Places that Matter

Golden Jade Jewelry

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Golden Jade Jewelry interior, photo by Wingyan Sang
Golden Jade Jewelry interior, photo by Wingyan Sang
Golden Jade Jewelry exterior, photo by Wingyan Sang
Mr. Sang at work, photo by Wingyan Sang
Photos and reminiscences, photo by Wingyan Sang
Long-standing Chinatown jewelry store
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Wing Yan Sang for Place Matters

Walking along Canal Street in Chinatown, you cannot help but notice the proliferation of jewelry stores lining the sidewalks between Broadway and Bowery. The stores become more concentrated as you proceed eastward, particularly on the northern side of the street. And if you were not paying close attention, the stores might seem almost indistinguishable from one another -- an endless line of display windows replete with arrays of gold and diamond jewelry, resplendently lit on faux velvet display trays and stands. But these businesses each have unique histories, and both individually and collectively, they also have significant relationships to the larger Chinatown community.  

One business that has been a consistent presence on this stretch of jewelry stores for the past four decades is Golden Jade Jewelry, located at 189 Canal Street, near the northwest corner of Canal Street and Mott Street. The store first opened its door for business in March 1975, when Sio Wai Sang and his wife, Susan Sang, decided to establish a second jewelry store in the neighborhood.

Mr. and Mrs. Sang are both from Enping, a city in Guangdong province along the southeastern coast of China. Their journey to the United States was not a direct path from Enping, as Mr. Sang traveled from Macau, where he spent part of his formative years, to the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960s. There, with a group of his friends, he established a jewelry business, with Mr. Sang specializing as a watchmaker. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sang moved from Macau to Costa Rica in 1969. There she stayed with relatives before immigrating to the United States in 1970, the same year that Mr. Sang arrived in the country. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sang cite the quest for better economic opportunities as a catalyst for immigrating to the United States. Further, the established support network of relatives who were already in New York City, primarily in the Lower East Side (where the couple initially lived), proved to be a decisive factor in their choice to settle in Manhattan. 
 
In 1973, Mr. and Mrs. Sang opened their first jewelry store, called S&N Jewelry, at 227 Canal Street near the northeast corner of Canal Street and Centre Street. According to Mr. Sang, when he and his wife opened S&N Jewelry, theirs was the only Chinese-owned jewelry store on Canal Street. The other jewelry concerns were owned and operated by predominantly Jewish, Italian, and Latin American proprietors. After over 30 years of continuous operation, the Sangs closed S&N Jewelry in May 2007. That storefront, now under new ownership, sells handbags and other fashion accessories.
 
With the money they earned from S&N Jewelry, Mr. and Mrs. Sang opened Golden Jade Jewelry in 1975. The shop is a few blocks east of their flagship store, and Golden Jade Jewelry is currently one of two jewelry vendors anchoring the six-story brick building in which it is located. The façade of the building contains a sign reading “American Legion." Below the sign's large block letters are three large flagstaffs projecting onto the street. The building is owned by American Legion Post 1291, the largest Chinese veterans post in the United States. Post 1291 has its offices on the third floor, and other tenants in the building include professional services such as accounting, law, and medical offices.
 
Inside Golden Jade Jewelry, customers are greeted by rows of display cases. Along the left wall, in double rows of display cases, men’s and women’s watches are arranged. The watch inventory includes a range of styles, from the sporty to the more formal. On the right side of the store, opposite the wall of watches, are display counters. The counter closest to the entrance contains bangles and pendants in jade and 24 karat gold, catering primarily to Chinese customers. Jade has a long history in Chinese culture and is believed to bring good luck and good health to those who wear it. The appeal of 24 karat gold, according to Mr. Sang, has its roots in more practical concerns as 24 karat gold has a higher resale value than 14 karat or 18 karat gold.
 
As you move along the display counters, you encounter in succession trays of gold bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings set with an assortment of gemstones, from ruby to aquamarine to sapphire, and wedding bands and engagement rings in a variety of designs. Behind the counters along the wall are additional display cases with 14 karat and 18 karat gold chains, bracelets, and pendants.   
 
At the far end of the store, facing the entrance, is the showcase counter containing jewelry that Mr. Sang has personally designed. These include various bracelets, necklaces, earrings and rings garnished with diamonds, pearls, and precious stones. This area of the store also contains other personal elements. Behind the showcase counter, taped to the walls, are photos of Golden Jade Jewelry’s customers, including group photos of customers and their families, wedding photos of couples who bought their rings at the store, thank you notes, and holiday greeting cards. Prominently displayed along the back wall are also framed photographs of Mr. Sang with various public officials such as Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton, and even contestants from previous editions of the Miss New York Chinese Beauty Pageant. Golden Jade Jewelry has been one of the sponsors of the annually held beauty pageant by donating a broach designed by Mr. Sang to one of the top three winners.  
 
