Tucked into a discreet alley and almost underground, Sun May Co. is a tiny, barely noticeable, gift shop. Red and gold paper lanterns are hung on the otherwise forlorn walls, indicating not only the entrance of the shop but also signs of Old Chinatown and of the deep family history that characterizes the small business.
Since its establishment in 1880, the business has dramatically transformed from a laundry service to a jewelry store and then to a general merchandise store. After a location change in 1911, 130 years of business and four generations, it is now an eclectic gift shop specializing in antique and vintage items.
“It’s … junk,” said Donnie Chin about the goods he sells at his parent’s store which he now manages with his sister.
Chin said he decided to take over the business at the insistence of his parents and because he desired to maintain the family’s long legacy in the International District. He said the shop has not made a profit in years, but because it is the only business in the area that has stayed within one family for over a century and is the sole gift shop, he wants to preserve it.
Just like all the other young children in the tight-knit Chinese American community he was raised in, Chin has been working at the store since was old enough to walk. Up and down the street, he said, the businesses were all owned by relatives. Many families, including his own, lived as well as worked in their place of trade. He watched as all the small businesses, with the exception of Sun May Co., disappeared as next generations didn’t adopt the family business or larger businesses took over its operations.
However, for Chin, continuing the enterprise wasn’t about strong Asian family values. He said most gift shops in Chinatowns across the country have been bought over by big companies. That’s why he considers his shop to not only be “unique” but also economically important.
“America is run by small businesses,” he said, pointing to the businesses in Chinatown, which are mostly small and family-run.
“A lot of people say that they want their kids to get an education and move on from the family business,” he said. “But in reality a lot of them get passed down because a lot of [their] kids do a whole lot of things in the world but then return to their roots.”
This was certainly true for Yen-Vy Pham, her sister Quynh-Vy, and her brother Anh Khoa who now manage their parent’s four Vietnamese food restaurants. While their two other sisters pursued careers in medicine, at the encouragement of their parents, the three siblings studied business and finance.
“After college, we traveled, worked at different companies, and did all these things, but then realized that this keeps us close as a family,” said Yen-Vy Pham. “We all work really well together.”
The original business was established in 1983. It started out as a deli-shop for the many blue-collar workers in Chinatown until the Vietnamese noodle soup, or “pho” Yen-Vy’s mother was making for her Vietnamese customers on the weekends turned out to be more popular than the sandwiches. Gradually, the concept of the restaurant on Jackson St. changed and the name was changed to Pho Bac (1314 S Jackson St.). Since then, her parents have opened three other branches of pho restaurants by the name of Pho Bac and Pho Viet at various locations around Seattle.
For Pham, keeping the family’s history alive and maintaining the originality of the restaurant influenced her decision to take over now that her parents have retired. But she said it is also important for her to be part of the public life in the neighborhood. She needed a way to stay connected with long-time customers and fellow business owners. Furthermore, she said it has helped her speak Vietnamese better.
Tai Tung is another small business that is still open today after 77 years because another generation has successfully taken over management roles. Hailing from Hong Kong, Harry Chan said he was never pushed to take over his parent’s restaurant. Instead, he studied building construction in college. But when it came time to choose a career, he said it made sense to continue working at the restaurant since he had all the skills needed from working there since childhood.
“Because it had been here for a few generations and they had worked so hard, I hated to give it up,” he said, even if it meant foregoing a career in construction.
As lunchtime approached, the climate at the restaurant was friendly as middle-aged men talked and laughed with Chan, as they had been doing for years. One customer even mentioned how Chan never failed to have a big smile on his face.
“We’ve had customers come here a few generations,” said Chan.
When asked about the future of the establishment after him and his nephews who manage Four Seas, another branch of the family business, Chan said he didn’t particularly care who takes over.
“It’s up to the next generation,” he said.
Sun May Co. is located in Canton Alley in the Chinatown/ID. Pho Viet is located at 1240 S. Jackson St. along with Pho Bac at 3300 Rainier Ave. and another Pho Bac at 811 Stewart St. in Seattle. Tai Tung is located at 655 S. King St.