to come back [during the pandemic]; I just kept in contact with them. I used to drive around and visit them and send out little care packages to my team. 

I’m trying to keep that commitment now that the world is going back to normal. I always tell my employees: “Treat the store like it’s your store. Do whatever feels comfortable for you.” It’s so important to be gentle with yourself at this time.

Editorial contributions by Emily Moon; photos from Pearl River Mart

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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