The Real Mayor Of New York Works Out Of Chinatown

“Are you engaged?”

I look up from the corner seat I'm posted up on, between the entrance to a subterranean storeroom and a long glass countertop, the end of which is strewn with lunchtime debris: serviette napkins, plastic bags containing takeout boxes, and a half-dozen individual thermoses filled with hot water. A$AP Eva, the owner of the jewelry store I'm camped out in, glances at the couple she's helping and gently tucks a herringbone-chain necklace into a case. Flat and gleaming, the chain snuggles against its velvet bed like a golden linguini. Setting the box down, Eva reaches for a wheel of engagement rings sporting diamonds that range in size from a Fruity Pebble to a human molar.

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My jaw has already gone slack and my forehead begins to sweat. It takes the couple who were purchasing the chain a few more beats to respond. “Uh, no,” the young woman stammers, her eyes going wide in awkwardness. Her boyfriend’s hands dig in deep into his pants pockets and he deliberately avoids turning his head to look at his partner. From my perch, I can see he's trying very hard to hide a shy, bashful smile.

“You have a beautiful girlfriend with no engagement ring,” Eva pushes on. “You should buy her one. Let me show you some.”

I quickly replay the last thirty seconds in my brain to understand how she had steered the conversation from chain maintenance (“This kind of chain bends. You have to hold it like a baby.”) to auntie compliments (“You have a beautiful girlfriend! Some women are only mad, but she’s not. She’s so happy. You’re a beautiful boyfriend too, you know.”) to holy fucking matrimony (Again — “Are you engaged?”).

And it’s not just that she asked, but that it seems to be working.

The girlfriend silently tries on a few rings from the tray. She's drawn to yellow-gold rings covered in a smattering of diamonds, and appears genuinely delighted by how much she liked the feeling of some weight on her finger. Eva steps in to hold her hand up to the light.

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“That is nice! It’s mad nice!” the girlfriend declares, looking at her boyfriend full in the eyes. She's got the same bashful smile on, too.

After a few more minutes, Eva wraps up a silver chain the woman originally came in to buy, as well as the gold chain her boyfriend picked up on a lark. They leave without buying a ring, but I slither through the crowd of people to catch up to her, and lean in to ask: “Was that the first time you two have, uh, tried on rings?”

“We’ve been together for four years, and it’s the first time we’ve talked about getting engaged,” she whispers back. “I found this store on Instagram and came for a silver chain. But that—?” she waves her hand toward the back corner where Eva is helping another customer, and starts laughing. “Mad nice.”

The couple exit out the slim front door of Popular Jewelry, which is nearly invisible from the street. It’s easy to walk straight past the storefront, even if you’re strolling at the pace of a bewildered New York tourist exploring Canal Street for the first time, weaving between black-market salespeople and store greeters advertising their wares. Storefronts on Canal are less like window displays and more like extra storage space, advertising T-shirts and canvas backpacks dusted gray with city debris, and plastic clothes driers clipped with polyester-silk scarves and neon-colored feather dusters. For every five souvenir shops is one jewelry store hawking 24-karat chains, the shops so bright with artificial lights that they’ll cause your vision to turn kaleidoscopic.

Popular Jewelry is subtle by comparison. The only giveaway that there’s something special about the three feet of sidewalk space it occupies is that the awning is covered with hundreds of laminated photos of its celebrity customers. There’s Travis Scott and Playboi Carti. There’s Popular’s first hip-hop customer, Cappadonna from Wu Tang Clan. There’s every member of the A$AP Mob: A$AP Illz, A$AP TyY, A$AP Nast, A$AP Ant and — the store’s top-spending customer — A$AP Rocky, from whom A$AP Eva got her nickname.

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The celebrity clientele is a draw, but the real draw — the real celebrity — is Eva herself, whose platinum-blond mug is always next to these hip-hop greats and up-and-comers, as well as, incongruously, Jude Law, whose extra-large poster is hung at the very back of the store, right above the entrance to the storage room and my spot by the lunches (“Uh yeah, he’s a customer,” Eva shrugs when I ask her what’s up with Jude. “His kid, too.”).

