Using Technology to Preserve the Culture of a Chinatown Shop

Alice Liu, a 24-year-old community advocate, on how she’s helped modernize her parents’ small shop

Liu, 24, graduated from the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter, where she studied urban planning, public policy, Chinese, and Spanish. (Aaron Reiss)
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an oral-history series where Aaron Reiss interviewed the young-adult sons and daughters of Chinatown shopkeepers about how they are helping to keep their families’ businesses alive.

Alice Liu, a 24-year-old community advocate, lends a hand at her parents’ small shop, GTW Tea and Water, which sells Chinese cultural goods such as teas, Buddhist items, and tourist tchotchkes. Over the years, she’s helped her parents in all kinds of ways, including with food prep at a restaurant they once owned. “I have vivid memories of sitting over a giant box of takeout soy-sauce packets, using scissors to clip the corners, and draining them into a bucket,”

I spoke with Liu in the spring of 2018. Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

I started working with my parents when I was 6 or 7 years old, back when they were running a small Chinese-food restaurant on Rivington Street. After school, my mom or dad would pick up my sister and me and bring us back to the restaurant. When I wasn’t doing my homework, I would wait on customers, wipe down tables, or clear dirty dishes and bring them back to the kitchen.

Obviously, we weren’t, like, hard-laboring … a lot of the time, we were outside skipping rope or chalking the sidewalk. Really, it was child care, since my parents couldn’t leave the restaurant or afford someone to watch us. But when my dad wanted to “build character,” he would pull us into the back for whatever work we were capable of. I have vivid memories of sitting over a giant box of takeout soy-sauce packets, using scissors to clip the corners, and draining them into a bucket. We figured out you could clip five at a time. So we would make these little stacks, clip, drain, stack, clip, drain.

I would chop mushrooms in the morning on weekends. My hands would smell like them for the rest of the day. I peeled green onions, trimmed green beans—any non-dangerous job. Eventually I graduated to washing dishes, when I was around 8. Then I got to scoop rice or soup during the lunch rush. The vats were so big, I could have fit inside them. Delivery was my favorite—I’d walk orders over to nearby construction sites and get $1 tips, which I immediately traded in for ice pops or chips. I felt like a queen.

Liu’s mother, Cui Ling Wu-Liu, has worked as a home attendant, a seamstress, a garment factory worker, and now behind the counter at her family shop. (Aaron Reiss)

It wasn’t until high school that I started really being useful to the business. Business dried up at our restaurant, but we ended up opening a little shoe/jewelry/DVD/party-planning store at 250 Grand. Foot traffic was low, because we were on the second floor, so my sister and I would drag a box of shoes onto the street and just sell them on the sidewalk. They were $3 for children’s sizes and $5 for adults. We would get stopped by police, ticketed—it scared me out of my mind.

When I left for college, my parents moved to the place they are at now, GTW Tea and Water. GTW stands for “Good Tea and Water.” (I know, I’m working on a rebranding.) During college, I would come back on weekends to help out, working the register, doing bookkeeping, and things like that.

Right after my graduation, my grandmother died. My father had to go back to China to take care of things, and I had to step in to help my mom run the shop full-time. I wanted to be looking for work in the things I studied, but my grandma had just passed away, and I needed to do what I needed to do to make sure my dad had peace of mind while he was away.

While much of the shop’s real estate is dedicated to Buddhist goods, the place is known for its fine Chinese teas. Liu’s father is known almost universally as Chafuzi (a play on Confucius, which could translate to something like “tea-fucius”). (Aaron Reiss)

I tried to take on new projects for them, to help them modernize. I was telling them to get a credit-card system for years. They liked working in cash; it was easier. My dad has kept all his financial records in handwritten notebooks, forever. Finally, I just set up a Square system. It took a year, but they got used to it, and now they can accept credit cards. I’m helping them set up an online shop, just trying to bring them into the modern era. I mean, this is a quickly dying business; my generation isn’t interested in fine tea or Buddhist items. It’s hard. I have to teach myself Photoshop, how to take product photos, how to style a website, how to write copy, and how to set up inventory. This is all new to me.

My dad wants to work until his last breath. In his mind, that would be a life well spent. And my sister and I want them to have success after all this bitterness—that’s the only way it’s sweet. That’s why we are investing so much of our time and money. We inherited from them a hunger, this nonstop pushing. The whole family, we want to break through with all the hard work we’ve put into this business. And with how hard they’re working, how could I work any less hard?

There’s also my own desire for a legacy. I learned from two full-Chinese people and ended up with this totally personal version of our culture. I can only imagine the shitty version of Chinese culture I would be able to pass on to my kids. I want my kids to have this. I want them to be Chinese.

Over the years they’ve offered to pay me, but I’ve never accepted. I know how hard the money is to come by; I can’t take it from them.

It’s our job to pull our parents out of poverty. If we don’t do it, who else will?