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Store Founded in 1891 Succumbs to Effects of 9/11

October 26, 2003. New York Times

Next to a kitschy gift shop that sells ninja action figures and wax paper umbrellas, a metal security gate shrouds a storefront. Standing on the sidewalk, Paul J. Q. Lee, the stocky 53-year-old proprietor of the shuttered business, peers inside through a tiny slit and shakes his head.

For more than a century, Mr. Lee's family worked here, selling everything from salted duck eggs to porcelain figurines. It was Chinatown's longest continuously operating store.

"It's so painful," Mr. Lee said. "The torch went out on my watch."

Last month, his shop, the 32 Mott Street General Store, became the latest victim of the economic troubles that have gripped this community since Sept. 11, 2001. City marshals came and evicted Mr. Lee, who had fallen badly behind in his rent.

It is clear now that the store, long a stop on Chinatown walking tours, will not be reopening. Mr. Lee says he hopes to salvage some items inside and move on, but the process is dragging on because he and the landlord are no longer on speaking terms.

For a once-proud institution, it is an undignified ending.

Historians and preservationists hope the store's interior, largely unchanged from a century ago, can somehow be preserved.

Gutting it for a new tenant "would be disastrous," said Prof. John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program at New York University. "The interior is one of the most important surviving historical sites as far as I am concerned in the whole city from the 19th century."

Mr. Lee's grandfather, Lee Lok, opened the store in the heart of Chinatown in 1891, calling it Quong Yuen Shing & Company. Although it was a few years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the country, Chinatown was already a bustling enclave.

His grandfather sold medicinal herbs, groceries, restaurant supplies and silk brocade for ceremonial clothing, Mr. Lee said. But like other shops in the area, he said, Quong Yuen Shing functioned as much more than a store. At that point, Chinatown was essentially a bachelors' society because immigration law forced men to leave their wives in China. They gathered at the shop to pass the time. Those who were illiterate could get help writing letters home. Many used the store as a postal address. Safes were kept for immigrants because Chinese were barred from opening bank accounts. In the back, workers slept on wooden shelves.

When Mr. Lee's father, Peter Lee, took over the business, he transformed it into a restaurant wholesaler, importing canned goods, dried mushrooms and cookware. Mr. Lee said he inherited the store in the mid-1980's and modernized it in many ways, by taking credit cards and staying open on Sundays, for example. He changed its name and switched to yet another niche: selling Asian giftware, porcelain figurines and dishes to tourists and locals.

Otherwise, the store remained mostly as it was a century ago, with the original wooden counters and shelves, the tin ceiling, the Chinese prints above the register and the elaborate wood-carved archway, the kind once common in Chinatown shops.

By the time Mr. Lee took charge, though, Chinatown had evolved. In its heyday, the store depended on immigrants from Toishan, a village in southern China. But now people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia had settled in the area. The store had trouble adapting, he said.

Mr. Lee branched out into selling bus tickets to Atlantic City and tried to get into the Chinese wedding registry business. More recently, he started handling phone and utility bill payments for elderly residents and recent immigrants who did not have checking accounts, charging a small fee for each transaction.

Then came Sept. 11, which proved to be the final blow. Mr. Lee said his business dwindled to nearly nothing in the weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center. He estimates that he never recovered more than half his old revenue.

He cites many factors, including the closing of a section of Park Row, once a major artery for the neighborhood, to protect Police Headquarters, and the loss of parking places to police vehicles.

"I've been screaming bloody murder for two years, testifying everywhere," Mr. Lee said. "Even now, I know the politicians are just giving lip service to Chinatown."

Mr. Lee's store is not alone. Nearby, on Doyers Street, China Handicrafts, a giftware store like Mr. Lee's, was also shuttered recently. Kam Kuo, a six-story supermarket farther down Mott Street, will also close soon.

Workers took down the sign on Mr. Lee's store two weeks ago to install the security gate. They tossed it in the trash bin, but it was retrieved by members of the church across the street. Last week, someone from the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown retrieved it for safekeeping, said Fay Chew Matsuda, the museum's executive director.

Daniel Yee, whose family manages the building, said that they are aware of the store's significance but that plans are still up in the air about what to do. "Obviously what we're definitely going to try to do is rent the place out," he said, adding, "We're definitely going to try to preserve the interior of the store as much as possible."

The family gave Mr. Lee chance after chance to catch up on his rent, Mr. Yee said. In the end, he said, there was nothing they could do but force him to leave.


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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