Streams

As Interest From the Next Generation Wanes, A Family's Tofu Legacy Totters

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Barrels of tofu at the Fong Inn Too factory in Chinatown. Barrels of tofu at the Fong Inn Too factory in Chinatown. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

On a recent afternoon, David Eng conducted an orchestra of tofu makers, peering into vats of bean curd in various states of coagulation.

A fog from the steam-spewing, high-pressure pumps fills the air at his family’s Chinatown factory, which is next to a Buddhist temple under the Manhattan Bridge.

Tofu has been Eng’s family business for 78 years, since his grandfather, an immigrant from Guangdong, China, set up shop on Mott Street in Chinatown in 1933.

“All Asians like to claim ancient ancestry,” said William Shurtleff, author of “The Book of Tofu.” But Fong Inn Too, is, “certainly one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously family-run tofu shop in the U.S.”

But after Eng, a 56-year-old banker-turned-farmer who returned to his family business in the 90s, there is no clear fourth generation leader to take over the tofu-making venture. He said he fears he may be the last of his family to run Fong Inn Too.

“Business is slow, terribly slow, especially this past year,” Eng said recently.

Eng starts his day at 5:30 a.m. and is rarely done before 6 p.m. The factory processes about 2,400 pounds of soybeans a day, yielding about 10,000 squares of tofu.

(David Eng at the factory on Division Street. Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Much of the tofu is destined for local Chinese restaurants. Fong Inn Too, a major wholesaler, has a network of 80 distributors, each of which supplies tofu to an average of 16 restaurants in the city.

“If you come to Chinatown from eight to nine in the morning, it’s bumper to bumper on Mott,” said Jan Lee, the owner of the antiques shop, Sinotique, a few doors down from Fong Inn Too. “Vans from restaurants come religiously every week to pick up supplies. It’s a part of Chinese commerce that the layperson doesn’t see.”

The shop on Mott Street has bags of sugar stacked in one corner, and white take-out boxes for tofu spilling off the shelf.

The menu at the shop is ever-evolving and fans of small Chinese snacks like zhong zi (bamboo wrapped glutinous rice) or dou hua (tofu custard with sweet sauce, so popular that customers often eat one bowl in the shop, then order a second bowl to go) are sold at cut rate prices, although there are few English signs.

A bushel of soybeans, or 60 pounds, costs $24. Eng still sells a bucket of 30 pieces of tofu for under $8. But Eng said he needs to raise prices soon.

In the storefront on Mott Street, sales are down 30 percent.

(Hong On Yee and his grandsons Monty, David and Kivin)

David’s brother, Kivin Chan, was the vigorous leader of the third generation and helped his parents run the business until his sudden death in 2009 at the age of 61.

“You just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward,” said David, a month after the death. “Life goes on.”

Eng, who has two teenage daughters who live in Old Bridge, N.J., and six nieces and nephews, said he doesn’t expect the fourth generation to run the business.

Kivin has a daughter, Kimberly, 30 and a son, John, 27, who is in the Air Force. Neither are interested in running the shop. David’s brother Monty is a retired NYPD officer and has four daughters -- a graphic designer, chemist, journalist and an architect. None is lining up to help out.

The youngest son of the family, Paul, is a photographer, living in Russia.

“The business has been good to our family. It’s hard work like anything else. My father always told me, ‘I want you to make money with this,’” – he tapped his head - “not these,” he said, holding out his hands.

When Eng is stressed about declining revenue and increasing tax burdens he’s reminded of his family’s history.

(Kim Young, the matriarch of the family Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

“I’m sure my parents have seen worse during the depression years and during war time and I don’t see any reason that we won’t survive. We’ve been working all these years and I don’t see any reason not to continue it,” he said.

The Fong Inn Too factory on Division Street in Chinatown.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

The Fong Inn Too factory on Division Street in Chinatown.

The factory processes about 2,400 pounds of soybeans a day, yielding about 10,000 squares of tofu.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

The factory processes about 2,400 pounds of soybeans a day, yielding about 10,000 squares of tofu.

Soaking soy bean is part of the multi-stepped process.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Soaking soy bean is part of the multi-stepped process.

When the shop opened in 1933 at 41 Mott Street, near Pell Street they were equipped with 10 bags of soybeans. Now they process about 2,400 pounds a day.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

When the shop opened in 1933 at 41 Mott Street, near Pell Street they were equipped with 10 bags of soybeans. Now they process about 2,400 pounds a day.

Tofu soaking at the factory.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Tofu soaking at the factory before it's wrapped up and sent to restaurants around the city.

The original ledger from 1933 when Hong On Yee and his partner opened the shop, now safely stored at Wu Hong Eng's home.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

The original ledger from 1933 when Hong On Yee and his partner opened the shop, now safely stored at Wu Hong Eng's home.

Monty Chan, a retired NYPD officer who comes in to help out at the family's shop on Mott Street.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Monty Chan, a retired NYPD officer who comes in to help out at the family's shop on Mott Street.

The original ledger from 1933 when Hong On Yee and his partner opened the shop, now safely stored at Wu Hong Eng's home.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

The original ledger from 1933 when Hong On Yee and his partner opened the shop, now safely stored at Wu Hong Eng's home.

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Comments [5]

grace from nyc

I was looking for a good tofu store or factory to buy good and fresh tofu but as I search on the internet I spotted this location. It is in the NYC Chinatown which is about 1 1/2 hours away from where I live. However, I read in the article that was dated 2011 that he sells about 30 pieces of tofu for about $8.00 which is a great bargain to me. But now that it is 2012 the price has probably gone up.

I am going to check out this place plus I wanted to try to other products too.

Nov. 28 2012 01:30 PM
Harry Y. from Boondock way

I met David and his family long long time ago. He is a really really good person and my heart sunk as I just heard of Kivin death. I remember him as a big healthy muscle bound powerhouse of the tofu store on 46 Mott St. And I am so happy that David is continuing on with the business. Lots of love and wish you the very best and stay healthy and strong, old friend!

Sep. 29 2012 09:47 PM
Jan Lee from Chinatown

David Ng has not only preserved his family's legacy he has provided a voice of Chinatown small business that is fleeting. David's commitment to his neighborhood is well known. he's spoken out on behalf of small businesses at numerous community board meetings, protests, and in the media. his booming voice speaks to his convictions and fearlessness in defending his neighborhood against political self interests. He continues to work hard on behalf of his community despite his busy work and family schedules. He's someone I hope the younger Chinatown generations will continue to look up to, and follow in his family's footsteps. If every neighborhood had families like these in them, NYC would be a more beautiful place.

Oct. 11 2011 03:34 PM
Andrea Nguyen from Santa Cruz, CA

I've been researching and writing a cookbook on Asian tofu and interviewed several tofu makers in Asia and the US. Making tofu is arduous work and some people who've inherited the business do not wish it on their children.

On the other hand, I met fifth generation tofu makers who are going strong. And in the States, there are tofu makers who are starting from scratch because they just want good tofu. Yes, we do need to educate the public on the value of excellent, fresh tofu so that these artisans can keep it up!

Oct. 11 2011 03:06 PM
Paul J. Bosco

Fewer and fewer children are going into the family business. An exception is Persians, who are more newly-arrived in this country. But give them a generation, and let's see if the pattern changes.

I really don't know if this trend is good or bad. Long-surviving, family owned-and-run businesses are often solid, or even beloved, and give neighborhoods stability and tradition. But maybe the majority of the children are more "useful to society" in other chosen paths.

I suspect smaller families and more education are part of the story. It would be a good subject for a book.

--Paul J. Bosco
Lower East Side

Oct. 11 2011 12:09 PM

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