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.

Eva is the doyenne of a very New York kind of fine jewelry that’d make Charles Tiffany and Louis-Francois Cartier spin in their graves. The fact that her store is essentially invisible from the outside isn’t a big deal to her, because she’s not exactly struggling for foot traffic. Every day, at least a hundred customers drop by the hallway-shaped shop that’s just wide enough to fit a display case, a single-file row of saleswomen, and a parallel row of a dozen customers. Anyone who wants to enter or exit will need to get comfortable brushing against a gauntlet of butts. After a purchase, Eva will still handwrite your receipt on a yellow memo pad.

But Popular Jewelry writes a lot of receipts. Nearly half of the people I saw enter the store picked something up, which is a huge feat for any retailer in 2019, much less one who trades in gold and diamonds.

To her Instagram fans, she is the bait and the reward; the jewelry is merely a souvenir. But to her loyal customers — the ones who were shopping at Popular Jewelry when it was decidedly unpopular — Eva is also the main attraction.

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“You’re family,” says her son and actual family member, William Wong, who takes care of the administrative work for the business. “Eva sees everyone as equal. No matter where you come from, when you come into the store, you get taken care of. They all matter.”

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Before Eva was A$AP Eva, she was Chiok Va Sam, the ninth and youngest kid born to a refugee family in Macau. A small autonomous region in Southern China that sits across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong, Macau was a Portuguese colony up until 1999, when it returned to Chinese rule. It was a haven for political dissidents and enemies of the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong, which is how Eva’s family found themselves there. Under the guise of land reform and redistribution, millions of land-owning Chinese people were killed. Some experts estimate that upwards of 10 million died.

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.

While Eva’s family were not technically landlords, they were rich. Entrepreneurial family members found fortunes outside of China and supported their families back home. “The government took all the money from my father and mother. They didn’t allow them to even have their own clothes. My [kid] brother was so mad he put his own clothes on the table. They took that, too,” Eva says, retelling the story she used to hear from her parents and older siblings whose wealth, stability, and security disappeared in a single day.

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Growing up in Macau, Eva watched as everyone in her family worked to make ends meet. Her 70-year-old grandmother labored under hard jobs until midnight to add to the family income. Five of her siblings left for America to try their hand in the jewelry industry. In 1982, 21-year-old Eva decided to join them.

“My oldest brother had a Rolex, rings, a house, a jewelry store. To me, he had everything,” Eva tells me one afternoon in the backroom of Lucky Diamond, her second store down the block. “He said that New York had a lot of chances that you could make yourself rich. But it depends on yourself. If you work hard, you could make money. My family was already here, so I came.”

With a support system in place, Eva was better off than so many Southern-Chinese immigrants who came — and are still coming — to New York City. According to groups like the New York City Government Poverty Measure, the percentage of Asian Americans living in poverty in NYC is more than any other minority group. When Eva arrived, life wasn’t exactly Rolexes and rings. She only spoke Cantonese, and got an unsatisfying, lonely job sewing clothes in factories. Her husband left her (“He said ‘I got a green card. I can change girlfriends every year.’”). Believing that English was her key to independence, she made a bid to work in her eldest brother’s store, where he took her under his wing.

She quickly learned both English and Spanish, as well as how to sell to an American customer. While her brother mostly sold diamonds, she realized that there was a big opportunity to trade in gold. In 1988, she opened a store with money she borrowed from her brother and her second husband, who came up with the name Popular Jewelry. He and Eva hoped it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, never mind that the name — full of criss-crossing r’s and l’s — is notoriously difficult to pronounce for native Chinese speakers. But their clientele wasn’t exactly Chinese. “In the beginning, I didn't have money. I had to do it the hip-hop way.”

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
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By hip-hop, Eva means both what she sold and the scrappy, no-bullshit ways she sold it. Both were business decisions. “It's easier and cost me less money than diamonds,” Eva says about her decision to stock her store primarily with gold chains, pendants, and doorknocker earrings.

