NYUnique: Ruoyi Jiang on Her Chop Suey-less Chop Suey Club
Ruoyi Jiang, a graduate of NYU Tisch, has created Chop Suey Club, a designer boutique in Chinatown that introduces Chinese culture to New York through contemporary art, fashion and lifestyle. At Chop Suey Club, the cultural significance of modern China is represented and conveyed unconventionally through small but spectacular details.
What is the meaning of the name Chop Suey Club, and what is the store’s concept?
Chop suey was the very first Chinese-American dish created to cater to the American palate. It got so popular in the 20s that you could find chop suey restaurants everywhere. As more Chinese immigrants came to the US, other Chinese dishes slowly replaced chop suey. I had "chop suey" at a Chinese take-out place for the first time a few years ago; it was weird but kind of familiar at the same time. Then I read “Joy Luck Club”, and I thought, ‘Okay, we are going to call this store Chop Suey Club.’ The idea of the store is to use contemporary design to bring Chinese culture closer to everyone.
How did you get involved in this business, and what are the challenges you faced when you opened Chop Suey Club?
Well, I thought since there hasn't been a modern Chinese lifestyle store in the US, why not just open one myself to see how it works? I didn't think I was going to have a brick and mortar store for the first three years at least, but this location just fell in my hands. I either had to take over the whole space which is five times more expensive than before or I look for a new place. I had five months to expand my business drastically to cover my increased cost. It was crazy challenging but all paid off in the end. Risk-taking is always a challenge.
With the constant evolution of Chinese culture, how do you interpret the cultural significance of China in today’s world? How do you select designers to represent such ideas?
I think we have to separate the geographical China from the political China and the historical China and China today at this hour, and then contextualize what you see. As more foreign brands try to enter the Chinese/Asian market and many Chinese brands try to tap the US market, everyone is trying to figure out how to communicate to the other market effectively. We happen to have found a niche in that world.
At the beginning, we purposefully chose designs that were not heavily focused on Chinese motifs but more on the underpinning design philosophy that’s inherently Chinese and just unique on its own. Designers who were educated abroad have a slightly different approach and understanding than homegrown designers, so we try to show a little bit of both. Also, we work with a lot of indie Chinese-American designers and artists to really tie the local community together. We want Asian kids to know that we can let our culture flourish if we represent it and keep it alive and relevant.
We noticed that a lot of pieces in your store are created by non-Chinese artists. Why do you choose pieces that interpret Chinese culture from an outside perspective?
Take the cigarette book “Until Death Do Us Part” as an example. It’s a little photobook about smoking games at Chinese weddings. The photos are all from the Beijing Silvermine archive which is run by French collector Thomas Sauvin. I didn’t realize just how instrumental cigarettes are in Chinese culture until I saw this book. Sometimes, people from the outside can give us a whole different perspective on our own culture and being. There’s a difference between “cultural appropriation” and “cultural appreciation” in my opinion. Also, I firmly believe we should give our culture and tradition as many opportunities as possible to evolve.
We noticed you have a map of Chinatown on your website. Can you tell us about it?
Glad you asked! This map is a guide of (most) our favorite places in Chinatown. We always have customers asking us where to go eat or do things in Chinatown, so we made this map to help visitors and locals explore Chinatown better. These places we featured are primarily Asian-owned small businesses just like ours, and we featured them without their prior knowledge. It’s our way of giving back to our customers and the local businesses. These places are important cultural assets to Chinatown. They feed us and inspire us. They need to be celebrated properly.
Interviewee: Ruoyi Jiang
Interviewer: Lei Jin
Photos: Michelle Wei