Volume 17 • Issue 23 | Oct. 29 - Nov. 4, 2004

Downtown Express photos by Corky Lee

The new look of the store at 32 Mott St., left. The new owners no longer have the space’s outdoor sign, seen right last summer.

Historic Chinatown store reopens under new management

By Hemmy So

Amid the bustle of Chinatown shops, a new face popped up two weeks ago in an historic location. Once home to 32 Mott Street General Store, the namesake address now houses Good Fortune Gifts, Inc.

The new store shares the same skeleton as its predecessor but not much else. Vestiges from the store’s 113-year long history remain, such as the brown wooden shelves and cabinetry and elaborately carved arch decorating the counter. But the new owners, who include the building’s landlord, have changed the wallpaper, added more lights and stripped the hardwood floors.

New merchandise fills the store’s shelves. Above eye-level, windowed cabinets display numerous boxed Barbie Doll-sized action figures. A Jackie Chan action figure stands next to Wonder Woman as army and police toy figures protect them from all sides. Across the store, cartoon figures like Yogi Bear and Archie offer wide grins from inside their paper and plastic boxes. Trinkets such as painted ceramic eggs, small crystalline balls enshrining decorative scenes and ceramic animal figures are lined up carefully for presentment in the glass case that greets customers at the door.

“People in community and who had been in the store, have been marveling at what happened,” said manager and co-owner Danny Kung. “[The remodeling] gave the place a lot of life. It really brings out its natural beauty, from what it was maybe when it was first opened up.”

But for the previous store’s owner, Paul Lee, the new opening only causes pain.

“It’s not a good thing. It’s very, very painful,” Lee said. “To lose the store — that was my family’s business for 113 years. It’s very shameful, very painful.”

Opened in 1891 by Lee’s grandfather Lee Lok, 32 Mott Street General Store was originally called Quong Yuen Shing & Company. During that time, the store not only sold general merchandise like medicinal herbs, sundries and silk brocade for clothing, but also conducted an import and export business. Importing goods from China, the store distributed goods to Chinatowns in major cities including Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Because immigration laws forbade Chinese men to bring their wives to America, a bachelor’s society formed and Quong Yuen Shing & Company became a social center. As society became more modernized, the store went through its own evolution. In its next incarnation under Lee Lok’s son Peter Lee, Quong Yuen Shing & Company became a restaurant wholesaler. Still engaging in the import business, the store sold imported goods such as non-perishable foods and cookware.

In the mid-1970s, Paul Lee took the reigns from his father, although the two vacillated in the role of head proprietor until Paul Lee finally took over in the mid-1980s. Under his ownership, Quong Yuen Shing & Company became 32 Mott Street General Store, selling Asian giftware and knick-knacks. Lee also began selling bus tickets to Atlantic City and services to local residents such as handling bill payments for seniors without checking accounts.

But after 9/11, Lee’s business suffered. The store never even got close to earning half its original revenue, Lee said.

Lee attributed the losses to a drastic reduction in tourism, the security-related closing of Park Row and fewer parking spots available to civilian vehicles. Lee is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit intended to reopen the street.

After Lee fell behind on his rent payments, building owners May Yee and her family had Lee evicted by city marshals at the end of last year. Lee, who lives next door to his former store, is now trying to negotiate the return of his personal belongings from the store. As for the store sign that hung above the doorway, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas now holds it for safekeeping.

After members of the Transfiguration Church across the street from 32 Mott Street General Store had recovered the sign from the trash, a community member informed the museum about the find.

“It’s in good hands now at the museum,” said Lamgen Leon, the museum’s chief of operations and facilities. Though MoCA is keeping the sign at its storage warehouse, the museum hopes to someday use it for a future exhibit, he said.

Lee declined to comment about the sign’s recovery.

As for Good Fortune Gifts, Kung feels optimistic about the store’s future. “I don’t think we’ll be millionaires doing this line of business, but just enough to pay the bills, put food on the table,” he said.

Lee hasn’t yet been inside the new store and doubts he ever will, even though he lives just next door.

“I don’t look in there. It’s so painful.”

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