Since 2016, Ruoyi Jiang has been a leader within the retail space of her Chinatown community, seeking to beat xenophobia through accessibility and education. The quintessential boutique retail space Chop Suey Club on Hester Street highlights new, modernly fresh designs from young Chinese creatives like Fengyi Tan, Yueqi Qi, Percy Lau, and artist John Yuyi. Through Chop Suey Club, Jiang helps curate unique, yet essential pieces that range from the fashion on your back to the lifestyle items in the kitchen. The storefront’s online presence also seeks to inform audiences about the cultural significance of historic images, important leaders and key pieces within Chinese culture like jade, lantern festivals, mahjong and more. We spoke to Jiang about how she first started in fashion, how the past year under lockdown has been for her business, and how the Chinatown community quickly came together and persevered.
Why did you first get started in retail and did you have any mentors in the space?
I started Chop Suey Club in 2015, and the storefront officially opened in 2016. I never had any prior retail experience except a visual merchandising gig at DKNY. Every season change, DKNY would assemble crews to change all the flagship stores’ merchandise overnight. I worked this job a few times, so it taught me a lot about displaying clothes. I do consider all the Chinatown mom & pop shops my mentors. I guess if they can do it, there’s no reason I can’t, right?
What is the significance of Chop Suey Club and how did you first settle upon the name?
Chop Suey Club came from a few different places. Chop suey is the first Chinese American dish invented by early Chinese immigrants to cater to the American palate, it was synonymous to Chinese food in the US; as more varieties of Chinese cuisines came to the US, chop suey is slowly fading out of menus. Chop suey to me is a symbol of cultural integration. The “Club” part was inspired by the novel Joy Luck Club; I love the idea of a social club where people get together to play mahjong and talk about their lives. Overall, Chop Suey Club is a commemoration of Chinese immigration history and an aspiration for a more culturally integrated future.
How did the pandemic affect your business and what was the best asset for you in the past year of quarantine?
Not being able to open our store really hurt our sales, especially fashion sales, but it also made us see the weaknesses in the business. Very quickly we noticed the problems in our eCommerce, so we spent quite some time to improve them. Now our online site and presence is doing much better.
I’d say our best asset was our loyal customers and followers. Throughout the quarantine, our customers continued to make purchases and check-in on us (thank you!) on social media. There was a time when we considered closing the physical store, but every time we heard people say how much they love our store, we just felt like we need to keep going. People’s love and support has been the biggest asset to us.
What’s your curation process for buying contemporary Chinese pieces?
The curation is centered around building a lifestyle that is deeply rooted in Chinese tradition yet distinctly modern. I’m looking for things that embody certain ideas or values in a new design language, something retro-futuristic that helps me to look at the past and the future at the same time. I’m looking for contemporary pieces that will become modern classics, things that will inspire me every time I look at it. With that being said, I much prefer designs at a premium level than luxury, because I want more people to be able to access them. So it’s a balance.
What have been some defining career moments for you?
Everyday there’s a defining moment for me (haha)! Like right now I have to define what this career is for me as a business owner. As Chop continues to grow, my role in the company evolves as well. So I have to decide what I wanna do for my business and what’s the most value I can bring for Chop. Do I want to be more on the creative side or the business side?
What do you want your customers to experience when interacting with Chop Suey Club?
I want customers to feel like they are exploring, having fun, but also feel like they have a chance to connect with something meaningful in Chinese culture.
How has the Chinatown retail community supported each other in the past year?
The community really suffered huge losses but also really came together and persevered. The older businesses that primarily relied on foot traffic suffered the most, so many younger Asian-owned businesses and grass-root organizations used their social influences to get people to support the older businesses. We did a food and baijiu pairing series to showcase some of the authentic spots in Chinatown. We tried to show people what’s open and available in Chinatown. Many brands came up with merchandise for sale and sent proceeds to organizations that helped Chinatown to sustain. Bloggers, writers, artists, entertainers, influencers all pitched in their effort. There were even restaurants delivering free meals to seniors. The community and the businesses supported each other back.
What can the retail industry do to improve inclusion?
Maybe we need to think about diversity as a necessary difference we need to innovate. Like two matchsticks do not create fire but a matchstick and a matchbox can, you know? Maybe a new perspective can inspire companies to explore new areas that are equally doing good. Also, there are just going to be more mixed raced kids in the future, so how can you not go towards a more racially diverse direction?
If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
Think about the lifestyle you want to have first, and then think about the career that can support it.