Social Media Revives Chinatown Tea Parlor

The Nom Wah Tea Parlor first opened on Doyers Street in 1920. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

By Serena Chen

Each February, Wilson Tang, the 40-year-old owner of Chinatown’s Nom Wah Tea Parlor, sees the neighborhood’s streets fill with tens of thousands of visitors for the annual Lunar New Year festivities. People flock from all over to experience traditional lion dances, drummers and colorful showers of confetti.

This year, Tang came up with a plan to bring the experience directly to his social media followers as a way to boost his business. Tang staged his own mini-parade in front of his restaurant on Doyers Street and hired a videographer to film the festivities for Nom Wah’s social media channels.

The resulting video posts attracted more than 43,000 views on Instagram and Facebook, raising the profile of the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which has been serving dim sum for almost 100 years and already consistently draws crowds of customers who may wait up to an hour and a half for a table.

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If you haven’t come down to Chinatown during Lunar New Year celebrations, you are missing out! (Video: @arowanafilms)

Tang embodies a group of young, tech-savvy business owners in Chinatown who are leveraging the power of social media marketing to lure customers, grow their audiences, and further develop their brands.

He is a born-and-bred Chinatown soul who took over his uncle’s business in late 2010, just as social media was starting to “come into fruition,” he said.

Wilson Tang is a born-and-bread Chinatown soul and a huge Mets fan. (Photo by Serena Chen)

Tang decided to document his revamp of Nom Wah after he took over the business. “I was very determined to take pictures and upload them on Facebook, just to let people know what was going on,” he said.

And, as it turned out, the decision helped get him noticed.

Just as he was about to reopen the restaurant, an editor at The New York Daily News, who was a longtime customer, happened to be on the restaurant’s Facebook page and noticed that the business was relaunching.  Amanda P. Sidman approached him to do a story about the changes.

When Nom Wah reopened in February of 2011, Tang already had a two-page spread in The News about the restaurant’s reopening.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor has served dim sum for almost 100 years and consistently draws crowds of customers. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

Since then, Tang and Nom Wah also have been featured in multiple publications, including HYPEBEAST, VICE, Thrillistand such social media channels as FUNG BROS FOOD.

According to the restaurant’s website, “numerous movies and TV shows have been shot at Nom Wah Tea Parlor” throughout the years, including Reversal of Fortune, Premium Rush, All Good Things, and episodes of television’s “Law and Order.”

His social media presence helped customers rediscover Nom Wah. “Somehow, someway,” he said.

From shrimp and bacon rolls to vegan dumplings, Nom Wah serves a variety of dim sum. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

He asserts that technology plays a huge role in Nom Wah’s success. “We are in a media world,” he said. If business owners are not putting themselves out there, producing content or hosting events, Tang said, they are “just going to get left behind.”

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, is an expert on the restaurant industry. He believes that not only does technology have a huge impact in engaging new customers but that its impact is growing.

While there are still “many small, independent mom-and-pop businesses that may not be using so much technology, some restaurant groups have gotten pretty sophisticated in the ways that they’re utilizing technology,” Rigie said. “That’s everything from the way they market their business online to monitoring what’s being said about their business on sites like Yelp, and using online delivery systems to help transact the business.”

Running a business in New York City is challenging, complex, and expensive, he said, but it helps to stay current.

“Technology allows you to better market your business, take advantage of new business opportunities [and run] more efficiently,” Rigie said.

Philip Chong believes social media is the most effective marketing tool. (Photo by Serena Chen)

Another young tech-savvy Chinatown business owner is Philip Chong, a real estate developer and the founder of Canal Street Market (CSM). He utilizes the power of social media to help promote the various vendors at his 11,000-square-foot retail space, which opened in December 2016.

“The beautiful thing about social media is it gives you the ability to tell stories, so whenever you capture a person’s attention, you have the ability to tell one slice of your story,” he said.

Chong believes social media is the most effective marketing tool because most people consume content digitally nowadays. While traditional marketing helps, technology “allows you to reach a wider audience of people.”

Nom Wah’s current owner and operator has similar thoughts. Tang said many business owners do not have a marketing budget, so “[they are] starting the process losing,” making the catch-up process very difficult. At the end of the day, his business is “a marriage between art and commerce,” a very delicate balance which is constantly shifting and difficult to master.