Taking Over the Family Business in Chinatown

As the neighborhood continues to gentrify, the children of immigrant shop owners must decide how, and if, they will keep stores running.

Aaron Reiss / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

New York’s Chinatown is one of the few neighborhoods in Manhattan where parks are still packed with multigenerational, four-season activity, where diverse cultures, cuisines, and traditions are found spilling out of storefronts and community centers, and where immigrants and non-English speakers can find a familiar foothold in a new and different country. Still, over the past few decades, gentrification has brought about significant changes. That has accelerated in recent years, along with redevelopment and rent increases. Small shops like Fong Inn Too, a tofu-product store, and the New 25 Cents Store, one of the neighborhood’s last reliable sources of sewing supplies, have closed; new art galleries and upscale restaurants have proliferated; and the Pathmark supermarket has been torn down and replaced with an 80-story luxury residential tower.

As the neighborhood changes, foreign-born shop owners in New York’s Chinatown, as in other immigrant communities in the United States, have struggled to stay afloat. The traditional narrative for the children of immigrants—at least the one that often plays out in the media—involves a strong familial focus on education, and high hopes of college and high-status careers. However, in New York’s Chinatown, many business owners’ children are making a different choice: staying put at the family shop, where they’ve become unofficial, and sometimes unpaid, translators between the cash-based, word-of-mouth traditions of the past and the Square payments, social media, and Instagrammable products of today.

I recently volunteered and worked with a community-arts organization called Think!Chinatown, interviewing business owners in Chinatown for a project investigating how technology could help small local businesses, and started to notice how important a role their children played. This spring, I spoke with the sons and daughters of local entrepreneurs about what it’s like to work alongside their parents. Here are links to their stories in their own words:

  1. 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,” she recalls, “of sitting over a giant box of takeout soy-sauce packets, using scissors to clip the corners, and draining them into a bucket.”
  2. Jason Luo, a 24-year-old entrepreneur who graduated from helping resolve problems with English-speaking customers in his parents’ JieLi Laundromat to running his own gadget store, Niu Shop, nearby, explains his shift from rejecting his family’s business to embracing it: “It’s like multiple personality disorder. You’ll become thankful and grateful to them sometimes. And sometimes you hate them, and you hate the business, right?”
  3. Cynthia Koo, a 30-year-old designer, uses her marketing and art expertise to help manage an Instagram presence and an English-language website for her family’s Cantonese restaurant, Oriental Garden: “I speak Cantonese and took Mandarin in school, but I don’t read enough to understand the register.”
  4. Ken Ma, a 32-year-old M.B.A. who is being groomed to become the CEO of his parents’ optical empire, Mott Optical Group, recalls the difficulty of taking over as a “boss’s son” in a family business: “I thought, I am the son of the owner; I can’t make mistakes. People are looking at me—I have to set a good example, I have to be flawless, I have to be knowledgeable about everything.
  5. Olympia Moy, a 35-year-old with a background in nonprofit work and advocacy, who helps manage her parents’ music school—Florentine School of Music, Art and Academics—shares the struggle of reconciling her own legacy with that of her parents: “My parents would rather I had come back for a cushy job and a steady income. I came back thinking of their business as fertile ground for civic change.”
  6. Kevin Huang, a 22-year-old college student, recounts how short staffing at his family’s bakery found him unexpectedly spending his evenings after school helping to make buns and pastries with his father: “I’d have to think of ways to keep him in conversation, you know, to keep him up. So I would ask him about growing up in China, about serving in the Army. Little things like that. It’s not that our relationship was bad in the past—we just didn’t have time.”