Joanne Kwong: Pearl River Mart
July 31, 2020
Joanne Kwong is the president of Pearl River Mart, the iconic NYC Asian emporium established in 1971. After witnessing the public lament following the 2016 closing of the historic “friendship store,” she left her career as a communications executive and attorney to join her in-laws, the original founders of Pearl River, to resurrect the brand, opening three stores in three years, including locations in Tribeca/Chinatown, Chelsea Market, and the Museum of Chinese in America. A fourth store, focused on Asian foods, is set to open at Chelsea Market later this year. Joanne shared with us the history of the brand, the process of reopening during a pandemic, and why now, more than ever, it’s important to support mom and pop stores in NYC. Read more from Joanne below and catch her episode of Meatpacking Unpacked: Community Connected with Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company here.
What influenced you to join the family business?
Crisis and necessity! Pearl River is a true mom-and-pop, with my in-laws Mr. & Mrs. Chen having run the store for almost 50 years in a number of downtown locations. Over those five decades, Pearl River evolved into a beloved NYC institution and a pillar in the Asian American community. When the rent at their longtime Soho location quintupled in 2016, I decided to leave my job as an attorney and vice president for communications at Barnard College to revive the business because of its significance to generations of New Yorkers and Asian Americans like me who grew up with it.
How do you maintain the work-life balance working so closely with your family?
I cannot say that I have figured out the work-life balance thing: I’ve worked every single day since I joined the company; our vacations double as family sourcing trips; and my kids appear regularly on the store’s Instagram feed. My mother-in-law is also my officemate! I would say we are lucky that we all get along and have pretty good senses of humor, and each of us is big-picture-aware enough to understand that work disagreements can never be allowed to grow into family disagreements.
What does it mean to you that the Pearl River Mart is described as a “friendship store”?
Pearl River’s legacy as a “friendship store” was kind of a double entendre when the store opened in 1971. At the time, mainland China was closed off to the world — trade was embargoed — and my father-in-law was part of a group of young Chinese student-activists who wanted to show Americans that there was nothing suspicious or scary about Chinese people or culture. At the time, Friendship Stores in China were places where only foreigners were allowed to shop–Chinese people were prohibited from entering–so my father-in-law being a radical turned the idea on its head and created a place in NYC where all were welcome and hopefully friendships would emerge between people of different cultures and backgrounds.
How do you think the store impacts the Asian community? Your family?
I myself grew up going to Pearl River and even before I met my husband was always amazed to find this fun, colorful store in Chinatown where seemingly equal numbers of Chinese and non-Chinese shopped side-by-side in creaky, cramped aisles for Chinese goods. It always provided comfort and familiarity to me and made me happy. When I joined the company, I started to realize that Pearl River provided that comfort and familiarity for A LOT of New Yorkers from all different backgrounds, but especially for Asian Americans because we don’t have a lot of 50-year-old Asian American stores or brands to truly represent our history and experiences. I’m proud that because of my in-laws and Pearl River, so many aspects of Asian culture have become as familiar to New Yorkers as pizza and bagels.
What role do you hope Pearl River Mart plays in the community?
I hope Pearl River continues to play this comforting, familiar role for New Yorkers, and to serve as a place of pride for Asian Americans. With rising rents and labor costs, it’s become increasingly harder to survive as an independent small business in NYC. Even before the pandemic, big box stores, global chains, and Amazon were forcing diverse, authentic neighborhood businesses to close. No one knows what the future will look like but I’m hoping we can hold on.
When the store closed briefly in 2016, were there always plans to reopen?
When the store announced its closing in 2016, my in-laws were not planning to reopen. They did not have it in them to reopen another store in an already changing retail environment. They also felt like they had accomplished their mission of introducing Chinese culture to NYC and would rather pack it up than sell to a corporate entity or someone who they did not trust to continue the mission and values of the store. When I volunteered to take on the task, we agreed to run the company together because I knew that the DNA of the store was basically the two of them and that it would take me a while to really learn the business.
What do you think prepared you most to run this business?
I think what prepared me the most to run Pearl River was good old fashioned New York street smarts and a genuine love for people. New Yorkers generally move at a faster clip than other people and I feel like being a small business owner means making hundreds of decisions a day. It also helps to be able to talk to anyone and everyone because that’s the only way to get the information you need sometimes!
What was the process like of reopening the store after being closed?
The process of reopening the store was a bit terrifying. I don’t mean fear of catching the virus; rather I mean fear of making the wrong decisions for my employees, family, and business partners. Every day is a struggle to pivot and pay the bills, and it’s scary to see so many beloved restaurants and shops close forever.
What steps have you taken or are you planning to take to help your business in the recovery stages post COVID-19?
My philosophy to recovery is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Not all of our businesses will make it, and it won’t be our faults if we don’t survive. For that reason, I’m going to be gentle and humane with those around me and just try to make things work to the best of my ability. For example, I am not pressuring any of my employees to return before they are ready because I don’t want to add any extra anxiety into the world. It’s already too stressful out here.
Current book you’re reading?
One of the joys of my job is curating our Asian American book collection! A book that just came out is “If I Had Your Face,” by Frances Cha, which is set in modern day Seoul. I’m really enjoying it.