Joanne Kwong ’97 Revives Iconic Pearl River Mart

Joanne Kwong '97 speaks during the reopening of Chinatown's Pearl River Mart.

Kien Quan

Pearl River Mart is that rare New York City institution that blends commerce and culture with community — a store whose combination of chock-a-block tchotchkes and fine Chinese goods endeared it to shoppers as diverse as its wares. Pearl River had everything. And when it closed last spring after 46 years — the rent on its sprawling SoHo space had quintupled — the public lament was immediate. Media from Vogue (“this wonderful emporium, a beloved New York City landmark”), to Crain’s New York (“the Chinese department store that has become a New York City shopping institution”), to The New York Times (“more than the sum of its dry goods”) bemoaned the loss. For Joanne Kwong ’97, the closure was a call to action. The New York City native and now president of the resurrected Pearl River stepped in to save the store and grow it for a new generation.

Kwong’s in-laws, Ming Yi Chen and Ching Yeh Chen (Kwong’s husband is their son, Gene Hu SEAS’97), founded Pearl River in 1971. Their original goals were twofold: to share Chinese culture with Americans during a time when the two countries did not have a diplomatic relationship, and to provide a bit of home for Asian immigrants in NYC. Kwong describes it as “an interesting amalgamation of retail business and mission-related work,” because of the store’s unique focus on building cross-cultural connections. Across the decades, the store moved three times in lower Manhattan, retaining its loyal customers while gaining new ones.

The idea to bring back Pearl River floated up during a family dinner in the early fall; after a lengthy discussion, Kwong was tapped to lead the effort. No stranger to change, the dual poli sci and psychology major had already taken turns as an attorney, a judicial clerk, a professor and a communications VP at Barnard. “I’ve had a bit of a non-traditional career path, but all of the skills I’ve gathered along the way have helped with this next step,” she says. She credits the College for encouraging curiosity about the world and stressing the importance of exploring new viewpoints.

Joanne Kwong ’97 and her in-laws cut the ribbon at Pearl River Mart's reopening.

Joanne Kwong ’97 and her in-laws cut the ribbon at Pearl River Mart's reopening.

Once the decision to reopen was made, Kwong found a space in TriBeCa; she wanted to attract holiday shoppers, and so aimed for a November/Black Friday opening. With only a few weeks to plan, she decided to go with a pop-up on the ground floor. The temporary shop would sell classic Pearl River items (from ceramic dishware and cooking supplies to slippers, tea sets and parasols) and close in February, after the end of Lunar New Year, for renovations. The plan was to then reopen as a fully realized store in the spring. But with the buzz around the pop-up better than expected, Kwong decided to keep it open and renovate around it, and the store has been humming along ever since.

Kwong, who describes her role as “like a homecoming,” says, “[It] makes me happy because I’m doing something for my community — both the Asian-American community and New York City — providing some joy to people in their everyday life ... I feel that small joys create community, create understanding between neighbors.”

In addition to offering traditional wares, the store now showcases works from Asian-American artists. Pearl River’s first collaboration was with Kwong’s Carman Hall friend Jenny Wu ’97, an architect and jewelry designer. A limited edition collection of Wu’s 3D-printed jewelry line, LACE, debuted at the pop-up; Kwong plans to continually feature new artists “to come together and really cheer on and celebrate one another. There’s so much innovation and creativity within the [Asian-American] community that is fighting for attention and doesn’t always get it.” Wu says, “Pearl River was such a New York City institution, especially to me when I was at school. When I got married, I got a lot of things from there. It is such an iconic place, so I am really excited to be part of it.”

Pearl River’s new space also has a mezzanine gallery, where Kwong has been exhibiting an array of works that depict the Asian-American experience. She says a special moment for her occurred during an exhibition of famed Chinese-American photographer Corky Lee’s works, “Chinese America on My Mind” — she recognized that some of the photos came from protests she attended at Columbia to push the College to include ethnic studies. The store is also using the gallery space to create neighborhood relationships; from May 20 to June 25, the artist-in-residence program highlighted works by primarily Asian-American students from P.S. 184/Shuang Wen School, a bilingual public elementary and middle school in Chinatown; the show was called “East Meets West: A Look into Our Worlds.”

Kwong sums it up: “Where Asian heritage meets New York City — that’s kind of what Pearl River has always been about.”