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Chinatown’s Oldest Family‑Owned Store Is Still Centering Community

How 5th‑generation business owner Mei Lum honors Wing on Wo’s legacy while working toward a secure, inclusive future for the community it serves.

Mei's grandmother, Po, in 1965

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.

How did you come to take over Wing on Wo?

In 2016, my family came to a pivotal moment. We were thinking about shuttering the store due to increased elder care ‌my grandmother was taking on with my grandfather, who was 93‌. At the time, I was moving back to New York City from living and working abroad in Asia, so I was making my own transition and re-familiarizing myself with Chinatown. I met a PhD student named Diane Wong as she was starting her dissertation research on the gentrification and displacements of Chinatowns across the US, and she invited me to shadow her in interviews with folks in the neighborhood.

That was really when I started to think about the impact that shuttering our space would have on the larger Chinatown community. I started to zoom out and think deeply about the concerns that were on the table for a lot of the neighborhood folks that I was talking to, specifically around the housing displacement and the longtime commercial businesses that were slowly fading away. So I decided to step up and take a stab at it. What really was important to me was making sure that my elders were able to age in place. That was, and still is, my North Star in stepping into this role. Everything else that has grown out of this pivotal decision was unexpected for me.

Without being able to relate to one another and understand one another and see each other—there is no community and there is no neighborhood.

Mei Lum, 5th-generation Owner of Wing on Wo and Founder and Director of The W.O.W. Project

Your family has operated the store since 1890—since 1925 in your current location. What’s one thing you’ve learned from previous generations that's especially relevant to your work today?

My grandfather was a huge person in the community. He supported restaurant workers, and even started his own initiative out of the local police precinct to ensure that there was bilingual support for folks to report crimes during the 80s. I grew up in his shadow. Walking around the neighborhood, we couldn't get down the block without him saying hello to somebody he knew. Something that I carry from him, and also from my grandmother, is that showing up and building relationships and deepening connections with people in the community is really important. It should be at the forefront of the work. Without those relationships—without being able to relate to one another and understand one another and see each other—there is no community and there is no neighborhood.

During COVID-19, Chinatown has been one of the hardest hit neighborhoods because of the multi-layered, complex narratives that have been crafted around the pandemic. I don't think that we would have been able to get through it if we didn't have each other. Relationships are really the most important thing, far beyond making money or caring about reputation or whatever all the shiny stuff is that can feel important in a capitalistic society. That lesson is always top of mind for me.

Tell me about your non-profit, The W.O.W. Project. How do you use Mailchimp to communicate with your supporters?

The W.O.W. Project is a nonprofit organization that is using arts and activism as a way to resist the cultural displacement that's happening in the neighborhood. We have been using Mailchimp since day one to provide our community with updates on what we're up to. Sometimes it's program updates—sharing events that are upcoming—and sometimes it's used for sharing news. There’ve been a lot of things happening in our neighborhood, specifically since 2020. For all of the immediate urgent matters when we want to call people to action, we use Mailchimp to share that news and share the ways folks can plug in.

What are the big goals and overall mission of The W.O.W. Project, and how do they relate to the work that you do at the shop?

We focus specifically on Asian femme, queer, and trans youth and putting them at the helm of this art and activism work. Manhattan’s Chinatown is a very patriarchal place. It was started by a men's club, a bachelor society, and a lot of the leadership positions that are held in the neighborhood have been by men. My grandmother has obviously been a big role model, and my mom has as well, and I grew up with a very strong matriarchal line. But women have been marginalized in our community. For us, it's really important to shape an alternative future for Chinatown and make sure that this specific community has a space to cultivate those skills and feel empowered for that future.

In small ethnic neighborhoods, longtime businesses are often informal convening spaces. Even when the shop was starting in 1890, that was the secondary function of the space. So in a lot of ways, we are honoring the original incarnation by holding events in our storefront. We’re regenerating our basement studio, which used to be a two-seat barbershop—that's where all of our The W.O.W. Project programs are held. We have an artist residency program, and our youth art and activism program meets there every week.

The W.O.W. Project Calligraphy Workshop, Photo credit: Eric Jenkins

Why is art such a huge focus for you, both as a business owner and a community organizer?

Art felt like the natural medium for us because of the grounding that we had in the shop: Ceramics, as an art form, inherently holds stories and memories and cultural history. It’s a first access point for folks. They can come in and not feel like they have to be an artist, but still engage in a cultural craft that they grew up with or that they heard about or learned from an elder. That’s allowed us to develop relationships that are rooted in people’s own family history and story—getting to know them first, and then finding commonality between one another.

In terms of art as activism, it’s similar. Art allows us to have conversations about something familiar, then extend that out into a larger point of action. We wanted to bring in artists that facilitate community members, through workshops, to co-create the end-work that goes up in our storefront window so it can live and breathe with our neighborhood. There’s something to say about folks walking past our storefront and seeing work that reflects who they are and what they value. That does a lot in strengthening our community.

What would be your advice to your hypothetical great-great-great-granddaughter, if she were to take over this business as you have?

I think I would just say, ‘Don’t be afraid to make it your own.’ That’s always a good thing to return to when you’re stepping into a role that, for me, wasn’t always necessarily in the cards. I’ve been able to follow what feels right—for smaller decisions on a daily level, but also for larger decisions. Make sure that you’re having fun while you’re doing it and experimenting. Listen to your gut.

Note: Mailchimp has donated to The W.O.W. Project. To learn more about the project, visit

Published: May 23, 2022

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