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It is hard NOT find something manufactured in China these days, but it wasn’t so long ago when there was virtually NO direct trade between the US and China because of tense Cold War relations. Chinatown stores in the US would go to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Canada to circumnavigate the need to directly import Chinese products. After Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, a trade relationship was formed and Chinese products became all the rage.

Before that historic visit, a small group of Chinese and Taiwanese university students in the US got together and started a small retail store in Chinatown in 1971. It would be a Chinese-American department store of sorts. Ming Ye Chen, one of the owners and a Princeton PhD chemistry graduate, would frequently drive to Montreal or Toronto to pick up goods to be sold later at the store.

Pearl River Mart once occupied the second and third floors of the Oltarsh Building, the store's third location, on Canal Street.

In its original location on Catherine Street, “Chinese Native Products” carried soy sauce, little red Mao books, and other exotic tschotskes. Few newspapers would publish the store’s advertisements because of deep anti-Communist sentiment at the time.¬†After Nixon’s visit to China, the store’s fortunes changed. More trade with China meant wider availability of imported products. This store would eventually become today’s Pearl River Mart, the first store in the US to import products from China.

Pearl River Mart's namesake, a river delta region in Southern China.

In its Canal Street location, Pearl River Mart seemed to have no logic in how the store was organized; slippers could be found next to fans, and Buddha statues next to tea cups. The store was dimly lit with fluorescent bulbs and smelled of sandalwood and preserved vegetables. Yet all that was part of the magic and mystery of Pearl River Mart.

Today Pearl River Mart is in a much more upscale Soho location. Shoppers won’t feel claustrophobic anymore as they wander around spacious displays of dishware and silk robes. Despite China’s reputation for cheaply-made goods of poor quality, the items at Pearl River Mart are not your 99-cent variety of Chinese goods. Although there are more tourists than Asian customers shopping here, it’s a good place to pick up a pair of old-school slippers (and my father refuses to wear anything else!). From its humble beginnings as a soy sauce peddler, Pearl River Mart has seen other Chinatown businesses come and go as the neighborhood has expanded and changed. Pearl River Mart, however, is here to stay.

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