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Saving more than a store: Mei Lum
Mei Lum
The fifth-generation owner of NYC’s
Wing on Wo & Co. is on a mission.
Mei Lum calls it “the radical act of staying put.”
The 30-year-old is the fifth generation owner of Wing on Wo & Co., the oldest store in New York’s Chinatown. In a neighborhood that faces continual threats from displacement and redevelopment, not to mention the pandemic’s unique challenges, simply sticking around feels revolutionary.
Lum is five years into her own personal revolution, when she decided, at 26, to take over the store that’s been in her family for nearly 100 years.
Back in 2016, her grandparents, Nancy and Shuck Seid, then entering their 90s, decided to retire. Although the family referred to the store as their “living room,” no one wanted to take it on.
Except Lum. She had returned to New York from working in south Asia, where she had taught English and worked with nonprofits that focused on community and youth development. She was planning to attend grad school when her grandparents announced their decision.
“It just so happened that things converged at the right time,” Lum says. “My reflection now looking back is that I’m so happy that I was able to come back to my community and actually do the work I was doing abroad locally and in a community that I know.”
That’s because she intended for Wing on Wo to be more than a store. Although it had a few lives during its 100 years—among them, a general store, an eatery, and a shift to porcelain goods in the 1960s—Lum wanted to build on Wing on Wo’s status as a neighborhood institution.
Thus began the W.O.W. Project, “a community-based initiative that reinvents, preserves, and encourages Chinatown’s creative culture and history through arts, culture and activism,” per the organization’s website. It was a natural extension of the work Lum had done abroad. Before the pandemic, the W.O.W. Project hosted numerous events, including artists’ talks, maker workshops, neighborhood activism meetings, and more.
“It was almost my comfort zone to think about starting that, and feeling okay to program a space and organize that,” Lum says. “What that looked like, I think, was definitely my way of bringing my own interests and passion into taking on Wing on Wo. My growth space was definitely warming up to calling myself a ‘small business owner.’”
Although Lum has taken the helm, Wing on Wo remains a family operation, with everyone taking on new e-commerce roles during the pandemic. Her father, Gary, who had previously manned the counter, now packs items for shipping. Her mother, Lorraine, handles correspondence with customers. Lum’s great-aunt, Betty Eng, provides curbside pickup, and Lum’s cousin, Evan Louis, assists with social media. Shuck Seid died last year, but Nancy remains active and has become the store’s mascot thanks to “Po’s Picks,” a recurring Instagram feature where she highlights her favorite items.
“Literally anything my grandmother markets moves off the shelf, which is insane,” Lum says, laughing.
Wing on Wo went from offering a few items for sale online to more than 120, with Lum building an e-commerce infrastructure on the fly. She estimates more than half of their orders come from the Asian diasporic community. “What’s been really heartwarming during this time is to see so many people show up for us, and support us through the pandemic, and e-comm really opens up our audience,” she says.
Lum has also made sure the store shows up for causes too. “During the pandemic there were several different points where we were fundraising and donating a percentage of our sales to different causes,” she says, such as Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 and most recently, organizations that support migrant workers and sex workers after the shootings of Asian women in Atlanta—events that hit close to home for Wing on Wo.
The store had planned a partial reopening in April, but postponed it after Atlanta. Lum and her family have taken extra precautions to stay safe in the aftermath of Atlanta and attacks in Chinatown, but their outlook hasn’t changed.
“We don’t want to be overcome by fear and have that impact our daily lives in a way that makes us operate on the defense all the time,” Lum says. “Because that’s not who we are. That’s not what Wing on Wo stands for. We’re here to weather the storm. We’re here to take on and confront the challenges.”
Lum now plans to reopen Wing on Wo sometime in June, which is a more momentous time anyway: It’s the five-year anniversary of the W.O.W. Project and her taking over the store. “I think we really want to be able to welcome our community into our space to celebrate with us in person, to connect with folks again in person,” Lum says.
While she hasn’t had much time to look back and reflect, especially during the past year, Lum has felt reassured by what she’s learned so far.
“I felt really insecure about what it meant to be a small business owner, to have all of these Chinatown men looking at me like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have no idea what you’re doing,’” she says. “And to not internalize that, but also be confident that I just need to trust my gut and go with it. As long as I’m true to who I am and true to what this store and my family legacy is, then that will take me in the right places.”
As part of our mission to inspire innovators everywhere, Cole Haan is making a donation to the W.O.W. Project through their fiscal sponsor, New York Foundation of the Arts.

Who inspires the innovators?

Our Innovators Series isn’t just about highlighting the people we select; it’s also about making connections to the larger world they inhabit. We want to give our innovators the chance to champion others whose work is important and/or inspires them.
Grand Tea & Imports, @grandteaimports
“Chinatown’s multigenerational family businesses are the cultural fabric of our neighborhood. I am so inspired by Grand Tea and Imports’ second-generation owners, Alice and Karen, and how they continue to model resilience and tenacity in working with their family to propel their business forward, while always making sure they are showing up for the Chinatown community. Stop by or shop online to learn all about their incredible tea selection.”
Po Wing Hong, @powinghong
“When I met Po Wing Hong’s second-generation owner, Sophia, for the first time a few years ago, I saw her as a role model. There aren’t many women-owned multigenerational businesses in the neighborhood, and Sophia is a true trailblazer in her leadership and growth of such a Chinatown institution like Po Wing Hong. Shop their high-quality Cantonese cooking ingredients and products in-store or online.”
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