On Brink of a Sale, Family Shop in Chinatown Stays in Family
When the narrow streets of Chinatown overflow on weekends, a few tourists always end up in Wing on Wo & Co. to browse porcelain antiques and jade ornaments. But they rarely stay long, quickly leaving to join dozens in the line outside a trendy new ice cream shop down the block.
In their haste to Instagram their ice cream, however, they neglect history. Wing on Wo’s humble red-painted storefront at 26 Mott Street is said to be the oldest continuously run business in Chinatown. It opened on Mott as a general store in the 1890s. Its old tin awning still advertises “Oriental Gifts.”
The family that established Wing on Wo more than a century ago still runs things, and its members take shifts pitching in, although the shop’s appearance doesn’t suggest any important heritage. Its shelves are dusty, its pace is sleepy and foot traffic is slow, even with the crowds that Sunday afternoons often bring to the neighborhood.
But Wing on Wo’s placid atmosphere was a stage for high drama this summer. After wrestling with the notion, the family decided to sell the shop and its six-story building, which they also own, ready to sever ties with what was becoming a burden. It would also have made them very rich: The building might be worth as much as $10 million, according a broker who handles Mott Street properties. Ultimately, they walked back from the sale, narrowly averting the end of five generations of family ownership, an increasingly rare species in this city of rising towers and rents.
“They are leaving a big pile of cash on the table for their heritage,” said the broker, Will Suarez, a director at the commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield.
“为了传承，他们放弃了一大笔现金，”商业地产公司高纬物业(Cushman & Wakefield)的经纪人威尔·苏亚雷斯(Will Suarez)说。
Wing on Wo’s salvation appeared in Mei Lum, 26, the second-youngest of the family’s five grandchildren. She turned down acceptance to graduate school at Columbia University last May to interrupt the store’s sale and offered to take it over. She is now reinventing the shop, molding it into a community space that operates against the backdrop of Chinatown’s history. The antiques will become secondary; instead, she envisions a forum for panels on issues like neighborhood politics, exhibitions for local artists and a coffee shop. Ms. Lum held an event recently at the store on the neighborhood’s gentrification, and a planned panel will include influential businesswomen from Chinatown. She calls her concept the “W.O.W. Project.”
救下“永安和”的是26岁林美虹（Mei Lum），她在家族的5个孙子辈孩子中，年龄排倒数第二。今年5月，她放弃了哥伦比亚大学(Columbia University)研究生院的录取，打断了家人卖掉“永安和”的计划，提出要接手这个店铺。现在，她正在改造店铺，把它变为一个以华埠历史为背景的社区空间。古董生意将称为次要的事情；她的设想是用店铺的空间作为论坛的场所，讨论诸如社区政治等问题，还可为当地艺术家举办作品展，以及开一家咖啡店。林美虹最近在店里举办了一个关于这个社区被改造为高阶层生活区的活动，她打算举办的讨论将有华埠有影响力的女企业家参与。林美虹把自己的设想称为“永安和计划”。
Ms. Lum was traveling in China when her father in New York called to inform her that her grandparents, Nancy and Shuck Seid, 86 and 92, were selling the shop. Mrs. Seid, who inherited the shop from her father’s family, managed it for decades, while Mr. Seid worked for years as a clerk in the New York Police Department’s Fifth Precinct in Chinatown. Mrs. Seid said she was exhausted and wanted to spend time with her aging husband, who now speaks little and is in a wheelchair.
父亲从纽约给她打电话时，林美虹正在中国旅行，父亲在电话中告诉她，她92岁的外祖父雷柏锐(Shuck Seid)和86岁的外祖母雷南希(Nancy Seid)要把店铺卖掉。雷南希从自己父亲家里继承了“永安和”，经营该店已经好几十年了。雷柏锐在位于华埠的纽约警察局第五分局当了多年的职员。雷太太说自己已经精疲力竭了，想和年迈的丈夫过些悠闲日子，雷先生现在已不太说话，而且行动需要轮椅。
“Every little thing becomes a problem when you get old,” Mrs. Seid said, surrounded by family at Wing on Wo on a recent afternoon. “You don’t want to deal with things anymore. So I told them: Sell the damn thing.”
Mei’s father, Gary Lum, 61, sat beneath the shop’s dusty industrial ceiling fan. “On the one hand, you want to walk into the sunset,” he said. “But you also have to consider what it means to close something like this after all these years.”
Ms. Lum’s early fascination with Chinese history set her apart from the other grandchildren. Growing up in Chinatown, she relished afternoons with her tradition-minded grandfather, who taught her Cantonese and the teachings of Confucius. Any skepticism from friends about passing up a prestigious education, she said, weighed on her only momentarily.
