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For Chinatown Bakery Treasured by Generations, a Decision to Walk Away

September 2, 2007. New York Times.

Tucked into Pell Street, just off the crook in Mott Street, the May May Chinese Gourmet Bakery has attracted three generations of customers with its steamed red bean buns, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and packaged frozen dim sum.

From a tiny two-table coffee shop opened in 1965, the family-owned business has radiated outward to include a factory in Long Island City that distributes across the eastern half of the United States and a catering side that supplies hundreds of delicate dumplings for stylish cocktail parties. But the doors to the original shop and its kitchen still open onto Pell Street, and the aromatic puffs of steam entice passers-by.

"It's something you grow up with," said one regular customer, Jan Lee, whose family has been in Chinatown since the 1920s. "Everyone had a mom or an aunt who made them at home, but if you didn't have someone to make them, you could rely on getting it from May May."

But at the end of this month, after 42 years, the three Hung brothers who run May May will shutter the doors of both the shop and factory, sell the equipment for a small fraction of what it cost, and slowly let the inventory in the pipeline dry up until the May May brand is just a memory.

May May's closing is not a tale of rising rent or falling demand -- as is often the case with ethnic food shops in New York City that are doubly squeezed by gentrification and assimilation of the customers. The company's products are as popular as ever. The clunky red-and-white logo can be seen in the freezers of Chinese groceries up and down the East Coast. Families drive from as far as Boston and Washington to stock up on frozen dim sum.

The store has broadened its appeal beyond the Chinese community, marketing the bamboo-wrapped sticky rice as "Chinese tamales" and its puffy white buns as "steamed pita bread." They have modernized their selection, with offerings like mango and crab dim sum and ginger lemon cider.

The Hung brothers are closing the company because they are tired, and their five children -- who include a lawyer, a pharmacist and a teacher -- are unwilling to put in the 11-hour days in steaming kitchens and on the factory floor.

"Our second generation is fully educated, so they don't want to work as hard as their uncles and their father," said John Hung, 55, the youngest of the brothers. "This is one thing we most regret. We don't have the young generation to take over."

After five years of deliberating whether to sell the business, the brothers -- John, Alex and Bill -- decided they could not find a buyer who could continue to assure the same quality. "I can sell at a good price, but if they ruin the name, that's something we don't want," John Hung said.

The family arrived in New York in 1965, one of the first Chinese families to be let in after immigration reform. Their father, who ran a bakery in Hong Kong, opened May May when Chinatown was a modest cluster of shops around Pell, Doyers and Mott Streets, before Canal Street and East Broadway became known for their Chinese presence.

Back then the bakery's customers almost all worked in Chinese laundries, and the only Chinese spoken on the street was the dialect from Toisan, a region in Guangdong Province that was home to an overwhelming majority of early Chinese immigrants to the United States.

During the shop's early days, the brothers, then in their teens, ran to the shop after school. Hours at the bakery were long, and the work was hard. At 2 or 3 one morning, as they were preparing for the next day, their mother held her three sons together and asked out loud, crying, whether it had been worth it to come to America.

To help at the store, John dropped out of City College of New York when he was 19. He is thinking of finishing school after the store closes, in addition to doing more Buddhist charity work and spending time with his 86-year-old mother, for whom the bakery is named.

The company has about a dozen employees in the shop and two dozen in the factory, many of whom have been with the bakery for 20 years or more. "After the store closes, where will we go?" asked Lan Ling Sun, who has worked for May May for 23 years. "We don't even know."

As the news about the closing has trickled out in the Chinese media, customers have shown up at the doors, stricken that a Chinatown institution would willingly erase itself.

In the final weeks, a phrase often heard around the store is "shebude" (pronounced seh-boo-deh). The customers say shebude, the employees say shebude and Mr. Hung says shebude. It is an emotional phrase familiar to Chinese immigrants, roughly translated as "can't bear to let go," and is often used when departing hometowns for faraway places or leaving family members who will not be seen for decades.

Faced with shebude, it is sometimes best to just walk away.

Wen Chi Tso, a customer visiting May May from Myrtle Beach, S.C., described the feeling: "You almost have to cut it off."


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

may may bakery photos by rkchin

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