Founded in the 1890s, Wing On Wo & Co. is one of the oldest stores in New York’s Chinatown, and one of the last that still specializes in Chinese porcelain.
What makes the shop stand out from, say, a supermarket that sells plates and bowls is a singular focus on quality and unique patterns. Some of the ceramics are so rare that they can’t even be found in China anymore.
The shop persists as an anomaly in a gentrifying neighborhood, where trendy restaurants and cocktail bars are a common sight.
Walking into Wing On Wo is a bit like walking into a time capsule. Some of the shelves still have the medicine drawers one might find at a Chinese apothecary, a holdover from when Wing On Wo was a general store that also sold herbs and groceries.
Part of the reason why the shop persists in an age of fusion food and pastel desserts is its 28-year-old owner, Mei Lum, who has combined her social media savvy with a community-driven mission to make the store relevant in the 21st century.
“The golden years of the business were in the ’80s and early ’90s,” Lum says. “People really took a strong interest in Chinese porcelain because China’s economy was opening up and everyone was very curious.”
But over the years, interest waned as Chinese porcelain became more readily available at supermarkets and big-box chains.
Lum took over the shop from her grandparents in 2016, when the family was at a pivotal moment with the business. Its older members didn’t want to keep it going, and if they sold the building, which they owned, they could have walked away with as much as $10 million, The New York Times reported at the time.
In the end, Lum stepped in and halted the sale, offering to take over the store that had been in the family for four generations.
“Out of anyone, I was the only one interested in learning more about Chinese culture.”
It was a very natural decision, says Lum, who grew up playing with her cousins in the store and helping her grandparents stock the shelves and work the cash register. In college, she began shadowing them on their annual sourcing trips to Hong Kong.
“Out of anyone, I was the only one interested in learning more about Chinese culture,” Lum says.
In the past three years, Lum has turned around the store by appealing to a younger audience in their 20s and 30s.
Part of that strategy involves social media. She’s had her grandmother pose with objects on Instagram, posted archival photos of the shop on Facebook, and tweeted about events on Twitter.
Another part of the strategy involves public programs such as screenings, talks, and poetry readings that utilize the store as a community space.
Straight to the source
But one of the less visible ways that Lum has changed the shop is how she sources its porcelain.
In the past, Lum’s grandparents would visit different showrooms in Hong Kong, where the selection was already curated, pick what they wanted, and have them shipped to New York.
Now, Lum is going straight to the ceramic studios in Jingdezhen, where much of China’s porcelain is made, and hand-selecting designs by young artists. Many of the wares are modern interpretations of old designs.
“A lot of people come in and still think the pieces are made by an old man or old woman in China,” Lum says, “or that it’s not even human-made, that it was done in a factory by a machine. For me, it's really important to tell the story of how it was made and who made it.”
The artists she’s met in Jingdezhen are often surprised that Wing On Wo still carries plates and bowls that aren’t made anymore.
Lum recalls showing a picture of one pattern to a ceramicist in Jingdezhen and being told that she should sell it for a high price because of its rarity.
But the piece continues to sit at the shop with a price tag of $20.
“We’re working against stereotypes that Chinese goods are cheap and low in quality.”
“The Chinese market is completely different from the U.S. market,” Lum explains. “People in China understand why this is so rare, but in New York, people don’t understand the context and we’re working against stereotypes that Chinese goods are cheap and low in quality.”
Lum has made education part of Wing On Wo’s mission. There are placards explaining the meaning behind patterns such as the famous 万寿无疆 wanshouwujiang, a floral pattern with four Chinese characters symbolizing longevity. Her father, who still works the front of the shop, frequently regales customers with stories about the porcelain and Chinatown.
“It's much broader than saving the shop,” Lum says. “I think Wing On Wo has proven that there is a future for this, that there is a way to tie it back to our culture and identity, to have these conversations and educate people about why this craft should still be valued.”