Sophia Tsao has taken over her family’s business of importing Chinese herbs and dried goods to New York.
Identity

The Chinese-American entrepreneurs who are leaning into their heritage

Mar 30, 2019

When it came time for Chinese-American author Diana Zheng to take photos for her debut cookbook on Chaoshan cuisine, she realized that her exhaustively researched recipes were still missing something: authentic tableware.

“I really wanted to dish out my recipes on tableware that felt appropriate to the tone and mission of the cookbook, which was exploring this cuisine through an Asian-American lens,” says Zheng, who moved to the United States from Shantou, a city in the southeastern Chinese region of Chaoshan, when she was 4.

Diana Zheng is the author of a new cookbook on Chaoshan cuisine.
Diana Zheng is the author of a new cookbook on Chaoshan cuisine. / Photo: Courtesy of Diana Zheng

Unable to find dishes that struck a balance between modern and traditional design, Zheng started Gwan-im, a company that makes modern chinoiserie.

(Read more: How Wing On Wo gets its porcelain from China to New York

The designs are “rooted in China but globally influenced,” says Zheng. One series depicts non-native plant species that were brought over to the United States from other parts of the world and have since naturalized in California, where Zheng is now based.

Gwan-im’s California series features non-native plant species that were brought over to California from around the world.
Gwan-im’s California series features non-native plant species that were brought over to California from around the world. / Photo: Courtesy of Diana Zheng

The concept, itself a metaphor for immigration, has resonated with Asian-Americans looking to reconnect with their heritage.

“People form these really personal stories and attachments,” Zheng says. “It might remind them of the lemon tree in their father’s backyard or a bougainvillea bush they grew up with. It reminds them of home and the dishes their families made.”

(Read more: The young restaurateurs envisioning a new Chinese-American cuisine)

Many Chinese-American entrepreneurs like Zheng are striking a chord with businesses that combine their cultural roots and family history with millennial savvy for marketing and branding.

A 2012 U.S. Census survey of small-business owners found that 30 percent of Asian-Americans were likely to start a business in the food and beverage industry.

Asian-American women in particular were overwhelmingly leading brands “influenced by a global perspective and multicultural sensibility,” according to a 2017 Nielsen study.

Rooted in Chinatown

Alice Liu and Sophia Tsao are among the Chinese-American entrepreneurs bridging the gap between China and the United States.

Both born and raised in New York’s Chinatown, they’ve since taken on leadership roles at their respective family businesses, dealing with goods often seen as traditional and repackaging them for the 21st century.

Liu’s family runs Grand Tea & Imports, which has been selling tea and Buddhist prayer goods in Chinatown for 13 years.

Tsao is executive vice president at Po Wing Hong, a general store that sells Chinese herbs and dried goods, including rare items that can’t be found in conventional supermarkets, such as honey locust fruit, dried sandworm, and bird’s nest.

Dried goods on sale at Po Wing Hang in New York.
Dried goods on sale at Po Wing Hang in New York. / Photo: Heather J. Chin

For Liu, spending a summer in China at age 13 was a formative experience. It was there that she got her first exposure to tea ceremony traditions, following her parents on visits to tea farms in Yunnan, a major tea-producing region.

(Watch: We found the world’s largest tea tree in Yunnan)

“It gave me a clearer sense of my culture,” she recalls. “I wasn’t eating Chinese food; I was just eating food. There was no need to switch between English and Chinese. It was really empowering to find this sense of belonging that I didn’t find in America because I was not different.”

Alice Liu demonstrates a traditional tea ceremony at her family’s shop in New York.
Alice Liu demonstrates a traditional tea ceremony at her family’s shop in New York. / Photo: Benjamin Ng

Now, Liu runs the family shop and hopes to use it as a cultural bridge to show people what it’s like to be grounded in two worlds.

“In America, there’s the custom of meeting with friends over a cup of coffee,” she says. “I get to do that, but with tea. It’s wonderful to share the experience of brewing tea together rather than just having a cup of coffee handed to you.”

‘Proud to be Chinese’

Similarly, Tsao naturally became immersed in her family’s 40-year-old business by growing up in it.

As a teenager, she would stock shelves and bag groceries at the store after attending Chinese school on Saturdays. She grew up on Cantonese medicinal soups made by her grandmother from produce sold at the shop.

Sophia Tsao, executive vice president of Po Wing Hong in New York, explains one of the store’s products to a customer.
Sophia Tsao, executive vice president of Po Wing Hong in New York, explains one of the store’s products to a customer. / Photo: Heather J. Chin

But it wasn’t until she returned to Chinatown after some years away that she realized how important Po Wing Hong was to both her and the local immigrant community. Over time, the store had developed a reputation in the neighborhood for sourcing quality goods.

“I didn’t realize at the time that there were a lot of imitation products out there,” she says. “I didn’t realize that even herbs could be fake.”

(Watch: The owner of Hangzhou’s best restaurant is obsessed with ingredient quality)

Now, Tsao visits China every year to check on vendors and farms. She is always on the lookout for products that can appeal to both the store’s older clientele—Chinese immigrants—and newer customer base, which includes young Asian-Americans.

“The older customers, since they’re Cantonese, like all types of dried seafood goods,” Tsao says, “fish maw, sea cucumber, American ginseng. Also everyday goods for soup, like dried mushrooms, dried scallops, dried anything.”

Dried seafood on sale at Po Wing Hong in New York. It’s a common ingredient in Cantonese soup.
Dried seafood on sale at Po Wing Hong in New York. It’s a common ingredient in Cantonese soup. / Photo: Heather J. Chin

But in the past five years, Tsao has also noticed growing interest among Asian-Americans in learning how to cook with the esoteric ingredients sold at Po Wing Hong.

“There aren’t a lot of recipes available for traditional Chinese dishes that are really difficult to make,” Tsao says, “so I’ve seen a lot of customers come in asking how to prepare certain dishes and what certain ingredients are used for. Even myself, I have to ask my employees here.”

The career she has made criss-crossing the Pacific regularly for work has made her “feel more proud to be Chinese,” she says.

“Growing up in the U.S., a lot of my peers have that Asian-American identity crisis, taking career paths outside of the Chinatown community,” Tsao says. “But I never saw it as a downgrade, and I think that has resonated with a lot of people.

“Throughout the years, people have come to embrace Chinatown. I feel like people are more proud than they were before to have a business in Chinatown.”

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