By Bonnie Chan
Faced with the overwhelming riot of colorful objects presented by Pearl River Mart during a first visit, one hardly knows where to begin. Nowhere else is the term “embarrassment of riches” so fitting but in this massive 30,000-square-foot store, where shelves seems to be stacked with nearly every Asian or Asian-themed knick-knack imaginable.
On the main floor, giant intricate papier-mâché lion heads and a red-and-golden cloth dragon for the Chinese New Year are suspended from above. Below them, a large variety of novelty items, clothing, and stationery are arranged in organized chaos on tables and along shelves. Items that would particularly attract the sensibility of the hip, ironic Urban-Outfitters-loving crowd are displayed near the front of the store: humorous soaps claim to be “better than your boyfriend,” tongue-in-cheek tin banks announce that you’re “saving up for plastic surgery!”, while popular recyclable shopping bags blare with colorful, modern designs. The same floor also has a snack shop and a raised tea bar, where customers can select from over 200 varieties of loose teas during a relaxing reprieve from shopping.
Practical household items, such as kitchenware and porcelain vases, can be found on the basement level, a convenience for locals who regard Pearl River Mart as a one-stop place for their everyday needs. The second floor, the newest addition to the store, contains furniture and decorations, any of which would make unique additions to the home. The beautiful selection includes vintage-looking wooden trunks, room dividers, terracotta statues, and stunningly painted tables and chairs.
The large quarters and the striking sheet metal waterfall on the stair level down to the basement are merely some of the new elements that mark this latest and most contemporary version of Pearl River Mart over the past thirty-nine years. According to manager Ching Yeh Chen, Pearl River Mart was first established in 1971 as a tiny store on 22 Catherine Street by her husband Ming Yi Chen and a group of overseas Chinese. United States, at President Nixon’s direction, had just lifted its 20-year trade embargo against China, making Pearl River Mart (then known as Chinese Native Products) the first store in the entire nation to begin openly selling Chinese goods. According to Mrs. Chen, the store was a byproduct of two desires: one, to provide Chinese immigrants with a familiar place where they could purchase authentic goods (items such as tea, mandarin jackets, and Guandong soy sauce); and two, to build a bridge between the nations by displaying pieces of Chinese identity and, in doing so, hopefully demystify the then-foreign culture to Americans.
Today, a customer base that was almost entirely made up of Chinese immigrants has largely been replaced by curious Americans and tourists from all over the world hunting for quirky finds. Listed as a must-visit destination in tourist guides, there is no question that Pearl River Mart has more than succeeded in its goal of bridging China to America.
For those of you who want to visit Pearl River Mart during a special day, the store will be holding a lively event around Feb. 21st in honor of Chinese New Year. Accompanied by energetic drumming, the accomplished lion dance troupe Wen Guan will dance through all three levels of the store and onto the sidewalk — don’t miss this traditionally traffic-stopping performance! For time and more specific details, please check the website at www.pearlriver.com.