“The wheels were turning. It was on the market. I had to act fast,” Ms. Lum said. “You’re supposed to get all these shiny things and then go onto better things, right? But I had to think about my impact. How can I make a global impact if I haven’t even had an impact on my own community? Graduate school will always be there. This won’t.”
Wellington Chen, the director of Chinatown’s business improvement district, pondered the shop’s new chapter and said Ms. Lum was challenging a troubling neighborhood narrative. “These children get the degree or the big job or the car, and then no one ever comes back,” he said. “That is the problem we have with young people in Chinatown now. Can she make the shop relevant? We have to see. But I applaud her for coming back, because no one is coming back.”
Ms. Lum’s new vision for Wing on Wo, ironically, resembles the store’s original incarnation over 100 years ago, when Chinatown spanned just Pell, Doyers, Bayard and Mott Streets, and was populated by people who felt very far from home.
General stores like Wing on Wo were crucial hubs in this early village-like stretch. They sold tastes of home like dried fish, herbs and tofu, but they also operated as social clubs, representing Chinese villages and counties, and provided mail and money-wiring services.
Ms. Lum’s great-great-grandfather, Walter Eng, opened Wing on Wo at 13 Mott Street, opposite the shop’s current location (it moved in 1925). It was a dimly lighted place, family members said, filled with men in felt hats who smoked Lucky Strikes and drank Martinson coffee while playing mah-jongg to pass the time. A roast pig usually hung from a ceiling, and there was a resident herbalist.
林美虹的曾曾祖父沃尔特·王(Walter Eng)在禾莫特街13号开办了“永安和”，就在目前店面的街对面（店铺在1925年搬到了现在的位置）。家人说，原来的地方光线暗淡，里面挤满了戴着毡帽的男人，他们抽“好彩”(Lucky Strikes)烟，喝马丁森(Martinson)咖啡，用打麻将来打发时间。天花板上经常悬挂着一头烤猪，店里还有一位常驻草药师。
Mrs. Seid inherited the shop in 1964, recasting the general store as a purveyor of antiques and porcelain (“I wasn’t going to cut meat,” she said indignantly). When the United States’ trade relations with China reopened after President Nixon’s 1972 trip there, she began annual buying trips with her husband. They would send back loads of plates and teapots from Hong Kong in stamped wooden crates; 200 of these crates collect dust in the shop’s basement, and Ms. Lum started a contest for local artists to re-envision them (an extra-long skateboard and a garden bench are among the entries).
Many old businesses in Chinatown did not survive the economic slump after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The day brought a personally searing loss for Wing on Wo: The Seids’ only son and heir apparent to the store, Stuart, died in the south tower. “It took years out of them,” said Mei’s father, Gary Lum. “They were planning to retire then but had to pull themselves up from their bootstraps all over again.”
Today, Chinatown’s youth show little interest in staying in the neighborhood. “The soil is loose for the new generation,” Mr. Lum added. “The older folks dug their toes into the soil of this neighborhood. They lived, played, worked, and celebrated in it.”
He commended his daughter’s sensibilities. “It was never about the gold ring for her,” he said. “Or to want Jaguars, Tag Heuers, or a house in the Hamptons. I didn’t raise her like that.”
The Seids seemed pleased to be free of Wing on Wo’s burdens one recent Saturday morning at the shop. They had just finished one of their standing dim sum breakfasts at Ping’s next door. David Eng, a family friend, stood by Mr. Seid, who sat calmly in his wheelchair, wearing a felt cap.
“My father always told me when I was growing up: This is a good man,” Mr. Eng said. “He didn’t say that about a lot of people.”
The Seids soon departed to their apartment in the nearby Chatham Towers complex, and Mr. Eng, who had been giving advice to Ms. Lum, returned to his shop, Fong Inn Too, which has made tofu in the area since 1931.
雷氏夫妇很快就离开了，回到附近查塔姆大厦他们的公寓里，一直在给林美虹出主意的黄先生也回到了自己的店铺“宏安”(Fong Inn Too)，这家店自1931年起就在华埠做豆腐。
“I wasn’t ready for David to grill me so early,” she remarked to her father. “He asked me lots of questions. Do you think you’re too young? Are you ready for this? Do you need an introduction with this person?”
“He’s just had a lot of coffee,” her father said.
The father and daughter kept chatting. Ms. Lum’s mother, Lorraine, busied herself around the store. A cousin prepared food in the back kitchen, where a trapdoor leads to the oven room once used for roasting whole pigs. As the ice cream shop’s line grew outside, and tourists walked along Mott, Wing on Wo continued to bear witness to it all.