In 1971, a group of young overseas Chinese men and women decided China had much to offer America and worked together to open a small “friendship” store in New York City's Chinatown. This was a radical idea at the time, as diplomatic relations between China and the United States were frozen and direct trade was strictly forbidden. Somehow, they found a way.
Mere months after the store’s opening, President Nixon and Chairman Mao shook hands in Beijing, and Pearl River’s storied place in history as the world’s first Chinese American department store began. Over the next five decades, we cultivated a reputation in NYC for being the place where you can find just about anything: from Buddha statuettes to rice snacks to chopsticks, along with countless things you can’t even name. Many of our customers walk through the doors not knowing what they want, only to walk out hours later with exactly what they were looking for.
Today, Pearl River is a beloved New York institution and a symbol for the creativity and ingenuity of Asian Americans in this country.
Due to the realities of NYC real estate and the increasing costs of running a small business in the city, Pearl River has had to move its main store five times in its 50-year history. However, no one can say we’re not resilient.
Our first location was at 22 Catherine Street (1971–1980) in Chinatown before moving to 13 Elizabeth Street (1978–1986). From 1986 to 2003, we resided at 277 Canal Street, occupying 15,000 square feet, with an outpost on Grand Street (1988–2004). It was in 2003 that we first moved to SoHo, and for the next 13 years, occupied three floors at 477 Broadway, our largest space to date at 30,000 square feet, employing 40 people, and carrying about 20,000 items.
Then in 2015, facing a rent increase of almost five times to over $6 million a year, we announced the store’s closure. After over 40 years, Mr. and Mrs. Chen felt ready to retire. However, what they weren’t expecting was the outpouring of grief from New Yorkers, past and present. This led to the decision of reopening in TriBeCa/Chinatown at 395 Broadway in late 2016 under the leadership of daughter-in-law, Joanne Kwong.
While this space was smaller than 477 Broadway, Pearl River expanded in other ways. We built out our e-commerce site, activated on social media, and, just a year after reopening, established a second location in Chelsea Market, the iconic sprawling urban food hall in the Meatpacking District, and only a year after that, a third location in the esteemed Museum of Chinese in America, the world's leading institution dedicated to preserving and presenting Chinese American history and culture.
Then in 2020 everything changed. In light of the pandemic, we closed our locations, albeit temporarily, in March, and reopened them later that summer. In October, we managed to open a fourth location and our second in Chelsea Market: Pearl River Mart Foods, a love letter to Asian food in NYC. In early April 2021, we were forced to shutter our beloved TriBeCa home. However, we were lucky enough to find a new location in our old neighborhood of nearby SoHo, which opened in May 2021.
- 22 Catherine St. (1971 to 1980)
- 13 Elizabeth St. (1978 to 1986)
- 277 Canal Street (1986 to 2003)
- Outpost at Grand Street (1988 to 2004)
- 477 Broadway (2003 to 2016)
- 395 Broadway (2016 to 2021)
- Retail outpost at Chelsea Market (2017 to present)
- Outpost at Museum of Chinese in America (2019 to present)
- Pearl River Mart Foods outpost at Chelsea Market (2020 to present)
- 452 Broadway (2021 to forever!)
About Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen, Founders
Natives of Taiwan, Mr. and Mrs. Chen came to the U.S. as young graduate students, he in chemistry and she in economics. They came to meet in New York as part of a group of Chinese political activists, filled with idealism and fervor.
The idea to found a small store carrying goods from mainland China was originally a political one — what better way to puncture the shroud of mystery surrounding “Red China” than to introduce tasty foods and useful household goods from that country to Americans? Though trade between China and the U.S. was forbidden in 1971, Mr. Chen picked up his first shipment of goods at the Red Hook port in Brooklyn. It contained bottled soy sauce, Mao’s Little Red Book, cotton “kung fu” slippers, and People’s Liberation Army caps. The rest, as they say, is history.
For over 45 years, Mr. and Mrs. Chen worked at Pearl River six days a week, nine hours a day, always closing at 7:20 p.m., no earlier and no later. Mrs. Chen is the creative force of the company, carefully selecting all of the merchandise and designing the store windows herself into the wee hours of the night. Mr. Chen is the “muscle,” energetically moving thousands of pounds of merchandise each day, and, during a rougher time in New York, chasing down 40 shoplifters in one year at the store’s former Canal Street location.
Today, the Chens are joined by their daughter-in-law Joanne, who serves as President, and occasionally, their grandsons Milo and Griffin, co-heads of the toy- and snack-testing department.
About Joanne Kwong, President
A daughter of Chinese immigrants from the Philippines who grew up in Astoria, Queens and Seoul, Korea, Joanne learned early on to crave cha siu bao, lechon, moussaka, and jjajangmyun, sometimes all at the same time. She is a product of the NYC public schools and started her career as an attorney. For 10 years, she served as Counsel to the President and Vice President for Communications at Barnard College, where she led communications and advocacy efforts during a time of unprecedented success and growth for the historic all-women’s college.
She is also the daughter-in-law of Pearl River Mart’s founders, Ching Yeh and Ming Yi Chen. Under the careful guidance of the Chens, Joanne hopes to continue and evolve Pearl River’s original mission as a "friendship store" — by celebrating and explaining Asian traditions and stories, providing a platform for innovative and creative Asian American entrepreneurs and designers, and offering a warm and fascinating gathering place for all those interested in enjoying the richness of Asian culture.
Joanne lives on the Upper West Side with her husband Gene and two sons.
Learn more about Pearl River
- Forbes: How Pearl River Mart Champions Asian American And Pacific Islander Representation
- Travel + Leisure: The Past, Present, and Future of Pearl River Mart: An Institution in New York City's Chinatown
- Yelp Blog: Evolving the first-ever Chinese American department store for the next generation
- MSNBC: Asian small business owner talks about the challenges she faces on economic road to recovery