Annie Lee and Paddy Kan
This couple owned a shop in the Lower East Side where you can find a variety of goods from different countries in Asia.
A: Where are you both originally from?
PK: I’m from Hong Kong and I came here by myself to go to college in Austin, Texas at the University of Texas and studied engineering.
AL: I was born in Shanghai, grew up in Hong Kong and came to the US by myself as a high school exchange student when I was 15-16 years old. For college I went to Cornell and studied liberal arts. There were Cultural Revolution in China and unrest in Hong Kong at that time so parents wanted their children to leave.
PK: It was quite common for Hong Kong student to go aboard because there were only two universities at that time.
A: How did your shop come about?
AL/PK: We met each other in New York after college. We built this store by accident. We like to shop. We like to travel a lot. Before the business, we traveled to Afghanistan, Iran, India to name a few. We were hippies. We have a lot of Indian stuff, then later on a lot more from China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Thailand. We also have stuff from the Philippines, Nepal. We import and wholesale to shops like museum shops, designers, and retail.
Our store started 1987 in SoHo, then we moved to Lower East Side in 2009. We tried to close in 2020 but the pandemic happened. We’ve been in business for more than 40 years. The shop closed on March 6, 2022 but we still have a lot of stuff so I try to get a better website for the stuff.
In the past we did well and expenses was lower when we were in SoHo. We traveled several times a year. We did retailer trade shows. Sometimes we worked 18 hours a day to get things in order, to ship goods and to travel to places such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, etc. We have met interesting people. We were like bartenders and became good friends with some.
A: How was your business affected during COVID?
AL/PK: The business was not well even before COVID. People see the goods and they like it but most customers are not buying.
A: Do you have children and are they interested to take over the business?
AL/PK: We have two sons and three grand children who live in Connecticut and New York. Our children are not interested in taking over the store. We didn’t dictate our kids to do a particular occupation. It depends on the person but most Chinese parents especially in the old days want their kids to have a good paying job. For boys they want them to make good money and for the girls to marry well.
A: Did you teach your children Asian culture and traditions?
AL/PK: We didn’t really have much chance to teach them the culture and hardly celebrated the holidays like people back in Hong Kong. They learned more from their classmates and friends in school. When they were young, we took them to China and sent them to a Chinese summer camp.
A: What ethnicity do you identify with?
AL/PK: We both identify as Chinese. We both still speak Cantonese and Mandarin. My children learned Chinese (Mandarin) in school. They spoke Chinese (Cantonese) when they were young. When they started school we didn’t enforced Chinese at home. They don’t speak fluently ‘cause they didn’t have many chances to use it. Both of our daughter-in-law are Korean and my grandchildren speak Korean.
A: What are your thoughts about the term people of color?
AL/PK: The term is basically not white. Blacks and Hispanics are more visible that’s why it’s applied to them more.
I think to a certain extent people are racist or prejudice but it depends on how you handle it. Whether you are educated or not, there are some people who express outright how they feel but there are people who are quiet about it. Also in America we are influenced by the media. In old movies they showed you stereotypes, for example Black doing shoeshine and Chinese as a cook. It sways how we think. Chinese immigrants who are less educated tend to be more racist and the same for other ethnic groups. It’s because they don’t associate with people outside of their own circle. If you insulate in your own groups, you reinforce your thinking and you don’t know it is wrong.
One customer we had bargained too hard so I made a joke and mentioned Putin. She got upset and she said not to say these things to her because she is American. I said I am as American as you are. She didn’t associate Chinese can be American!
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian or not?
PK: I’m an American Asian. Even though I am from Hong Kong, I know I think differently from people there. They know I’m not the same too. I’m definitely Americanized.
AL: I’m more American because I came here when I was young. I don’t really have many Chinese friends or relatives here.
A: What message do you want to impart to others about Asians?
AL/PK: We are the same people. Be proud of your culture but don’t look down on others.