In addition to selling merchandise, Golden Jade Jewelry also provides repair and re-design services. There are several work stations in the back of the store, each equipped with all of the tools of the trade, including a torch for soldering and a flex shaft machine, operated by foot pedal, which, in combination with the various attachments, can perform a host of functions, such as polishing, buffing, drilling, and carving.
 
According to Mr. Sang, his store and the neighborhood at large have changed remarkably since he and his wife first started out. One of the most visible changes is the demographic profile of the jewelry store proprietors. As mentioned previously, when Mr. and Mrs. Sang first started their business, the jewelry store owners on Canal Street were predominantly non-Chinese. Gradually, over the years, many of these business owners moved to Midtown, attracted by higher-end customers and the tourists that frequent the many sightseeing spots in the Midtown area. These stores were then replaced by jewelry businesses opened by Chinese entrepreneurs, who were drawn to the business potential and the lower rents in Chinatown relative to Midtown. Mr. Sang says that he has witnessed many new Chinese-owned jewelry stores opening each year from the 1970s until around 1990. At that point, the jewelry business, saturated with competition and facing a slowing economy, started to decline.
 
The attacks on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001 also had a profound impact on the Chinatown community, and accelerated the closure of some of the jewelry stores in the neighborhood, many of which were eventually replaced with gift shops catering to the tourist industry that slowly picked up over the ensuing decade. According to Mr. Sang, after 9/11, many offices relocated away from Lower Manhattan, causing a large decline in business from office workers, who used to shop at the store during their lunch break for wedding bands or engagement rings. He says that business from this segment of the store’s customer base has not yet returned to the same level as it was before 9/11.
 
The need to rebuild the community in the aftermath of 9/11 was one of the reasons that Mr. Sang and his associates formed the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation (“CPLDC”) in 2006, with initial funding provided by the Lower Manhattan Economic Development Corporation. Some of the earliest programs sponsored by the CPLDC include an initiative employing uniformed personnel to maintain the cleanliness of the streets and a marketing campaign called “Explore Chinatown,” with its own website and an information kiosk on Canal Street at the intersection of Baxter and Walker, designed to promote the neighborhood to visitors.
 
Mr. Sang says that neighborhood safety has improved since he and his wife started Golden Jade Jewelry in the 1970s. According to Mr. Sang, jewelry store robberies in Chinatown were previously more common. Mr. Sang recounted his most harrowing moment at Golden Jade Jewelry. More than 20 years ago, a man tried to grab a plate of rings from one of the sales associates. When Mr. Sang approached the intruder at the sales counter, the man got nervous, reached for his gun, and tried to fire it at Mr. Sang. Fortunately, when Mr. Sang saw the man move for the gun, he ducked behind the counter and was uninjured as the bullet went through the ceiling above him. Fearing for their own safety, the store personnel unlocked the front door and let the man leave with the merchandise. 
 
The Canal Street Jewelry Merchants Association was formed in 1981 to collectively address such safety concerns. The Association was comprised of Canal Street jewelry store owners, with Mr. Sang serving as president for many years between its founding and 2000. Members of the Association paid a monthly fee of several hundred dollars a month, which was primarily used to employ armed security guards to patrol Canal Street. As safety in the neighborhood improved, jewelry business owners no longer felt the same level of vulnerability. The Association stopped hiring security guards in 1995.  However, as a reminder to himself of those more dangerous times, Mr. Sang has left the bullet hole in the ceiling of his store unrepaired.
 
Despite the current economic challenges of operating a jewelry store in a mature market such as Canal Street, Golden Jade Jewelry has been able to count on the loyalty of long-time customers who appreciate the employees' skills and experience. However, this segment of the store’s customer base may be dwindling, as Mr. Sang has observed that a smaller percentage of Golden Jade Jewelry’s customers are now comprised of people who live or work in New York City, while a larger percentage of current customers are visitors. 
 
Mr. Sang also acknowledges the need for Golden Jade Jewelry to reinvent how it operates in order to stay viable. The store still keeps track of its sizable inventory and its account balances with its myriad wholesale merchants using pen and paper. Meanwhile, although the store has a website, its online retail presence has not really gotten off of the ground yet. Mr. Sang says he intends to make the company website one of his main focuses, as he believes that a bricks and mortar business alone is no longer sufficient. But an online business cannot replace certain meaningful rewards that only a physical presence can bring. For Mr. Sang, one of the greatest pleasures of operating Golden Jade Jewelry for so long are the many interactions he has had with customers and the opportunities to answer their questions about jewelry, such as how diamonds are formed and how they are graded. For him, these conversations never get old. 
 
(September, 2014)