A Conversation With Mei Lum, Part of a New Generation Returning to Revitalize Chinatown

Owner-in-Training Mei Lum by Melissa Guerrero
Owner-in-Training Mei Lum by Melissa Guerrero
Owner-in-Training Mei Lum by Melissa Guerrero
Mei Lum by Melissa Guerrero

25 year old Mei Lum is the new owner-in-training at one of Chinatown’s oldest shops, Wing on Wo. & Co.  Founded by her great grandfather, Walter Eng, the store originated as a “Chinese-Japanese Fancy Goods store” at 13 Mott St. in 1890. It moved nearby, to its current location at 26 Mott St., in 1925. After Eng’s passing, his daughter Nancy Seid took over the business and shifted the inventory from food to strictly porcelain antiques. 50 years later, Seid is passing down her family’s legacy to Mei Lum.

Now Lum is revitalizing the family store, with hopes of keeping it relevant in Chinatown and beyond.  She recently launched a community engagement initiative, “The W.O.W. Project Summer Series,” focusing on the theme: Chinatown Then & Now. For their first event, Lum invited second and third generation Chinese American business owners to discuss the changing dynamics in the neighborhood.

We talked with Lum, who had recently returned from working in the nonprofit sector in China, Thailand and Laos for the past three years. She spoke about her new role in the family business, the local community and the current state of Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Was there a defining moment for you when you decided to take up the business?

It’s a collection of moments. It was definitely an emotional roller coaster for a while because I had originally come back with the idea that I would apply to grad school in the fall … I had found out that my family had decided that they wanted to sell the building and I didn’t really know what to make of it. So I came back and I said, “I’m happy I’m coming back. I can spend the few months that I have with my family and this space before we let it go.”

But I think a (defining) moment was when one of my friends, who I had met in Beijing, visited me. I showed him around (the store)… He asked me, “If you had the opportunity to do something here, what type of ideas would you have?” I said, “yeah I have so many ideas”… And he said, “Why don’t you try to pitch them to your family?”

It was kind of an emotional thing at the time and I didn’t want to come in and say, “these are my ideas. You want to hop on the train and pursue these with me?” I was very apprehensive about doing that but in the end I just tried to introduce it informally, instead of making it a larger thing.

From your own personal experience, what is the environment in Chinatown like now?

That’s a big question. It’s different for me because I’ve stepped out for so long. You create distance, (and when) you come back the changes seem so much more heightened. Well, I hope, it’s a trend that more young people are coming back. I mean even on this block I’ve seen a lot of new things popping up and opening…and they’re (being opened) by Chinese Americans that grew up here. Chinatown is still in some ways a village, and everyone knows each other. There’s definitely a new wave of people coming in that don’t have familial ties to Chinatown, or didn’t grow up here, but I feel like that’s just New York (in general).

Tell us about the W.O.W. Project.

So the theme of the W.O.W. project…I think a big thing that I really want to build here is a platform for people to engage in different workshops, discussions and dialogues, to gain a sense of belonging, and the only way that one can do that is through understanding the history of this place… The only way that we can cultivate that is if we bring in different experts right? Artists, activists, people who have documented the history of Chinatown.

I want us to use our history and our culture and language to look to the future…I think there’s a big need for something like this right now. There’s not really a space for gathering in a place that’s not an institution or a foundation. I want to keep it an independent project for as long as I can because I think there’s something special about having a space where it’s not tied to something bureaucratic… it’s just like, we’re a store and sometimes we have events and workshops and dialogues.

What was your takeaway from your panel, “The (Re) Generation of Chinatown?”

We wanted to speak to the younger crowd because I feel as if they’re not as vocal. From what I’ve seen, I haven’t seen them engage in something like this ever before. We wanted to hear their stories about how they decided to come back. I think a common narrative for our generation is to go (away) to school and then to leave the neighborhood and do something “bigger and better.”

What I’ve been realizing recently is that it’s a similar mindset that I was exposed to when I was in rural parts of China. The young people are there, they go to high school and then they are pushed to leave their hometown to go to bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, all those places.

I was thinking about those parallels. It has a lot to do with the way our neighborhood is now and how it was seen before. So it is a place where you can come back and open a business and pursue an entrepreneurial idea…

And what sets me apart from the other panelists that were there that night is that I’m lucky because I have a space already. I’ve been handed down this legacy. I really admire their courage and their perseverance to pursue something like renting a shop, opening up and developing their own business in that way. I have the foundation (from) my grandmother who has been doing this for over 50 years.

Another point that came up was about political involvement and political representation of Chinatown. I think two of our panelists had a realization that if you want something to happen in the neighborhood, you have to be involved in some way….after hearing and listening to what everyone has to say about the current state of Chinatown, I am curious about being more involved politically.

What are some of the challenges that you see for businesses in Chinatown?

I think there’s a stark contrast now between new businesses and old businesses and there’s no bridging of the two. I think we can be a stronger community, of businesses and a community in general, if we collaborate and share strategies. One thing that came up at the panel was how can we facilitate an inter-generational dialogue between business owners…if we all come together it’s a stronger force than just one of us at a time, and we can bring more people in the neighborhood in that way too.

What did your family think of you taking up the business?

I think they’re really excited about what’s going on with the store. It’s like awakening a tiger that’s been sleeping for a really long time. We’ve never ever gotten any articles written up about the shop, just because my grandparents are very private people and they don’t want to.

But a lot of people have written about your grandfather because he’s such a big part of the neighborhood.

Yes and he’s also a very big part of why I’m doing the community work too. But it’s been really amazing to see my family and their willingness to get involved in all of this and help because in the end, I wouldn’t do this if it couldn’t be a collaborative effort with everybody here… and I think overall everyone’s really excited to see what will happen.

Wing on Wo. recently launched “The W.O.W. Project Crate Wood Design Challenge.” Click here to learn more.

Click on the gallery below to view photos from the Wing on Wo & Co. shop.  All photos by Melissa Guerrero.