Every morning, Ming Yi Chen walks down to the basement of Pearl River Mart, the Chinese department store he opened in 1971, and burns incense. Then he walks back to the first floor to light more incense. He breathes in the sandalwood, to him a calming scent. And the day can begin.
With the news this week that Pearl River Mart, at 477 Broadway in SoHo, would close in December because of a significant rent increase and an unsustainable business model, it became clear that Mr. Chen’s routine — and those of his 40 employees — would soon disappear into the capitalist cloud.
“There are people waiting for this space,” Mr. Chen, 76, said from the tea balcony, overlooking a floor that stretches from Broadway to Mercer Street, 30,000 square feet in all. “Maybe H & M, one of those big chains — with big pockets.”
It is fair to say that those big-pocketed stores do not offer the soundtrack of traditional Chinese music and tweeting birds, nor do they display lanterns, gongs and 60-foot-long paper dragons amid waterfalls. From the soy sauce and Chinese underwear that were lifelines for homesick Chinese immigrants to the slippers and qipao dresses that became staples for New York fashionistas, Pearl River Mart tells a lesser-known tale that is more than the sum of its dry goods.
Run with a strong, nurturing hand by Mr. Chen’s wife, Ching Yeh Chen, 68, Pearl River has provided a life for its immigrant workers for four decades. It has been a welcome alternative to restaurant and supermarket jobs for new immigrants, a place where Cantonese and Mandarin were spoken and employee banquets were held every year. The store, overseen by a board of trustees and 30 shareholders, has helped some workers apply for green cards, once had a matching 401(k) plan and still offers health insurance.
“We are probably one of the few pioneer companies that does that in Chinatown — I’m proud to say that,” Mrs. Chen, the president, said of the insurance plan. “Most of Chinatown, everything is in cash. In that sense, we are pretty fair, and people will stay here long enough.” (The store has been in four locations, including Canal Street.)
Often, two generations have worked side by side, and some employees have turned a job stocking shelves into a lifelong career.
“I’ve been with the Chens since I immigrated to the United States, as a part-time worker,” Wilkie Wong, 50, said. He had just arrived from Burma in 1982 and was attending Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. Mrs. Chen knew a school counselor and asked her for part-time employees. Mr. Wong showed up with two of his classmates; now he is the company’s vice president.
Asked about the store’s closing, Mr. Wong said, “I have mixed feelings.” He just got an office with a window two years ago, he explained. A graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo with a degree in economics and international trade, he had been doing the accounting in a separate basement office on Wooster Street.
But the future concerns him. Mrs. Chen said she would like to move to smaller quarters, downsize the inventory and, to better compete with Amazon, boost the online business, which Mr. Wong directs. “If we continue, he’s still with us,” she said.
But Mr. Wong’s 16-year-old son will not be joining him. “As an immigrant to the United States, it’s the same as my parents and every parent who wants their kids to have a high education, be a lawyer, doctor,” Mr. Wong said. “Even though I enjoy working here, I want him to have better than what I had.”
For some longtime employees, it might be time to move on. Lapyan Ng, 63, from Hong Kong, has worked at Pearl River for over 20 years. “Maybe I need to retire and take care of my granddaughter,” >>