About Pearl River Mart
In 1971, a group of young overseas Chinese men and women decided that 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, Pearl River cultivated a reputation in New York City 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 Pearl River's 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. Its home in TriBeCa — the fifth one in Pearl River’s history — opened to much celebration and fanfare in November 2016. Just a year later, Pearl River opened 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. In late October 2020, Pearl River opened its fourth location and second in Chelsea Market, Pearl River Mart Foods, a love letter to Asian food in NYC.
About Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen, Founders
Natives of Taiwan, Mr. and Mrs. Chen came to the United States 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 United States 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, PresidentA 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 ten 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 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
- NBC News: Historic Pearl River Mart Reopens to Bring 'Cross-Cultural Joy' to NYC
- Wall Street Journal's Market Watch: Meet the woman who brought the iconic Pearl River Mart back to life
- Sinovision: My Town, Chinatown