The colorful clothing and cultural items behind Pearl River Mart’s windows stop pedestrians in their tracks. The Asian-inspired home furnishings and decor outlet is filled with gifts and household items representing an astonishing array of Asian culture. There’s a lot of love inside these walls, too.
“My father-in-law started Pearl River Mart as a ‘friendship store,’ and at its essence, that’s what it still is,” says President Joanne Kwong. The original location on Catherine Street in Chinatown was founded in 1971 at a time when relations between China and the United States were frozen. Despite the trade embargo in effect, Kwong’s father-in-law Ming Yi Chen and a few activist friends set out to open a shop with a subtly political mission: to bring household goods and tasty treats from China. The hope was familiarity would overcome looming suspicions.
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Although rising rents have forced the shop to relocate over the years, the institution continues to thrive. Pearl River Mart now boasts a multi-level flagship location in TriBeCa, a lively hangout in Chelsea Market and a new spot inside the Museum of Chinese in America. They continue to educate about Asian culture while helping designers and artists realize their potential. “We have an art gallery in our TriBeCa store where we host shows for Asian and Asian American artists, and in all our stores we feature Asian-American entrepreneurs whose creations [vary from] Asian-fit sunglasses to bespoke ties made from kimono fabric,” Kwong says. “People can expect to see something new every time they come inside Pearl River Mart, which adds excitement and purpose to their shopping experience. We love to surprise people and meet them where their interests lie.”
One glance at the collections of high-quality fashion, decorative fans and Lunar New Year supplies and customers are hard pressed to believe that the store’s first sales were copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, slippers and soy sauce. The selection has expanded far beyond these meager offerings over the past 48 years, but the driving mission behind Pearl River Mart remains: to treat every customer like a good friend. pearlriver.com
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Last modified: April 22, 2019