“I started looking at a map,” says Liang, 45. “I went to farmers’ markets out of state and got to know the people. I wanted products that were really fresh and clean to bring back to the city.”
Liang now makes a weekly eight-hour drive to pick up produce and farm-fresh eggs, continuing the time-honored tradition of Chinatown food vendors to cut out the middleman—a practice that can be traced directly to the xenophobic policies that forced Asian immigrants to live in strictly segregated communities through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
“These were people who were not accepted in American society,” says Valerie Imbrus, author of From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Market, “so they developed a food system to support their own cultural demands, taking advantage of the trust in their own social networks.’
Just 80 years after the law was finally repealed, family-run food markets in Asian communities from coast to coast still offer high-quality produce, meat, eggs and fish at bargain prices, often using the same direct relationships with farmers and fishermen established by more early generations. The children and grandchildren of the owners of these markets are now considering how to honor these carefully crafted supply chains while expanding their customer base beyond the local Chinatown population.
“In many ethnic communities, you’ll tend to see produce that’s cheaper and higher quality than the standard supermarket options,” says Jefferson Lee, 30, who, with his father Peter, runs the family butcher’s shop, 47 Division Street Commerce in New York. “These are people who are only a generation or two removed from agrarian societies, so there is a cultural expectation for fresh food to be prepared today.”
Peter Lee emigrated from China, where he learned to butcher, in 1985, eventually opening his own market and connecting with friends who left the city to set up livestock farms. Building relationships with Long Island duck producers helped him create a community-wide market for Chinese barbecue: “My dad and I can see a duck hanging in a restaurant window and tell you where it came from based on how much she’s fat or she’s thin,” says Jefferson.
Social media drives new buyers
But it was the frustration and fear of the early days of the pandemic that led Jefferson to turn to social media in an effort to attract business to his family’s store and help feed the local community. His pithy Reddit post, by turns raw, funny and deeply personal, included lines like: “$10 will get you something like 13 pounds of chicken legs plus a dozen eggs. Don’t like drumsticks? Okay, get something else, our prices are lower than your GPA and your parents’ expectations of you.”
Not surprisingly, the post went viral. “I literally wrote it sitting in the delivery truck,” Jefferson says. “I’ve seen supermarkets charge $59.99 a pound for drumsticks. At first I thought, “Okay, I have to do it,” but then I thought about families like mine and the aunts and grandmothers of people I grew up with. I didn’t want to be a scumbag.”
The response was large, attracting non-Asian buyers from outside the community, often groups of people placing orders of $400 or more. Jefferson began adding signs in English, a novelty in a store that had only signs in Chinese. As the pandemic subsides, large orders have become less frequent, but the store is still seeing more variety in its customers.
Stephen Wong spent summers as a teenager on Martha’s Vineyard working in commercial fishing operations, learning about wind patterns and shouldering bags of seafood that weighed more than he did. Now 43, he and his brother Freeman, 47, are the second generation to run the family business, Aqua Best, where a shiny whole branzino sells for $8.99 a pound, about $3 less than other fresh seafood purveyors gifts around Manhattan, and fresh shrimp are priced even lower than discount supermarkets.
“My mom taught us that you always go to the source,” Stephen says. “So it’s about building relationships with the fishermen to ensure freshness.” Owning a pound of lobsters in Canada is just one way Aqua Best ensures freshness and fair prices for customers ranging from Michelin-starred restaurants to local seniors on a fixed income.
Providing the food Asians need
The supply side is deeply integrated into Chinatown communities, where the population initially did not have access to the familiar ingredients, from bok choy to chicken feet, needed for traditional recipes. Bo Bo Poultry, founded by Richard Lee in upstate New York in 1980, focuses on raising Buddhist-style chickens, sold head and feet, specifically for Asian cuisine. They now sell their chickens in 37 states and Puerto Rico.
“The recipes Asians use are different,” says Lee’s daughter Anita, 45, who joined the family business in 2001. “The chickens are older and the cooking methods are usually poached or steamed instead of baked , with ginger and green onions in water. The meat should be denser and more flavorful.” Because Chinese immigrant communities tend to cook a lot, she says, that allows Bo Bo to keep prices competitive, even for a specialty item.
There is a long history of Asian immigrants establishing farms outside the cities where Chinatown communities flourished. Yee Lung Kwong and his wife Yee Dong Shee moved with their four children an hour outside of New York to rural New Jersey in 1940, seeking healthier air while growing Asian vegetables to sell in Chinatown.
“They had some basic farming knowledge, but it was mostly just trial and error,” says grandson Roland Yee, 45. The operation expanded to southern New Jersey in the 1950s, after which the Yee family, including the parents of Roland, began farming 1,000 acres in Boynton Beach on Florida’s east coast in the early 1970s; Roland and his brother Ethan are now the third generation working the land. Vegetables grown today—such as gai lan, yu choi, and napa cabbage—can still be found at produce markets in Chinatown, as well as across the country, at theme parks, on cruise ships, enjoyed by Americans of every culture.
For activist Yan Lee, a third-generation New York Chinatown resident whose own father drove produce north from Florida in the 1940s, when white truckers tightly controlled trucking routes, there is a deep concern , that affordable fresh food shopping in America’s Asian communities is under threat from gentrification as real estate developers buy up cheap buildings. “The Chinese community is adapting because it was confined to these ghettos,” he says, “but the survival and future of Chinatown is now at stake. How many mum and dad shops will be able to compete and sell cheap food?’
Disappearing storefronts and an aging population
Zoe Lin, a master’s candidate at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, examines the now 20-year-old data found in Imbrus’ Farm to Canal Street study, noting a decline that began in 2008 with the SARS epidemic and continued with Hurricane Sandy and rampant gentrification.
“When I did on-site ethnography and looked at historical street views on Google,” Lin says, “I found that only 30 percent of wholesalers and 40 percent of food vendors remained in Chinatown. There’s a very slight balance and tension here because these are traders who are quite vulnerable because they didn’t choose to be in these forces, they had to exist in them as immigrants or refugees.”
Disappearing storefronts and an aging population — not just in New York’s Chinatown but in Asian communities across the country — threaten a culture that has consistently fought against erasure for 150 years. The consensus among business owners and activists seems to be simple: If you value this community, then come buy great food at great prices in a system built over generations against all odds.
“In Eastern cultures,” says Jefferson Lee, “people are willing to put society as a whole before themselves as individuals. One brick doesn’t do much, but a thousand bricks can build a foundation. When you shop with us, you’re not just supporting one business, you’re supporting an entire community.”