Article link: Read it on The Wall Street Journal here
Originally published in August 2020
Soon after the coronavirus lockdown hit, some peculiar posts appeared on the New York City forum of Reddit, a popular discussion site. A user calling himself “meat boy” was offering crazy low prices on cuts ranging from drum sticks to pig lips at an obscure Chinatown butcher shop.
“Let your poor and broke ass friends know that they don’t need to starve in times like this,” he wrote.
The missives, which offered even steeper discounts to folks in need, were long, funny and rude. There were 26 F-bombs in one post alone.
They garnered thousands of likes and hundreds of comments on the usually curmudgeonly forum.
“Heart of NY right there,” was a typical response.
“Meat boy,” I learned when I called, is Jefferson Li, a 28-year-old military man who works at the butcher shop with his parents. His folks immigrated in 1985 from China’s Guangdong province and speak little English.
Mr. Li said he hoped to lure new customers to the struggling store, which caters largely to Chinese immigrants.
His dad worked long days at the shop for decades and drove a taxi at night. “I can’t stand to see all that effort go down the drain,” he said.
He’s no slacker himself. He has been “volunteering” at the shop since he was five, working the register and hauling boxes.
“I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal until I went to middle school,” he says of his first experience meeting middle-class kids.
He enlisted in the Coast Guard, attended Hunter College and supported himself with jobs ranging from a stint at J. Crew to a logistics gig. But he never stopped helping at his parents’ shop.
Sometimes he served double duty: When Superstorm Sandy destroyed $750,000 of inventory in 2012, he wrangled grants and loans to save the business. In a landlord dispute, he saved attorney costs by researching cases and records.
It took him nine years to earn his college degree.
“The family legacy was more important than my studies,” he says.
Upon graduating last year, he finally struck out on his own, accepting a five-month assignment in Seattle with the Coast Guard’s Maritime Force Protection Unit.
“It was the best vacation I ever had,” he said.
He returned to New York planning to take another long assignment with the Coast Guard. Then the pandemic hit.
Mr. Li didn’t want his parents exposed to the virus at the store. Yes, he’s back to 80-hour weeks at the shop.
He isn’t unusual, says Yin Kong, director and co-founder of Think!Chinatown, a nonprofit civic group. Chinatown was disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and many who grew up working for their parents have returned to help.
The older generation, meanwhile, is starting to adopt their children’s suggestions. “They are more willing to try new things, like go online,” she says.
Mr. Li said he is putting his own stamp on the store for the first time, starting with the Reddit posts. But when we spoke on the phone, he admitted he still hadn’t told his parents what he had done, afraid of their reaction.
Last week, I visited the shop, 47 Division Street Trading Inc. A faded 2012 dragon calendar hung in the window. Inside the narrow store, sausages hung from a ceiling pipe and whole ducks sat in bins atop milk crates. The frozen meats were displayed in a repurposed Good Humor ice cream case.
There were only a few signs in English, another effort by Mr. Li to update: “Duck Feet $1.59 a pound.” “Pig trotters $1.49 a pound.”
Mr. Li was waiting on a young man who was clearly not a local.
“I saw the Reddit post!” said the customer, Alec Feretti, who had biked down from Murray Hill. He was buying a pork shoulder, a duck and a black chicken.
He loved the prices. “Maybe I’ll come back and work my way up to pig lips,” he said.
Mr. Li told me that the night before, he finally told his parents about the posts.
I spoke to his father, Peter Li, through a translator.
“I’ve noticed at least five or six people who are clearly not from here every day,” he said. “I’m really appreciative that after he put it on the internet, people see it and are coming.”
His son took me upstairs to the office, with its plywood floors and metal file cabinets.
“It’s as janky as s—!” Mr. Li grinned. “The atmosphere is definitely 1980s hardcore Chinese immigrant.”
He looked embarrassed and proud at the same time.
He pulled up a website from a fancy butcher shop in Australia. “I’d love to be like this while retaining our own personal characteristics,” he said. “For us, it’d have a more Chinese heritage and style to it.”
Does that mean he’s planning to stick around?
He sighed. He has passed up good opportunities to join friends launching businesses, he said. And he sometimes feels stagnant compared with his pals who went into investment banking. “They’re wearing Thomas Pink shirts at $100 a pop,” he said.
“But when my parents came here, it wasn’t about them, it was about us,” he said of himself and his older sister. “It’s only fair for us to keep that in mind.”
I told Mr. Li how great it was to meet someone with such an unusual perspective. He looked mystified.
“I’m a regular Chinatown kid who just grinds, and that’s it. What so special about it?” he said. “We’re a dime a dozen.”