Mei Lum ’12: Shaping the Future of Chinatown
In May 2016 Mei Lum ’12 took ownership of Wing on Wo & Co., a family porcelain shop in New York City founded in 1890 by her great-grandfather. More than 100 years later, with the help of her newly established community engagement initiative The W.O.W Project, Lum is revitalizing the store in hopes of starting a conversation about small business owners and their role in helping shape the future of Chinatown. We talked with Lum about how she came to the emotional decision to take over the family store, the future she sees for Wing on Wo and the W.O.W Project, and her inspiration behind it all.
On life after graduation:
I spent my junior year in Beijing studying Chinese, and that really informed what I went on to do after graduation. I was hungry to go back abroad—ultimately deciding to go on a Princeton in Asia fellowship. I started in the small town of Phang-Nga, Thailand, teaching English to high school students. I completed the second year of my fellowship in Beijing, working for an experiential education nonprofit. After a three-month consultancy project in Laos, working on a youth development program, I took some time for myself and traveled a bit and tried to figure out what was next. I knew I wanted to go back to the United States and attend graduate school, so I could return to Asia once again and do more community development work.
It’s okay to not know and to be uncomfortable in the unknown. That’s where really great things happen.Mei Lum ’12
On her decision to take over Wing on Wo:
Two weeks before I was set to come back home [in November 2015] I found out that my family was thinking about folding their porcelain shop and selling the building, because my grandmother was no longer able to keep up with the demands of running the business. I got really upset because I grew up here. Since I was a baby, my parents would bring me here to hang out with the family, and it’s been the central place for us to celebrate birthdays and eat dinner together. This place holds a lot of meaning for everyone, so the thought of letting it go was very tough for me. [At the same time] I was starting to apply to schools and looking into different international development and East Asian studies programs.
While deciding what to do I met Diane Wong, a PhD student writing her dissertation on the gentrification of Chinatown. She walked into our shop and asked if she could interview us, but at this time we were still figuring out if we were going to sell the business, so she offered to have me come with her on her other interviews with community stakeholders. I learned so much about the issues at hand and the concerns of the members of the community. It really got me thinking about my neighborhood and the changes that were happening and what it meant for the entire community. I was down to the wire with the decision on whether I wanted to go to school, take over the store, do both? I decided that school was always going to be there but something like this wouldn’t.
On W.O.W’s inception and its future:
After all the interviews I went on with Diane, we started to see a trend in second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans coming back to the neighborhood and opening businesses. So we thought it would be interesting if we put together a panel discussion [moderated by Diane] to bring together these younger generation Chinese-American business owners and pose questions [about] how they see themselves shaping the future of Chinatown. That was kind of the start of what is now known as the W.O.W Project. We have different events that we hold [at the shop] around the changes happening in Chinatown and building a platform for residents to engage with local issues. We put on our first talk, the (Re)generation of Chinatown, in May 2016.
I’m really determined to build a socially-minded business model for the store and have W.O.W and the shop become integrated so it can become a social enterprise; a place where we can still be selling what we sell and honor my family’s legacy but putting more of a modern twist on it.Mei Lum ’12
On her time at MHC:
What I got out of Mount Holyoke is the confidence and the courage to pursue whatever I want to do and the importance of community. Getting out of the bubble of South Hadley, as any senior, I was anxious about what I wanted to do. What I learned when I was in Thailand and China is it’s okay to not know and to be uncomfortable in the unknown. That’s where really great things happen.
—As reported to Jess Ayer
November 18, 2016