How long must a shop be around to be a New York institution? Twenty years? Forty? Pearl River Mart boasts a legacy of 50 years in the greater Chinatown area, an iconic Chinese emporium that is a New York institution.
Originally opened by overseas Chinese men and women as a small “friendship” store on Catherine Street, later moving to Elizabeth Street and then to Broadway in Soho, the store introduced tasty foods and beautiful Chinese goods to Americans while providing Chinese immigrants items from home and a sense of community. Relocations in this half-century include Tribeca and Soho.
During these last five years, in true New York fashion, the business has been subject to real estate and landlord pressures. But, its new 452 Broadway location—the sixth address since opening in 1971— is testament to the resilience of this family-run immigrant-begun business.
About five years ago, Joanne Kwong left her attorney job at Barnard College, to take over the business with her in-laws where she works with them hip-to-hip—they’re still part of the operation six days a week. Daughter-in-law of the original owners, she’s the President and second-generation owner of Pearl River.
As to the latest venue, “It has good energy in here,” says Kwong, of the bright space opened in May 2021, on Broadway between Grand and Howard. “It’s only a few blocks from Chinatown, the store’s ancestral home.”
“We also have a small gallery,” she gesticulates toward the rear of the shop. “It’s an Asian-American art gallery.” Donating the space to the community to help promote emerging artists, she continues, “It’s so hard for artists of color to find exhibition space that they don’t have to pay for.” Currently, Korean artist Nancy Pappas is exhibiting paintings and drawings.
Early evening of the first day of Lunar New Year, Pearl River celebrates with lion dancers on the sidewalk. Three red and yellow Chinese lions, hoisted on poles attract a crowd jamming the sidewalk in front of the Broadway shop.
The Wan Chi Ming Lion Dance Troupe, founded in 1973, is an example of the generations continuing. “Master Wan was a good friend of Mr. Chen, my father-in-law. His son Warren now leads the troupe and is a good friend of mine,” Kwong relates. “We would love for these traditions to continue for the next 50 years.”
“Wan Chi Ming is known for getting vertical,” Kwong also explains. “You noticed they were high up in the air. They’re known for getting up into the sky.”
The troupe’s lions danced for the cluster of observers and then, as is traditional, the lion dancers entered into the store, trailed by the sidewalk celebrants.
Kwong notes that if you missed any of the lion dances, Super Saturday—February 12 is when all the teams come out in Chinatown.
How is the store celebrating New Years? Obviously, they’re selling loads of red items for home decoration and for this Year of the Tiger, tiger-themed items like huge decorative fans and panels or even baby slippers with tiger images.
“It’s been lovely to greet people we haven’t seen in a while who are coming to prepare for their celebrations,” Kwong says.
A number of years back Pearl River began to expand its brand carrying Chinese clothing—some with more contemporary flourishes on traditional designs, as well as Japanese dinnerware, foods, and a full wall of “Hello Kitty” items.
Kwong also notes that the two stores in Chelsea Market, their additional locations, have helped them weather the pandemic. Chelsea Market’s Pearl River Mart Foods features food items and food-court prepared foods. For New Years this past weekend it served a Chinese three-course meal in the outdoor heated bay.