Mei Lum’s business is 100 years older than she is. “Wing on Wo has been in my family since 1890,” explains the 5th-generation owner, whose shop began as a general store just as New York’s Chinatown was beginning to take shape. “They sold tastes of home, a small collection of porcelain, and also acted as informal postage service to folks who were traveling back and forth from Southern China to New York City.” In 1925, the shop moved to its current location at 26 Mott Street, adding an in-house herbalist and even a pig-roasting pit before ultimately choosing to focus on traditional painted porcelain in 1964. That’s when Mei’s grandmother, Po (pictured above), took over as owner—a role she maintained until just 6 years ago, when Mei stepped in at only 26.
Already, Mei’s brought the shop online, built strong relationships with other women-run businesses in the neighborhood, and even explored wholesale opportunities—pretty impressive work for someone who says she never expected to run the store. She’s also launched a non-profit, The W.O.W. Project, that uses art and activism to resist displacement and gentrification in Chinatown and create a more welcoming future for femme, queer, and trans youth. From in-store gatherings to vibrant murals, Mei says The W.O.W. Project’s work honors Wing on Wo’s original role as a community gathering space. And she’s just getting started. “We want folks to expand their minds when they're thinking about how a storefront can contribute to a neighborhood,” she says.
Despite the changes, Wing on Wo remains a multigenerational family affair. “My grandmother, my grandfather, and my great aunt come to the store every day,” she says. Her grandmother even helps with social media, gaining a following with a QVC-inspired Instagram series “Po’s Picks” in which she features various items in the shop. “It’s allowed her to carve out her own role in our digital presence,” says Mei with a smile. “She's kind of our 90-year-old marketing girl.”
Here, we caught up with Mei about what it’s like to take over a business that’s several times your age, how art can drive change, and what she’s hoping to build for Chinatown’s future.