Tucked away in Chelsea Market lies a mecca of Asian goods—Pearl River Mart. Upon stepping inside the inviting Asian American emporium—the world’s first of its kind—you would never guess its activist origins.
Part of the first wave of immigrants that followed the lifting of immigration quotas in the mid-20th century, student activists Ming Yi And Ching Yeh Chen created Pearl River Mart in 1971 to fill the gap of Chinese goods in New York City. Their store became the place for the Chinese diaspora to find their favorite staples—from ginseng to porcelain tea sets. But more importantly, it was a site of belonging filled with reminders of home.
Five decades later and Pearl River Mart has grown into a New York City institution as a steward of Asian American culture. But their growth has not been without its challenges—in its over 50-year-old history, Pearl River Mart has moved its flagship store five times due to rent increases. The most significant was a rent increase in 2015 to over $6 million a year, which prompted the decision to close shop for good. After over 40 years in business, founders Mr. and Mrs. Chen were ready to retire.
But an outpouring of grief from New Yorkers—a testament to the store’s cultural significance—inspired them to reopen in Chinatown the following year, this time under the leadership of daughter-in-law Joanne Kwong. “It felt important to keep the store alive,” Kwong tells Forbes, accounting her own childhood memories of shopping at Pearl River Mart.
It was around the same time that Kwong visited Pearl River Mart as a kid that their customer base began to expand from Chinese immigrants to non-Asian shoppers. It’s this popularity among tourists and non-Asian locals that enabled the store’s expansion beyond Chinatown. Today, you’ll find the flagship store in Soho, with an outpost in the Museum of Chinese in America, and two shops in Chelsea Market. “It was transformative,” says Kwong on the significance of having locations alongside other New York City institutions like Amy’s Bread in Chelsea Market. “It affirms that we could leave and still have success outside Chinatown.”
While Pearl River Mart’s early offerings attracted Chinese immigrants, the store’s initial intent was to appeal to non-Asian shoppers too. “My father-in-law dubbed it a ‘friendship store,’” says Kwong. The president explains that in China, ‘friendship stores’ were sanctioned by the Chinese government to sell crafts made in the country to foreigners. “He called it a ‘friendship store’ to say we welcome all, no matter your background or race.” Kwong tells Forbes.
In this way, Pearl River Mart acts as a bridge, exposing non-Asians to the rich and diverse cultures of Asia. But for Americans of Asian descent born and raised in the United States, Pearl River Mart serves as a bridge for them too, tying them to their roots. “The store was different for my grandparents, traditions fade,” says Kwong. “For Asian Americans today, it’s about straddling different worlds. Folks live far from their family, they’re biracial or adopted, it’s harder for them to access the stories. We wanted a place that is proudly Asian American, for people to feel visible.”
Whether it’s buying ingredients to make grandma’s recipe or looking for a children’s book by an Asian American author, Kwong says they’ve thoughtfully selected the best of the best goods to offer classic brands to shoppers. “People can get overwhelmed by choice,” the president tells Forbes. “We provide the top recommendations for each category.”
In addition to selling household names, Kwong intentionally brings in emerging brands, to help amplify Asian American entrepreneurs too. “We bring in existing Asian businesses to incubate them,” says Kwong. “The hope is that they graduate and become bigger than us.”
It’s this intention that motivated their most recent collaboration with Gold House, a community of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) creatives and companies. In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, products by brands of Gold House’s Founder Network are for sale at Pearl River Mart locations through mid-June. They range from COVRY, a sunglasses brand that addresses the lack of options for Asian Americans with low bridges; to Yishi, a line of functional Asian-inspired instant oatmeal; to The Qi, a collection of fair trade tea blends rooted in Eastern philosophies.
With so many brands now operating as direct-to-consumer, having their physical products for sale in Pearl River Mart provides an extra boost of confidence. “A lot of them haven’t seen their products in a retail store,” says Kwong. “This gives them a first shot so they can see themselves represented.”
It’s this in-person connection and community-building that has enabled Pearl River Mart to thrive for the past five decades. With pandemic restrictions loosening and people convening in-person again, the brand is getting back to hosting events to bring the AAPI community together at a time when unity is needed in the face of anti-Asian hate.
Their most recent initiative is a group art exhibition featuring women-identifying artists presented in partnership with the Asian American Arts Alliance. The exhibit explores the idea of “soft solidarity”—what it means to be in a kind of solidarity that isn’t constrained by background or socioeconomic status—and is displayed throughout Chelsea Market and at their flagship Soho location.
From their early roots as a diasporic haven in Chinatown to giving AAPI brands their first big break today, Pearl River Mart continues to honor their activist origins. Even when their business slowed during the pandemic, they upheld their company’s ethos by using their connections to Chinese manufacturing companies to import personal protective equipment (PPE) for essential workers. “We like to think of ourselves as mission-based retail,” says Kwong. It’s clear this ‘friendship store’ is fulfilling its mission.