Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fong Inn Too

VANISHING

Fong Inn Too is the oldest family-run tofu shop in New York City and, quite possibly, in the United States. Founded on Mott Street in Chinatown in 1933, it closes forever tomorrow--Sunday, January 15.


Paul Eng

Third-generation co-owner Paul Eng showed me around the place. Upstairs, a massive noodle-making machine churns out white sheets of rice noodle, sometimes speckled with shrimp and scallion. Downstairs, a kitchen runs several hours a day with steaming woks and vats of tofu and rice cake batter, including a fragrantly fermenting heirloom blend of living legacy stock that dates back decades.

Eng's family came to New York from Guangzhou in the Guangdong province of China (by way of Cuba), like many of Chinatown's earliest immigrants. His grandfather, Geu Yee Eng, started the business, catering mainly to the neighborhood's restaurants. His father, Wun Hong, and later his mother, Kim Young, took over after World War II and kept it going, branching out from tofu to many other items, including soybean custard, rice noodle, and rice cake.


Brown rice cake waiting to be cut

The rice cake is the shop's specialty. It has nothing to do with the puffed rice cakes you eat when you're on a diet. This cake is fermented, gelatinous, sweet, and sticky like a honeycomb. It comes in traditional white as well as brown, a molasses creation of Geu Yee Eng, and it is an important food item for the community.

A few times each year, the people of Chinatown line up down the block for rice cake to bring to the cemeteries, leaving it as an offering to their departed relatives.

"It's a madhouse," says Paul. "They come early to beat the traffic and fight each other for the rice cake." No one else makes it--Fong Inn Too supplies it to all the neighborhood bakeries. "Once we're gone, it's gone." Customers have been asking Paul where they will get their rice cake for the next cemetery visit. "I tell them I don't know."


Cutting the white rice cake

The Engs have sold their building and Fong Inn Too goes with it. Business has been hard, though Paul's brothers, Monty and David, have done their best. Their father passed away earlier this year. Their eldest brother, Kivin, "the heart of the place," also passed. Their mother tried to keep it going, but "her legs gave out," and she had to stop. The closing, Paul says, has been hardest on her. "This place is like a child to her."

Paul is the youngest of his siblings and, while he worked in the store as a kid, he doesn't know the business anymore. Like many grandchildren of immigrants, his life is elsewhere. As for the fourth generation, there's no one available to take over.


Paul Eng

"I'm in mourning," Paul told me--for the shop, for family, and for his childhood home. Maybe also for the Chinatown he used to know. "The neighborhood has changed a lot. When I was a kid this was all hustle bustle. Now it's so quiet. No one lives here anymore."

"No one" means no Chinese people. "Gentrification," says Paul, is "starting to trickle in. This old section of Chinatown is kind of orphaned off. It doesn't know where it's going to be." He wonders if it will become like the Chinatown of Los Angeles, with no Chinese people, just tourists and souvenir shops for tourists, a theme park of what a neighborhood used to be.



You have only this weekend to visit Fong Inn Too (46 Mott St.) and buy their delicacies. After tomorrow, they'll make no more.

The family will stay around to celebrate one last Chinese New Year on January 28 and February 4. They'll sponsor a few big dragon dances and then say goodbye.


The noodle machine in action--this photo by Paul Eng



13 comments:

Donnie Moder said...

Jeremiah,
You have documented another great story. Thank you.

AH32011 said...

Co-signing this sentiment

Fungjj92 said...

NOOOOOOOO
Ive come to this place as long as ive lived...and my mom too. #r.i.p

Unknown said...

They're the only one who can make the best rice cakes we've ever tasted. We also love their "taho". This place will be missed by so many people. So sad. Will you please move to Las Vegas? We need badly something like your store here. I guarantee you'll be very successful here. Contact me if you wish, Mr. Eng (702-586-8533).

Mrs B said...

Kivin, the brother who pasted, was the unofficial mayor for our generation. Your father and family and our family were fellow shop keepers and both of them are now gone as are their shops. We grew up together and everyone knew each other. I spent many an afternoons hanging out with Kivin in front of the shop just shooting the breeze and everyone we knew who pasted by. It was the place to hang-out on Sundays to see the people who had moved to the burbs come in for their Chinese groceries, or visit their parents/relatives still living in Chinatown. Especially during Chinese New Years the only place to stand and people watch! The shop was the invisible umbilical cord to our childhood. Kivin you have been sorely missed and now another piece of our youth is gone.

Neo said...

Oh no. Since arrived nyc, have visited the shop over 40 years. Can't even be there tomorrow because on the road. Sigh... A big thank you, Jeremiah!

Unknown said...

I am very sadden ! It will be truly missed! THe BOK HONG TAY was my favorite dessert ever made! Thank you for a great story! Happy New Year and all the best! GONG HAY FAT CHOY! Now we must learn how to make it ourselves!

Derek Denckla said...

I having been grabbing 12 oz soy milk there for 30 years as a snack on Sunday. I am so sad to see this place close. It was the real NYC that resisted chain stores and made important cultural foodstuff versus branded it for resale from factories elsewhere. A loss in seeing actual productivity means another move towards alienation from the source of deep traditions and the sense of connection to a rich history of making things in a stubbornly traditional way because that's the right way to make it. Shortcuts. Imports. Half made here as homemade. All lazy trends that fail to see the value in the sweat that makes food taste like 1000 years of effort versus 15 minutes of fame. I am blue! And my life is lessened by the loss. GOng Hai fat choi

MISS WINKIES said...

As I'm not sure how to message you Jeremiah, I think it's important to note that there was another partner in this business from 1933, for over 50 years, which were my grandparents, Kwok Toe Yee & Kwok Moo. We loved the shop very much!! Thanks so much for the article.

Richard Federico said...

Any legitimate old school Chinatown closing is especially hard for me to take. I used to love the hustle and bustle of 1970's Chinatown. It was like traveling to another country right in my own backyard. The customs,talents and rich culture of the Chinese people displayed here in lower NYC for all of us to see and enjoy was and still is awe inspiring! However, it's obvious gentrification has begun to invade this last great neighborhood holdout. Thank you Chinatown for so many great years and for still trying to keep it real. Good bye Fong Inn Too...

Ida said...

Me too. 40+ years

caroline loo-lew said...

❤thank you for all the great memories. 85 this is outrageous! Saying goodbye is saying goodbye to a chunk of my Chinatown history..

Lotus L said...

Sad to hear that Fong Inn Too is closed as of Jan 15 2017. It was one of the oldest establishment still in business since 1933. The original name was Fong On who opened in the basement at 43 Mott Street in 1933. This company was started by three partners. Mr Kwok Toe Yee, Mr Bing Eng and Mr Kwok's cousin who is also has the sur name Mr Kwok. Mr Kowk died and it was only two partners .My parents worked many long hours at the store. My mother would be at the front counter selling all the different products that the store made. I would work in the store on Sundays and holidays because it was very very busy. It was a 24 hour operation, the Eng's worked at night and my parents worked the day shift. The business would only close for a few days during Chinese New Year. To celebrate the new year, everyone working in the store with their families would be invited to the restaurant to usher in the new year. Fong On would go through another partnership change. Mr. Kowk Gum Hong would joint as the third partner in the 1960. My mother was known as Kwok Moo and I was known as tofu nuew (tofu girl) to our customers. This partnership ended in 1986 when my cousin Kwok Gum Hong and our family decided to sell the business to the Engs. The partners were getting old and they wanted to retire. The Engs has been running the business under the name Fong Inn Too for the last 30 years. Sad to see you go. I would cherish all the memories with our three families together.