Exposure came from word of mouth, which meant that her customer service had to go above and beyond, and her product had to be of quality. With six years of experience under her belt, Eva saw that wining the loyalties of the neighborhood’s customers was more than just having the goods. “To sell jewelry, you have to be nice and polite," Eva explains.

“In the store, I teach my workers that even if [customers are] poor, and they only have $10 to repair something, you have to treat them like queens and kings. You don't know what is happening to them. When I was small, I was the poorest one in the family. My youngest brother told me in front of 20 coworkers, 'Don't tell people you're my sister.' To him, I was embarrassing.”

She stops to grimace, and adjusts the diamond-encrusted watch on her wrist. When she looks up, she’s smirking.

“I said okay. I would change things for myself so one day I could say to him, 'Tell everyone that you are my brother.’”

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Besides the couple who came in for a simple birthday gift and left with a whole ass future, the other transactions I witnessed on a sleepy Monday afternoon defied my expectations of what a 2019 mom-and-pop retail store could be. Compiled together, it gave me a sense of the diversity of NYC that was so perfectly rainbow-like, it almost felt like I was being Truman Show'd:

— An older Black man from the Bronx so excited and proud to be buying his first piece of jewelry. He dropped $8,000 in cash on a single chain.

— A new Texas transplant and Travis Scott superfan who bought an initial charm necklace to bless her burgeoning career as an influencer. “ASAP Eva has a lot of money and her own business, and she’s so successful. That's an accomplishment. I look forward to making it as big as her.”

— A Romanian family attempting to sell back some gold jewelry, until they had to leave because their two kids (in miniature gold chains and tight polo shirts) start throwing tantrums.

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— Two white male models looking for dagger pendants. Both came in shy and unsure, and left with a newfound swagger, not to mention new pendant necklaces, as well as a clutch of other jewelry.

— Three Black teenagers searching for a wolf pendant for a boyfriend’s birthday: “He has a wolf blanket, wolf poster...he's got a lot going on.”

— A mom with her daughter looking to buy her first custom nameplate necklace. Overheard: “You had one as a baby, and my mom got me one when I was grown, too.” Final cost: $1,250.

— A very scrawny, very nervous boy picking up a full custom grill, who only started smiling once he popped it in. “Th-hankthss!” he spit, as he skated off with it in.

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
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Even if Popular Jeweler’s employees are Chinese and their original customers Black and Latinx, Eva’s we’ve-got-what-you-need business strategy has won the store a customer base that’s as multicultural as it gets in New York. But unlike other brands whose plays for diversity mean getting more general and avoiding specific cultural touchstones, Popular Jewelry has instead doubled down. Today, Popular Jewelry has a wide and deep assortment of fine jewelry that’s made for a prism of milestones, from Mexican quinceañeras to Hindu weddings to Italian baptisms. There are evil eyes and hamsas, Jewish chais, Irish claddaghs, and signet rings sporting Islamic crescents.

“Mexican people ask for religious charms and tri-color jewelry," Eva tells me. "Italian people like 18-karat gold. Indian people like 24-karat gold. Very young people buy silver and Cuban links. Old Chinese people like jade and 24-karat gold. Young Chinese people like diamonds.”

Eva is a shrewd businesswoman. Even the hip-hop Asian auntie personality she’s cultivated is partially calculated. After all, Eva doesn’t exactly listen to hip-hop music (“I just don’t have time to listen to any music”). Her son William remembers her scolding him to turn down the volume on his headphones as he blasted Jay Z’s Hard Knock Life, an album he picked up at a San Gennaro festival in Queens that kicked off his lifelong love for hip-hop. “It’s funny because now she’s like ‘All you can play at the store is hip-hop. It’s our customers’ music.' If you support her, she’ll support you ten times back.”

Her personal jewelry is subtle and sparse. She typically only wears a watch, a small necklace, and a wedding band, but in photographs of Eva, her hands are usually crusted thick in rings and bracelets, like she’s in the middle of hand-mixing a wet dough of metal.

But even if you wouldn't ever catch Eva at an A$AP Mob show on her own accord, her hip-hop bonafides run much deeper than that.

