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Asian Grocery Stores: The Unsung Heroes of Immigrant Life


Something about going to the Chinese grocery store put me at ease as a kid. Walking into the harshly lit store, with no-frills Chinese-language displays, and aisle upon aisle of fermented fish or bean paste goodies, it seemed as if my whole family unclenched.

When my mom would find a sweet she remembered from her childhood in Hong Kong, she’d call my uncle over and for a moment they’d laugh over some inside joke from their youth. It was like watching them grow young for a moment.

My usually stoic aunt would purposefully walk the aisles stocking up on noodles, rice, and various seasonings, sauces, and pastes. But now and then she’d come across a favorite treat, an indulgence she rarely afforded herself, and she’d smile as she tossed it into the cart. If she caught me staring at her, she’d say, “You know, this was my McDonald’s chicken nuggets when I was your age. It’s so good!” It was the closest I got to seeing my aunt as a human being, not just the woman who told me I needed to brush my teeth more often.

Us kids were allowed to basically run rampant in the store – much to the chagrin of the grocery store employees. This was one of the very few places that my mom and my aunt felt safe letting us disappear for a bit. My mom would laugh, “What’s going to happen to you here?”

Of course we’d gravitate to the candy aisle where chocolate biscuits in the shape of cheeseburgers and koala bears, little spheres of chewing gum packaged in tiny square boxes, rice paper candy, Haw Flakes or saan zaa beng (pressed wafers made of Hawthorn Fruit), and almond cookies were what we loaded up on, then negotiated with our parents to add to the basket.

I always marveled at how much more social my parents, aunt, and uncle were at the Chinese grocery. My aunt would stop and talk with the fishmonger about what was a good way to cook the recommended fresh fish that day; my mom would address the women who worked there in the familiar, casually chatting with them in Cantonese, even complimenting their hairstyle or “how young” they looked; my dad might strike up a talk with the elderly store manager about some random topic like public transportation in Hong Kong or the best crab shop in Sai Kung.

Sometimes conversations would get heated, lapsing into the kind of rapid, complicated Cantonese (translation: cursing) that I couldn’t quite understand. I’d think my dad and the manager were arguing, then just when I’d really start to sweat, they’d explode in laughter. If I caught the tail end of that laughter, that was my cue to head over, and sometimes the manager would give me a free book mark or cookie.

The manager would ask if I could understand Cantonese or speak it, and my dad would explain that I could understand but I was shy. The manager would then say kindly, but with no less gravity, “You must know your language, where you came from. It’s so important. You are Chinese.”

We’d pay for our goods at the front of the store, with the unsmiling and efficient check-out person, then head back out into our American lives. The smell of fish would cling to our clothes for a while, and my family would leave a little more buoyant.

At the Chinese grocery store my family felt like they could shed one part of their American persona: the foreigner.

As accepting as 1980s Seattle was, some people still had a hard time hearing beyond my family’s accents or bridging the cultural gap. They still do. Because of this, the burden of assimilation, being “more American than America” as my mom used to say, usually falls on the immigrant. Being an immigrant (especially first generation) can be akin to always “sucking in your gut” when you are out in the world.

But at the Chinese grocery store, we could just be. My family could exhale.

This experience is not unique to my family.

In recent years, Asian grocery stores and markets have gained in popularity as places to buy inexpensive and “unusual” foods and goods. However, before Asian and ethnic markets were “discovered” by foodies and hipsters, they were helping immigrants to feel a little less strange in a strange land.

For many immigrants, charged with forging their own way into American culture with little to no help, ethnic grocery stores, department stores, and markets were and are a bridge to American culture. It’s either where they find help, or the conduit through which help is found.

Not only can immigrants find the comfort foods and goods from back home, but they have a chance to communicate, in their own language, with people who may have been in the country longer than them and can share some insight into assimilating. Just being able to get a newspaper written in your mother tongue can be a relief. And never underestimate the power of a bulletin board or “community corner” that has postings in various languages, offering everything from English classes to real estate agents who are multilingual.

