Some things you might encounter upon entering New York’s gallery-turned-boutique, Chop Suey Club: traditional stoneware teapots, a brooch shaped like a nose, men’s swim briefs, Frank Ocean. Perhaps an elite cast of designers and creative directors roving about mid-event — or maybe a neighboring bodega-owner, pausing to greet the shop’s founder, Ruoyi Jiang.
Still, in the face of all that variety, the shop’s inventory adheres to one key tenet: Everything falls in the genre of contemporary Chinese design. “Five or six years ago, trying to find art that incorporated my heritage but also felt distinctly modern felt impossible,” Jiang says, “so I decided I should remedy that.”
At the time, her guiding principle was a simple one: to rewrite the “made in China” trope — and all the stereotypes that came with it. Jiang wanted to showcase an eclectic range of products and works of art coming from China that felt striking and contemporary — the sorts of works that would broaden consumers’ conceptions of what Chinese art was “supposed to” look like. And evidently, there was plenty of local demand: Soon after the spot’s opening in 2015, the place found resounding success with an ever clout-y assortment of celebrity and pedestrian buyers in constant attendance.
At present, nearly seven years later, Chop Suey Club has become more than a retail destination. The place has matured into a community hub, hosting regular events geared toward New York’s Asian American community. It’s become a stalwart in the ever-changing landscape of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And it’s come to stand as Jiang’s personal defense against xenophobia. “Art is my way of combating anti-Asian racism,” she says. “I think a lot of hate comes from fearing or disliking anything foreign. So I’ve always wanted to use design as a way of inviting people into my culture — helping them appreciate, admire, and embrace it.”
Now, as quarantine restrictions lift and our retail landscape begins to regain momentum, we sat down with Jiang to talk about all things Chop Suey Club. Ahead, read as she expounds on the secrets to uncovering new, independent makers, maintaining a business in the midst of a pandemic, and fighting anti-Asian hate through contemporary art.
At the outset, how did you get Chop Suey Club off the ground?
“Chop Suey Club was intended as an e-commerce project, but through some unforeseen circumstances, I inherited the lease to a commercial space in Chinatown from a landlord I have a close, personal relationship with. So, I decided I’d start with a brick-and-mortar store first, then develop our online presence afterwards. Honestly, it was super scary. I don’t come from a retail background and at that time, our location was pretty bleak — there were only a small handful of stores and restaurants nearby. Opening a brick-and-mortar store in New York was a huge challenge because the overhead cost was enormous, but I did some math and figured out I had about five months to really make it work. If it wasn’t working by then, I’d have to close the shop. But lo and behold, five months later, it was working. We were getting more and more customers, and growing our inventory by the day.”
Do you have a typical customer?
“Our customer base is pretty eclectic. We have a lot of local customers — and because there are so many new residential developments popping up on the Lower East Side, that number is constantly growing. In the beginning, the shop was geared toward attracting professionals in creative industries — stylists, creative directors, designers — and that’s exactly how it worked out. Our very first customers were actually some very prominent fashion designers and stylists, and that kind of solidified the whole project.
“Later, we pivoted a little bit to attract more Chinese American or Asian American customers when we saw how little Asian art representation there was in New York. We wanted our Asian American customers to have access to lifestyle items that spoke to their heritage, but were also tasteful and modern. Right now, I’d say that’s still our biggest intended audience. But that’s not to say we’re not thrilled about all kinds of customers. Also, we’ve been fortunate enough to draw in quite an impressive list of celebrity customers, which has been very surprising: Grimes, Lady Gaga, Frank Ocean. But I can’t say that part of it was planned.”
As a business owner, how did you stay afloat during the pandemic?
“It’s funny: When the business first took off, I knew a decent amount about e-commerce, but I hadn’t actually employed any of that knowledge because I’d been so focused on the IRL experience. Then once the pandemic hit, I had to find a way to make the shop thrive digitally. I immediately learned that not leaning on e-commerce had been a big loss for our business. During the shutdown we poured a lot of effort into developing our digital sales, and we’re doing way better than we were at first, so that definitely helped to keep us in business. We also got loans from the government, but that ran out quite fast.
“It’s definitely been a rough year for us. Right now, financially, we’re trying to get ourselves back to where we were maybe two years ago. But at the same time, I’ve felt really lucky, especially seeing these old and new stores closing down around us. Of course, we pondered shuttering the storefront so we could save money — a lot of money — but we decided that the real-life experience was so important to our mission.”
How would you describe the nature of the goods you carry in the shop?
“At first, I only wanted to carry products that weren’t so stereotypically Chinese. I didn’t want things that relied on heavily used Chinese motifs, images, and decals. I wanted to present a different image: I wanted things to look really modern without needing to declare anything about their heritage at a surface level. I wanted people to know that there were all these cool and exciting and interesting designs coming out of China — and that Asian art wasn’t just this one specific thing. In part, that’s still true, but lately, I’m paying a lot more attention to designers that utilize some of those motifs or that traditional imagery because that’s become something of a trend. A lot of Asian designers feel like they should be relishing their opportunity to make these things — rather than allow their culture to be appropriated by other designers trying to adopt the fad.”
