Places that Matter

32 Mott St. General Store (former)

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Tanya March
General store that served the first wave of Chinese immigrants
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The general store at 32 Mott Street, which closed in 2003, was a great place to shop for over 100 years. But for Chinatown's bachelor community in the days when the tourist trade was just beginning, the Mott Street General Store was also a place to sleep or store one's savings.

More valuable than mere groceries for the community of uprooted, single male workers were the general store's sleeping lofts, safes in the storerooms that provided an informal bank, and a wire rack that served as a post office to receive mail from home. The first Chinese immigrants to New York came without their families. Most spoke little English and faced discrimination outside of their small community. Social services provided by businesses like the Quong Yuen Shing general store were critical.

The initial wave of Chinese immigration to New York, from 1875 until 1882, like many exploratory settlements, brought mostly transient men--among them sailors and former railroad workers who faced growing discrimination in the western United States. Then, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 effectively solidified the gender imbalance by preventing further immigration. It was not repealed until 1943, when it was replaced with strict quotas. Numbers of Chinese women in the area did not equal those of Chinese men until the quota system was abolished in the 1960s.

The Lee family, whose descendants ran the store until its 2003 closing, called their young business Quong Yuen Shing and Company. It was first located on the other side of Mott Street. Architect Louis Heimeeke designed the dumbbell-shaped "old-law" brick and terra-cotta tenement at number 32 in 1897, and by 1899 Quong Yuen Shing moved in to the storefront. The store specialized in elegant silks and satins, but was also well-stocked, like other stores in the area, with vegetables, medicinal herbs, spices, and supplies for the laundries and restaurants that were the other Chinese entrepreneurial mainstays of New York.

32 Mott Street, between Pell Street and Chatham Square, was at the geographical heart of young Chinatown. The first Chinese shops in the area were patronized almost wholly by Chinese immigrants. Then, the 1890s brought tourism to Chinatown. Fanfare surrounding the 1896 visit of the prestigious Chinese viceroy, Li Hung Chang, spurred seekers of exotica to visit. Their business became key to sustaining the general stores and new restaurants that suddenly made "chop suey" popular. The store opened amidst this tourist to-do.

The Lees' store remained an anchor of Chinatown and an image of its past. It staunchly weathered the neighborhood's phenomenal growth and the demise of the other, once-prevalent general stores. Though the bunk beds in the back were no longer impromptu housing and the safes were no match for an ATM machine, the storefront hardly changed. The awning's "Quong Yuen Shing" gave way to "32 Mott Street General Store." And in later years the store sold largely porcelain--teapots, cups, saucers, statuettes. But its interior was still lined with the same wooden shelves and counters, decorated with old-fashioned prints of demure Chinese ladies, and graced by an intricately carved wooden arch. The flowers and peacocks on that lucky arch were intended to confuse evil spirits with their tortuous curves, a job they apparently did admirably for many years.

The store closed in 2003 because Mr. Lee was unable to continue paying rent, but much of its interior remains intact. As of 2004 its fate remains uncertain.