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Eva embodies hustle. Early on, she learned how to avoid the local mafia by batting her eyes at mob members and telling them her boss wasn’t there. She saved money by living in a shoebox apartment with a shower in the kitchen, the entire family sleeping in one room. Fear of falling behind kept her scrambling, even at risk to her own health. The day after she gave birth to son William, for example, “I was bleeding nonstop. But, I went to work. had to support the family.”

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.

It took Eva just two years to pay back her initial debts. When her parents got too old to live by themselves, her siblings wanted to put them in a nursing home, but the idea of it broke Eva’s heart. “I saw what they did for me. My father said that he didn’t want to live in a nursing home because he saw people die there every day.” She took the money she had saved to buy more merchandise, and instead bought a house in Bensonhurst, where the air was fresher, and everyone, including her parents, got their own bedroom.

Popular Jewelry is open 365 days of the year, and Eva is there for every single one of them. “If I close the store, I pay $1,000 a day in rent for nothing. If I’m not there, and someone comes looking for me, they’ll go next door,” she points out. I press her on it. “I might not come in if someone gets married,” Eva finally cops, “Or, if someone dies.” It’s not hard to see why A$AP Rocky, when filming his music video for “Fukk Sleep,” shot a scene inside Popular Jewelry with Eva in the background (after-hours, of course, after her customers had left). “Barely ever took a break / Need more hours in a day,” he sings. “Can’t forget that I’m golden, can’t forget where I’m going.” He might as well be singing about Eva.

The only days she remembers closing her store were on 9/11, during the 2003 blackout, and after Hurricane Sandy, when the power went out for a week. Popular Jewelry didn’t even technically close when a freak accident caused the store to catch on fire in the middle of the night in 2013 (they just packed up their merchandise and temporarily moved down the street to Lucky Diamond). She weathered the recession in 2008, and held fast as many of her competition shut down. “That year was terrible,” she remembers.

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Eva remembers the support she had when she came, and now sponsors visas for her employees, many of whom are ethnic Chinese women who grew up in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. And obviously. she extends that support to shoppers as well. “I have a customer, his name is Meechy. He’s famous, he’s in Flatbush Zombies. And he fell and broke his whole arm,” she says, rubbing her own arm in thought. “I put medicine on him. I told him what to do so he doesn’t get an infection. I wrapped it for him like a nurse. But I also taught him how to hire a lawyer, and how to know if that lawyers is the kind who does bad things to people. My customers are my family. It’s why I don’t have security. My store is protected. My family protects me.”

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There’s no way to say this but plainly: At the end of our interview, Eva gave me $20. The next day, she gave me another $20. She gave our photographer $20 as well. The technical term for this might be payola. But among Chinese people, it was clear that I just got hongbao’d.

Hongbaos are red envelopes containing money that are commonly given among family members during special occasions as a token of good luck. But it’s a little more complicated than a birthday card. There’s an etiquette to who gives them, and who gets them, which varies across the Chinese diaspora, but I can assuredly say that store owners do not usually give them to journalists. But to reject one would be the same thing as being presented with a hand-delivered, beautifully wrapped present, and being like, “Thanks, but no thanks.” You just don’t do it.

“It’s good luck,” Eva insisted, when she put one in my hands as I was leaving the store for the first time. I tried to explain that I shouldn’t accept it, but she wouldn’t let me hear it. “Good luck for both of us, actually,” she laughed when she handed me a second envelope the next day, sending me into a spiral of doubt.

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Later on the phone, my own Chinese mom talked me down: I wasn’t being bribed, there was no ulterior motive. I was just being a good family member. “You give hongbaos to family, to people who rely on you,” she explained to me. “In China, family is usually your blood family. But when you come to America, traditions are different. Everything is different. Family means something different.”

Her son William told me that Eva regularly gives hongbaos to her customers; that A$AP Rocky probably has a stack of them at home.

I think about what these red envelopes would look like on a map, a constellation of lucky red dots across New York City, connecting neighborhoods and communities that might not normally have much to do with one another except that we’ve all accepted Eva’s care. It's a connection that we wear around our necks, our wrists, and our fingers. It’s a bond that’s backed in gold.

In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

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