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Henry Yao


Henry’s charm and knowledge of running the Army and Navy Bags store in the Lower East Side keeps his customers coming back.


A: Tell us a little about yourself.


H: I’m from China, Canton, in the South. I never saw snow or drank ice cold water or Coco Cola, and never seen a refrigerator before I came here. In 1982 I was 19 years old and came to the States with my mom and on the plane was the first time I had a cold drink and Coca Cola. I didn’t know Coca Cola tasted so good like it’s heaven. My mom was an accountant using the abacus in China and here she is working at a sewing factory. She came here because of me, sacrificed a lot, and it changed my life. Coming to America is beyond a dream come true. One of my dreams was to be in the military because I know Kung Fu so I think that helped me be a soldier. I still do Kung Fu everyday for exercise and to be flexible. Before I used to be able to run on the wall.


I speak Cantonese and also Mandarin. No matter what dialect you speak you must learn Mandarin in school and it’s the official language in China. I graduated high school with 94.6% but my teacher said that wasn’t good enough to go to college so I applied to join the military. Only 1% at that time went to college. China’s population is high and only needed 2 million soldiers. At that time 7000 kids joined the military but they only take in 27 people. After school I got a job in a factory and made 10 cents a day, 3 dollars a month. I did that for almost two years then I came to America. I didn’t speak English but I got a job in a warehouse that paid $3.25 an hour. They thought I was upset about this but I was so shocked and was so happy to be making that much. A lot of people don’t know how to appreciate how great this country is because they never experienced being an immigrant.


I love the military store and I was selling umbrellas before to this store and helped out sometimes. One night it was pouring rain and I was soaked and the owner, Sigmund asked me to bring two full boxes. There were a lot of customers that night and I helped out. He saw how I worked, how I handled the customers and was good with the prices of the merchandise and he offered me to run the store. I’ve been in this store for 15 years now and was given to me in 2014. This store has been here for 62 years since 1959.


A: What do you think of the term people of color?


H: I think it’s a sensitive subject but no matter where it is, China, America, Philippines, India, there is a color problem.


I came to USA July 22, 1982. I don’t know why but I think July is my lucky month and my turning point. The store rent is $6,500/month and I was not even making $2000. During the pandemic, a customer, Brandon, set up a Go Fund Me on July 23rd. They raised $60,000. Most important is that the customers lined up and bought winter clothes from me in the summer.


A: What are some of the stereotypes you experienced being Asian?


H: For Asian men it’s most difficult in this country. All people pick on us because we are too small compared to size and look like an easy target. We are not outgoing and people think we are never going to do anything or fight back. Asian girls are more popular. Now I think it’s a little different especially since COVID-19. For me during the pandemic, young people and teenagers love me. They come to the store and hang out with me. It’s been good for me and I feel so loved. I am so lucky.


A: What message do you want to impart to people?


H: No matter how difficult, how depressed you are about being Asian and people bully us or take advantage or say nasty things, there are people who are good - who helped me and made me feel loved.


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