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Chinatown Resident Saves Family Store, Launches Series on Changing Nabe

 25-year-old Mei Lum now runs the antique store on Mott Street that has been in her family for 90 years.
25-year-old Mei Lum now runs the antique store on Mott Street that has been in her family for 90 years.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

CHINATOWN — Shortly after Chinatown resident Mei Lum succeeded in saving the 90-year-old antique shop that has been in her family for four generations, she decided to take it a step further by launching a community engagement initiative to chat with other local businesses about staying afloat and relevant in the ever-evolving neighborhood.

Lum, now the executive director of Wing on Wo & Co at 26 Mott St., on May 19 will kick off a summer-spanning series of conversations and workshops about changing Chinatown, beginning with a panel discussion with local businesses owners called “The (Re) Generation of Chinatown.” 

The panelists, many of whom are second- and third-generation Chinese Americans reviving old family enterprises, will chat about what they see as their roles in the neighborhood as it continues to change.

“It’s about how we as community members can engage in the process of deciding what our neighborhood will look like a few years down the line,” said Lum.

The fledgling passion project first began when Lum learned her family planned on selling the antique store and connecting building — her grandma, who had managed the store and building for over 50 years, was no longer able to play the leadership role, and the family had to either sell the business or pass the baton to someone willing and able to keep it going.

Lum couldn’t bear the thought of losing the shop where she and her family had grown up — or the thought of a new landlord displacing the tenants that have lived above the shop for years. She eschewed her plans of attending graduate school at Columbia University, instead deciding to take the reigns and engage with the community as she strove to keep the business relevant. 

“This place means so much to me,” she said. “The thought of it being sold and looked at by other people made me really upset — I wanted to see if I could do something.”

Lum chose to learn from her grandma the ins-and-outs of managing the store and followed in her footsteps. The transition was made official just last week. Lum now manages the store full-time, though she may return to graduate school sometime in the future, she said.

The experience made Lum contemplate the rapidly changing nature of the neighborhood she calls home — other stores have not been so lucky, she said, and many have gone under as rising rents make it difficult for small businesses to stay afloat.

“Chinatown used to be this place that felt like a village,” she said. “Everyone knew each other — they worked and lived here. Now people work here and live outside, or live here and work elsewhere. It changes the whole essence and aura of what this community is like.”

Joining Lum for the inaugural panel are owners of egg waffle spot Eggloo, ice cream shop 10 Below, cycling shop Mott Street Cycles, new burger joint Breakroom, and Ami Li, a Chinatown-born gallerist who has transformed part of her father’s button shop into an art gallery. 

The panel, running from 6 to 8 p.m., will be moderated by Diane Wong, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, who first approached Lum to interview her for her thesis on the gentrification of Chinatown. 

Lum says she is still planning out the rest of the summer series, which revolve around the theme “Chinatown Then and Now."