‘Now it’s bare’: NYC’s Chinatown small businesses battle to keep doors open

‘Now it’s bare’: NYC’s Chinatown small businesses battle to keep doors open
The Ting family spoke to ABC News about their generational store Ting’s Gift Shop in Chinatown. (ABC News)

(NEW YORK) — Ting’s Gift Shop in New York City’s bustling Chinatown has shuttered after 66 years in business.

The family-run novelty shop, which is situated at the corner of Doyers and Pell streets and distinguished by its vibrant red exterior and abundant merchandise, was a time capsule of goods, offering everything from porcelain soup spoons and pajamas to jewelry and ornate figurines.

“Grandma had the store packed, anywhere she could find a space she had something,” Jona Ting told ABC News of her family’s matriarch and the store founder, Tam Ting. “Every space was used.”

The Ting family announced last month they were saying farewell to their generational gift store, which was opened in January 1958.

“Now it’s bare,” Eleanor Ting told ABC News of her mother’s once-abounding shop, adding, “I need to return the shop to the landlord, so it’s bare.”

From 2019 to 2021, economic decline compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic left Manhattan’s Chinatown with a 26% decrease in jobs, 12% more than the New York City average.

Neighborhood activists and entrepreneurs say the years since severe pandemic hardships haven’t eased the stress on the community.

“A lot of us have been here for generations and see our stories as more than just stores in the community,” Mei Lum, fifth-generation owner of Wing on Wo & Co. — the oldest continuously operating family-run business in Chinatown — told ABC News.

“We’re thinking about a storefront and its contributions to a community and a neighborhood beyond the confines of just pure economic exchange,” Lum said.

Founded in the 1870s and located in the Lower East Side, NYC’s Chinatown is home to the highest concentration of Chinese immigrants in the United States.

A cultural hub for Chinese cuisine, retail and immigrant history, the bustling streets of Chinatown have been a flagship of the city for decades.

But as entrepreneurs age, rent prices rise and younger generations take up different occupations, the fate of some of Chinatown’s most historic businesses are in jeopardy.

“A lot of these legacy business owners are close to or past their retirement age, and we don’t want to lose these legacy businesses,” Victoria Lee, co-founder of Welcome to Chinatown, a non-profit organization working to help community business owners, told ABC News.

“They’ve really shaped the cultural fabric of Manhattan’s Chinatown,” Lee said, adding, “They’ve done such a good job of achieving the American dream.”

Ting’s was just one of many small family businesses in Chinatown, where 94% of operations have less than 20 employees and face a unique set of problems in the neighborhood’s changing landscape — a broken line of succession.

“They’ve been able to send their children to school, to be lawyers, doctors, the industries that seem well respected,” Lee said of Chinatown entrepreneurs.

“So that makes succession planning particularly difficult because that means that the next generation may not have the desire, or it doesn’t make sense for them, to go on and take on the business,” Lee said.

Despite nearly shuttering eight years ago, Wing on Wo & Co. has managed to keep doors open, thanks to Lum, its fifth-generation owner.

“It was started by my great-great-grandfather and as a child I came here every day after school and I had Chinese lessons with my grandfather and had an after-school snack with my grandmother,” Lum said.

Founded in the 1890s and evolving from a general store to selling porcelain wares, Wing on Wo & Co.’s brick-and-mortar shop serves as an example of generational commitment and a meeting place for community activism.

Before Lum took on the business eight years ago, she said Wing on Wo & Co. was planning to sell the building.

“My family’s situation at that time allowed me to understand that letting go of the shop actually would contribute to a larger political context in Chinatown around gentrification, displacement and the acceleration of longtime businesses shuttering and long-time residents being displaced,” Lum said.

Coming together as a community, Lum, Lee and the Ting family say that despite the physical closure of Ting’s Gift Shop, the store’s legacy extends far past the corner of Doyers and Pell streets.

“I think we share that with Ting’s as well, with Eleanore. I’m really excited to see how people continue to stay in a relationship with the neighborhood and to think about how their legacy goes beyond space,” Lum said.

Since late 2023, Lee has helped Ting’s Gift Shop host three successful pop-ups and a farewell event for their physical location.

“It really shows that love and admiration that the community has to show up for a business that holds such a special place in people’s hearts,” Lee said.

Reflecting on Ting’s Gift Shop’s priceless impact on her family and NYC’s Chinatown, Eleanore said, “You know, 66 years, it’s not chump change,” adding, “I’ve been here from day one and I’ve enjoyed every second of it.”

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