Pearl River Mart is back in business. Nine months after being priced out of its longtime SoHo home by skyrocketing rent, New York City’s iconic Asian department store reopened at a new location in TriBeCa with a ribbon cutting ceremony and special reception on Thursday, November 17. Several hundred friends and fans gathered at 395 Broadway to celebrate a new chapter in the store’s long legacy. Now open as a pop-up shop through the Lunar New Year in January, the store will officially re-launch in May 2017 following renovations.
“For forty-five years, Pearl River Mart has been a home-away-from-home for New York’s Chinese community, and a window into Asian cultures for all New Yorkers,” said Joanne Kwong, Pearl River Mart’s new President and the daughter-in-law of the store’s original owners. “In an increasingly global world, where intercultural understanding is so crucial, we are delighted to throw our doors open and welcome New York back to Pearl River.”
Originally conceived as a “friendship store” to introduce Chinese merchandise and culture to New Yorkers, Pearl River Mart was founded in 1971 by Chinatown community activist Ming Yi Chen–then an academic who had just earned his doctorate in chemistry. Over the next four decades, Pearl River grew from a small shop in New York City’s Chinatown into a 30,000 square foot department store in the heart of SoHo. When a prohibitive rent hike forced Mr. Chen and his wife Ching Yeh Chen to close its doors in March of this year, many interested investors emerged with ideas for keeping the store afloat. But only when their daughter-in-law proposed taking over the company did the Chens feel they had found a suitable successor for reinventing Pearl River Mart.
Encouraged by the outpouring of support following the store’s closing and inspired by the opportunity to lead the brand into new territory, Kwong, a Columbia and Duke University-educated attorney and communications executive, felt the time was right for a major career change.
“The goal is to evolve the store from a traditional brick and mortar to a leading-edge retail experience while also preserving and honoring Pearl River’s incredible legacy,” said Kwong, the former Counsel to the President and Vice President of Communications at Barnard College, Columbia University. “In this age of e-commerce, social media and experiential retail, it’s actually a great advantage to be an independent, authentic and nimble brand. My team and I are thinking big, local and digital.”
New Yorkers who turned out for the opening day festivities enjoyed a first look at Kwong’s reimagined Pearl River, where familiar favorites, new concepts, and inspired artwork mingle in the new 7,000 square foot location. The gallery-style shop, doubling as an exhibition space even during its pop-up run, will feature the work of five artists who share the multicultural spirit of Pearl River, drawing influence from the art of SoHo, the activism of Chinatown, and the global curiosity of New York. The opening exhibit, Celestial Gates, features the ink-on-handmade paper and carvings-on-Masonite works of Chris A. Mendoza, a Nicaraguan-born and New York City-raised mixed media artist whose designs are also featured on a special line of Pearl River products. Shoppers browsed an exclusive line of 3D printed jewelry by acclaimed designer and architect Jenny Wu—whose wearable art has been seen on Lucy Liu and Christina Aguilera—in the first of Pearl River’s planned collaborations with a variety of established and emerging Asian-American designers and artists. These types of curated exhibitions and capsule collections will become the hallmark of the store, along with cultural events, performances, and strategic partnerships with major national and global brands. Long term plans include opening additional stores in other U.S. cities and introducing new lines of Pearl River-branded merchandise.
When the Chens originally opened Pearl River Mart, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China were virtually non-existent, compelling Chen to do his part in fostering cultural exchange between the two nations. Despite regular visits from the FBI to ensure he wasn’t a Communist spy, the store was an overnight success, prompting Chen to put his chemistry career on indefinite hold and devote the next four and a half decades of his life to his true passion.
“Pearl River has always had a higher purpose for me or else I would have retired a long time ago,” said Chen, 77. “Pearl River isn’t just a business – it’s an essential part of my personal vision as well as my life’s work. My wife and I are grateful and excited to have Joanne take over from here and guide Pearl River on a new journey that we hope will continue for many more generations to come.”