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Behind the Essex Snowman, an Immigrant Family’s Story

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The owners of the grocery at Essex and Canal attracted quite a lot of attention thanks to a dapper snowman. Photo by Jonathan Zalman.

Editor’s note: Last winter, Lower East Side residents became well acquainted with the small grocery at Essex and Canal streets, thanks to the presence of a large snowman sitting outside the store. But there is, of course, a story behind every snow creature!  Jonathan Zalman, a new contributor to The Lo-Down, tells us more.

The friendly corner grocery at 1 Essex Street is owned and operated by LES residents Dong Wang and Helen Chen, and this past December marked the first anniversary for their burgeoning business. Dong and Helen were married in 2003 and have two lively young boys, Zhen Yuan, 9, and Hao Fen, 8, who, along with the grocery, are the fruits of a decade-long romance across continents and proof that the American Dream is still attainable.

Doug Wang and Helen Chen. Photo by Jonathan Zalman.

Every time I see Dong he’s working up a sweat: receiving deliveries, stocking shelves, or building new displays from scratch. He’s also the architect of that girthy, seven-foot snowman adorned with broom arms and a traffic cone head outside the store.

Dong has the appearance of contentment and today, as we sit down for an interview, I’m greeted by his shining 1,000 mega-watt smile. I’m given a familiar Chinese welcome: a comfortable seat, eye contact, and a cup of green tea on the house. I spent a year teaching English in Fuzhou, the capital of the Fujian Province, which is a hop, skip and a jump (even by Chinese standards) from Dong and Helen’s hometown. My friend Zoe, whom I met in Fuzhou and who has also immigrated to the States, joins us; she’s here to relate the nuances my language skills may miss.

Dong, who is a naturalized citizen, immigrated to New York City in 1993 from Fuqing, Fujian, China. Before arriving in NYC, Dong first flew from China to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. He eventually immigrated to the southern U.S. (Dong couldn’t recall the location) by boat but was caught by immigration police upon his arrival and detained for six months. After his release, Dong flew to New York City to unite with his older sister, who had immigrated just a year beforehand, in Douglaston, Queens. For ten years Dong worked as a taxi driver, a truck driver, and a garment seamstress, living a life he describes as “difficult.”

In 1999 his fate would change. Dong’s mother called from China and introduced him to Helen, an acquaintance, who also lived in Fuqing. For the next three years a courtship ensued over the phone and in 2003 Dong went all-in: he returned to China with the intention of asking for Helen’s hand in marriage.

“He asked me and I said, ‘I’ll tell you in seven days,’” Helen recalls. “And then I told him ‘yes’ and we got married ten days later. So in 17 days we were married.”

Dong soon returned to the U.S. without his bride but with newfound motivation and love. He made yearly trips back to China to visit Helen and start a family. In 2003, their first son, Zhen Yuan, was born and the following year, a second, Hao Fen—both in China. Helen moved in with Dong’s mother and they took care of the kids together. In 2008, Helen, Zhen Yuan, and Hao Fen, immigrated to New York City and the family was reunited, this time for good.

Many Chinese families in New York City are from the Fuzhou region of China, which includes Fuqing, Dong and Helen’s hometown. The Immigration and Nationality Act, signed into law in 1965, resulted in a large influx of Chinese immigration to the city.  In 1980 there were about 120,000 living legally in NYC and by 1990 that number swelled to 300,000. In the late 90’s, people had begun calling East Broadway “Fuzhou Street,” and it’s in this spirit that Dong and Helen continue the tradition.

In December 2010 Dong and Helen opened their business, fittingly, at the nexus of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Between the two of them, they earn around $50,000 a year. They work at Shan Fu Grocery from open to close—7 a.m. to 11 p.m. —six, sometimes seven days per week. Dong does most of the manual labor while Helen operates the cash register. And business has apparently been good: they’ve recently hired helping hands, their produce offerings have become more diverse and abundant, and their in-store merchandise has sections akin to Whole Foods’ as well as a Chinese grocery. Their Korean and Chinese suppliers often suggest to them what will sell well and it’s clear Dong and Helen have maintained an entrepreneurial spirit. “Americans buy lots of cheese, sour cream; Chinese, lots of fruit,” says Helen.

It isn’t by sheer luck and location that their business is thriving. Dong had previously worked retail at a “99 Cents” store in Manhattan, while Helen had run a fruit stand in the Fuzhou Supermarket at the corner of Henry and Rutgers, which is within eyesight of the Shan Fu Store. She then worked for Dong’s brother who was running a bubble tea shop at Canal and Essex. However, in early 2010, Dong and Helen decided to make a change and move the family to Japan to start a new life. But there they found problems. Among them, their children had difficulty learning in Japanese and they decided it was best for them to be taught in English, so they came back. It was then that Helen had the idea to start a business , taking over the space where her brother-in-law’s bubble tea store had been. Soon, two more family members were added—Golden and Ginger, two agile city cats—that can often be spotted traversing the fruit scale or exploring the empty lot a few doors down.

Photo by Jonathan Zalman.

With success, however, has come higher visibility and therefore, vigilance. Sometimes passersby will swipe a cherry or apple as though it’s a free mall sample. As a result, they’ve set up six cameras to detect and deter theft, which they can view from a TV perched opposite the counter.

Today all’s calm and quiet, and Helen and I are chatting. Zhen Yuan and Hao Fen are chomping away at a bowl of rice and meat nearby (“they don’t like vegetables,” Helen says) — and then they switch to playing a card game. Helen smiles and reflects on her family: “Dong’s a Buddhist and a vegetarian. He doesn’t drink alcohol, smoke, no meat, no fish, nothing. Zhen Yuan learned Japanese in six months. He’s like his Dad, thinking and doing. Hao Fen, he’s like me, thinking and ideas.”

When I ask what the future holds, Helen’s got (another) idea of her own. “I want to buy a house with no noise, has a good park and school,” she says. If they’ve made it this far I imagine these dreams will come true too. For now, however, one can only hope they decide to stick around for a while longer on the Lower East Side.

 

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