How do you go about curating the art and design products you carry?
“I’m always looking for new products and designers. It’s a full-time job. I’m surfing the internet, I’m checking social media, I’m talking to friends. I’m never not on the lookout — because finding new industrial or product designers is really hard. When it comes to fashion, there’s a lot more space for editorial or public promotion, but on the industrial side, you need to do a bit more digging. So I spend a ton of time looking through various design awards, and I check graduation exhibitions from various design schools to see if there are new, talented designers we should collaborate with.”
For folks who haven’t been, what’s your retail space like, aesthetically?
“The place is extremely small so the interior is very funky. We don’t have a lot of wall space, so we can only display a few pieces of art at a time, and they’ve got to be two-dimensional. Other artwork that’s more sculptural sits on the floor alongside the other displays. When you look around, you just have to let your eyes settle on something — there’s no clear, organizational principle.
“Basically, the whole place feels like someone’s living room. It has an upstairs and downstairs, so people walk in and they’re like, ‘Is this a studio? It feels kind of homey.’ But I love the closeness of the layout. Over the years, the store has become more than just a retail spot. It has become a shopping experience. Early on, we started hosting events, simply because we had the space, and unexpectedly, the showroom became a community gathering space. We had people who would come every weekend to see what was new, and we developed strong relationships with them. We had art dealers who would visit and local shop owners who we built rapport with. It became the place to be.”
You’ve mentioned that you believe in utilizing art and design to combat xenophobia. Can you tell us about that philosophy?
“There are a ton of people who harbor deep hostility toward people from other cultures because they don’t understand those cultures or know how to interpret them. So, I’ve always felt like the key to helping people gain a little bit more perspective is to actually invite them in and open your culture up to them. Give them a chance to understand where you come from. When it comes to bridging that gap, art and design are an excellent way of making connections, because they give people a chance to build a relationship of their own with another culture. For example, if someone who knows very little about the Asian population buys a beautiful Chinese teapot, uses it daily, and admires it, they’re inviting that element of Asian culture into their lives. They’re embracing it. And that feels like a step closer to even broader acceptance.
“Also, at Chop Suey Club, we pay a lot of attention to the history or the concept behind each of our products — and we make a huge effort to explain those details to all of our customers. When someone comes in to make a purchase, they’ll often leave having learned a bunch of new things about a certain product’s history or the traditional Chinese ideas that inspired it, and that’s a really excellent way of making Asian culture feel more accessible. In fact, we’ll have Chinese customers bring in friends without Asian backgrounds, and we get the pleasure of listening to one friend explain to the other all the nuances in these artworks or lifestyle products. It’s such a lovely thing to watch.”
Are the events you host at Chop Suey Club directed toward a similar mission?
“Definitely. With all of our events, I want to communicate that it’s good and okay to be proud of your own heritage and to actually showcase that pride for other people. Plus, events are such a powerful way for people to connect, so I love that we can provide a space for New Yorkers who want to do that.
“Growing up, I went to an international school in Beijing and all the kids there came from all over the world, so we had this term for one another: ‘third culture kids.’ It was a way of describing kids who grew up in a culture that didn’t match either of their parents’. Kids in that scenario often struggle with identity issues — they don’t know how to explain where they came from. And right now, I see a similar thing happening within the Chinese or Asian American communities in New York. Even though these people identify as Americans, there’s this Chinese element that they can’t really reconcile, and it really helps to have a community to explore that with. I think having a greater understanding of your own heritage can help you feel more at ease with your own identity.”
Products aside, what do you want people to take away from their experiences shopping at Chop Suey Club?
“I don’t want shopping here to be this purely transactional experience. I want it to be about building community, embracing culture, bridging distances, and celebrating work made by minorities. But at the same time, it can be so difficult to balance your business and your ideals. Being a physical business in New York, the financial struggle is always going to be real. So yes, we still need to sell products — and we still want to sell products. But we want to be so much more than a cut-and-dry vendor. And honestly, I think we are.”
How do you plan to cash in on this marketing & design opportunity from 99designs by Vistaprint?
"This grant came in just in time, actually. We've been renovating the store and we're just about to finish, so there are lots of opportunities for us to incorporate more of our visual identity than ever before. We're planning to cut a new window decal, print new business cards, make new stickers, etcetera.
"And speaking of all those marketing materials, we're super excited to have new logos to work with. Our previous logo was really unique but also somewhat difficult to use...so this time around we wanted something that would fit well on merchandise or a store awning. The logo designs from the 99designs by Vistaprint team really manage to encapsulate our brand identity: they highlight Chinese heritage without losing that key sense of modernity."