Chinatown is a vastly different landscape today from what it was even just a few short years ago, but more significant are the differences from from 84 years ago when neighborhood-staple Fong Inn Too opened. Because of all of the neighborhood changes, this, the oldest, consistently family-owned store in tofu shop in Chinatown and perhaps in all of America, located at 46 Mott Street, finally closed its doors on January 15, 2017.
It was a bittersweet moment for the family. The truth is that the demographics of the neighborhood is evolving, the family suffered the losses of its patriarch January 2016 and the eldest third-generation co-owner in 2009, and the great-grandchildren of founder Geu Yee Eng were not adequately prepared to take over the family business. Second-generation owner Wun Hong Eng frequently spoke with his then eight grandchildren of the importance of his work and how we had the opportunity to make money with our brains instead of with our hands like our fathers had.
The shop started like so many back when immigration was booming in lower Manhattan. Like many early Chinese immigrants, Geu Yee Eng came to America by way of Cuba, and settled in lower Manhattan. In 1933, he teamed up with another immigrant and began what would become Fong Inn Too, making tofu and supplying many of the local restaurants. During this time, his son Wun Hong Eng was brought over to America on another family’s papers and thus began the Chan family name that some of the third and subsequent generations still carry.
It wasn’t until the 1950s when Wun Hong and later his wife Kim Young would take over the business and expand upon the offerings to include items including the popular soy bean custard, rice cakes, and rice noodles. With the menu expansion came supply and demand expansion. Pretty soon, the company was supplying other neighborhoods, boroughs, and even some locations outside of New York City. It was also during this time that many changes were made to the process of making the products to increase productivity and efficiency. Business was booming.
The key addition was the rice cakes. Coming in two varieties, the fermented, sticky, sweet treat was offered in the traditional white cake, and a brown molasses version that was the brainchild of the company’s founder. The rice cake became a must-have item around the community, especially in the springtime, when the Chinese would visit their deceased relatives at the cemeteries all over New York. Lines would form from before sunrise, and orders would be placed weeks in advance for rice cakes to bring as offerings to the dead. Today, the community is at a loss since Fong Inn Too was the only store in the area to make these rice cakes.
The third generation began life in the store like so many during that time: at a young age working when school was out and on the weekends. Wun Hong’s sons, Kivin, Monty, and David, were instrumental in bringing the family business into the 21st century. Now that the next century has come, and with it gentrification and community evolution, the old parts of not only Chinatown, but of the city are falling by the wayside like an old toy wagon. Fong Inn Too, unfortunately, is part of old Chinatown.
Monty, David, and younger brother Paul, along with their mother tried to hold onto the business after suffering multiple family losses, but the truth is the business could not survive in the new climate. My grandmother, Kim Young, was visibly pained on the day that the store closed, being forced to say goodbye to the place where she watched her husband and her sons work, and witnessed her grandchildren and great grandchildren create family memories.
The future of the store was questionable over the course of the last decade. Many of the older generation can still be found around town, but the subsequent generations are making more money and moving out to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and even out of the city.
We were able to celebrate one last Chinese New Year outside of Fong Inn Too with the Golden Lions making their final entrance to the street from the storefront on January 28. It was a wonderful day with a little snowfall, but the entire family was on hand.
And while there are periods of time where the old Chinatown was a dangerous, seedy place, there was also a golden era of immigrant business and the preservation of tradition and culture. That is the old Chinatown that I will miss, and one that I am saddened to never be able to share with my children.