Some stores even host events recognizing festivals from their clients’ native countries, others have community outreach arms that work to unite and advocate for the immigrant community.

At Uwajimaya, the Washington State and Oregon chain of Asian, primarily Japanese, supermarkets and gifts, not only do they bring food and home goods to the Asian-American community, but also community engagement and charitable support.

Founded in Tacoma, Washington by Fujimatsu Moriguchi in 1928, Uwajimaya has become something of a Pacific Northwest institution. Aside from their primary mission to bring high quality Japanese foods and products to Washington and Oregon, Uwajimaya has long been a place where members of the Japanese-American community can take part in seasonal cultural festivals or educate non-Japanese-Americans on Japanese traditions, foods, even games.

On Wednesdays, the Seattle store, in partnership with the Seattle Go Center, hosts “Go Nights” where skilled players and beginners alike can gather to play the 4000-year-old game. This year, the Beaverton, Oregon store is holding a two-day Natsu Matsuri or Summer Festival featuring a taste of Japanese food, drink, entertainment, and culture.

Successful chains with resources like Uwajimaya can offer donations and support to nonprofits that benefit the community, like the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington. Though busloads of tourists from all over the US may now visit the Uwajimaya flagship store for for their tours, restaurants, and bookstore, the supermarket was founded as a touchstone for Japanese Americans when being Asian in America was not always easy.

Pearl River Mart in New York has been providing not only a connection to home, but also much needed jobs to Chinese immigrants for decades.

Opened in 1971 by Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen, the department store started not only as Mr. Chen’s attempt to somewhat demystify mainland China in America, but also to supply Asian-Americans with some familiar comforts. Starting with items like soy sauce and some favorite underwear from back home, the store has expanded to sell Japanese goods and other Asian and South Asian products, as well as the typical Chinese tchotchkes like lanterns, fans, and tea sets. However Pearl River Mart, now run by the Chens’ daughter-in-law, Joanne Kwong (now at its fifth location in Manhattan since opening), also carries exclusive, choice teas from China and traditional special occasion items that aren’t always readily available in mainstream shops. The store seems to strike a balance between authenticity and mainstream demand.

For many of Pearl River’s employees, working at the store was their first job after they immigrated to the US. Not only could immigrants work in a place where both Cantonese and Mandarin were spoken, but Pearl River was, and still is, a place where they could receive health insurance. In the landscape of Chinatown businesses, or shops that primarily employ immigrants, health insurance and a fair pay is a rarity. More so, Pearl River has even helped some of its employees gain green cards.

Mrs. Chen told The New York Times in 2015, “We are probably one of the few pioneer companies that does that in Chinatown — I’m proud to say that. Most of Chinatown, everything is in cash. In that sense, we are pretty fair, and people will stay here long enough.”

And employees do stay. Wilkie Wong started working for the Chens in 1982 as a part-time employee and a recent immigrant from Burma. Decades later, he worked his way up to vice president.

Lapyan Ng worked for Pearl River for over 20 years, having started after moving to New York from Hong Kong. Indeed Pearl River has long been a place where people not only get their start, but can also sustain a life in America.

And though Uwajimaya and Pearl River Mart are relative giants in the world of Asian or ethnic markets, they represent the core idea that such stores provide belonging and a form of cultural translation for immigrants. This can be found in the gleaming displays of Uwajimaya or the crowded, harshly lit aisles of a Chinatown grocery like the one from my childhood. Whether they are literally making life possible by giving people a way to earn money and make a living, or simply making the transition to life in America less lonely or daunting, Asian groceries and department stores serve a vital purpose to immigrant communities.

Even as a kid who just wanted to dash for the sweets aisle, I somehow understood – in my family’s behavior, in the way my mom scanned the bulletin board, in how the store felt like a gathering place rather than just a supermarket – that the Chinese grocery bolstered my family to keep plugging away at American life.

A taste of home, gave them a sense of hope.

Featured image “Hong Kong Supermarket in Chinatown” via Creative Commons


Louise Hung

A Chinese-American writer living in New York, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.