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Tibetan Refugees Find Niche Selling Chinese Bamboo in Williamsburg

By Meredith Hoffman | March 11, 2013 6:58am | Updated on March 11, 2013 8:14am

WILLIAMSBURG — She may have grown up nestled in the Himalayan mountains, but it wasn't until she hit New York's concrete that Pema Yangzom realized her passion for trees.

"I feel good when I work with plants, plants are like us," said Yangzom as she twisted bamboo stems on the floor of the Tibet Lucky Bamboo Shop.

"We get thirsty just like they do."

Yangzom, 47, a Tibetan native who moved to Queens several years ago, said she and her family started selling bamboo out of a garage in Woodside about seven years ago. The demand was so great that they quickly expanded to their store on Humboldt Street in East Williamsburg. 

"We sell to florists, dollar stores, many of our customers are Chinese," she said. "It was difficult to make [the arrangements] at first, but now I do it all the time."

At the shop — which sells wholesale potted arrangements ranging from $2 to $60 to stores in all five boroughs — Yangzom's husband and stepson arrived early to unload a new truck of plants one recent morning. Later Yangzom arrived to create miniature bamboo sculptures, which another relative placed in elephant-ornamented ceramic holders.

Clients who walk into the Tibet Lucky Bamboo space can also purchase the artful bamboo bouquets at wholesale prices, Yangzom's stepson Tenzin Palden said — but few customers ever enter the shop, which appears to be more of a workspace.

"Not many people want to buy them around here," Palden, 21, said, but he noted that dollar stores around the corner on Grand Street sold his family's bamboo. Each week the business ships out about 120 of the smallest plants, Palden said of the $2 varieties.

Bamboo, in Chinese culture, is a symbol of "virtue...endowed with soul and emotion," according to the Chinese embassy. Most of the Tibet Lucky Bamboo shop's customers are Chinese-Americans, Yangzom said.

And Yangzom — who said she fled Tibet as a child and then worked in a fabric store in Nepal — said she now realized the constant desire she'd had to work with plants.

"I had a few plants outside my house... I'd water them, I'd feed them," she recalled of her home in Kathmandu.

Then she and her family moved to New York and gained asylum status in the United States from Chinese persecution, she said. That's where she discovered Chinese bamboo.

Yangzon said she and her family make constant efforts to connect with fellow Tibetans in the area, by attending Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the city, in New Jersey and in upstate New York.

And Yangzon said she still thinks about Tibet "every day," but that her Williamsburg shop is her main focus.

"I'm making my tiny business," she said. "I'm happy."