As commercial tenants are displaced one after another, some people manage to squeeze out a livelihood by renting mini shops and artfully maximizing the use of limited space. These commercial tenants are legal businesses operating in spaces no larger than an elevator, staircase, or bed space. How do Chinese drill out a set of survival skills between the gaps?


  • Production Period: March 2018

  • Length: 7 minutes

  • Project type: Social Documentary

A Cobbler Hidden in an "Elevator":
In Search of The Smallest Shops in New York's Chinatown
by Crystal Wong

Under the subway tracks, a cobbler relies on the meager earnings of his labor nestled in a shop no larger than an elevator car; in front of a gift shop, a retired grandmother squeezes into a space the size of a twin bed next to a perilous staircase, watching the city go by; then there's the corner shop selling watches and telephone cards in the doorway, so small that it's a wonder how anyone can spend seven hours there every day.

The East Broadway Mall, built in 1987, was the first Fujianese-owned shopping center in New York's Chinatown. The shops along the mall's outer wall carry the distinct flavor of old China, with stalls selling telephone cards and miscellaneous items, employment agencies and a shoe repair shop. When we go over to talk with the shopkeepers, they all put on an expression of "What do you want with me?", shake their heads and refuse to be interviewed. With one voice they say, "I'm just a little guy. There's no story here."

The next day we go back to Chinatown and circle around the East Broadway Mall, and it's still the cobbler's shop that interests me most. Set into the wall, the shop is only as large as an elevator car. Looking up, all I see are hanging plastic bags full of shoes. On the floor is a sewing machine with tools and parts scattered around it, and on the other side of the wooden threshold board are two folding stools; customers have to stay outside, unable to squeeze into the narrow workshop.

The second time we go to see the cobbler, he still wears a forbidding expression and concentrates on stitching shoes. The shop is located under an MTA track, and every few minutes a train thunders overhead. I wait for temporary silence to return before approaching the cobbler to talk. As before, he remains taciturn, and our conversation settles into the three minutes of silence between the train's rumbling. Occasionally a gust of wind sinks us into a dual torment of biting northern wind and obnoxious din. I keep looking at him, and he just keeps looking at his shoes.

An hour later, he mumbles that he doesn't have a story. "What is there for me to say? I can't make money, so I'm stuck in here. But it's not like working at the restaurant before." Even so, he seems to be moved by our sincerity, and he tells us to come back on Saturday; his wife will be there to help then, and she likes to talk.

So two days later I go back, and the cobbler's wife is there. She smiles and says, "What do you want to know? Ask quickly!" I set up my camera, noticing that the MTA runs slightly less frequently on the weekend, with five minutes between the trains overhead. I ask my questions quickly, wondering how they manage to converse here normally.

Chinese generally feel that it's only worth interviewing those who make good, but it is the ordinary people who provide the truest picture of society. The cobbler's wife is named Chen Zengjiao, and before coming to the U.S. she also repaired shoes in Lianjiang, Fujian Province, bringing her skills with her to New York. "We have no education and don't know the language in a foreign place, so we just have to duck in here." Opening her bag, she takes out a rice box that she prepared at home, saying that she usually eats at the shop. There's no place in the shop to plug in a rice cooker, so sometimes she warms up her food in someone else's rice cooker inside the shopping center; other times, she eats it cold.

Light bulbs sway from the ceiling, fed by electricity from the shopping center. The shopping center's manager, Mr. Chen, says the cobbler began renting the space five years ago. "He said he wanted the smallest space, and that was the cheapest shop we had." The charge for shoe repair is never more than $10 a pair. Chen Zengjiao sighs, "It's really hard to say; sometimes we make more, sometimes less. The customer just now brought us several pairs of shoes to fix, but we only charged him four dollars. We only charge a dollar to punch holes in a belt. So we don't make much."

Shoe repair businesses have never needed to rent large spaces; in China many cobblers operate from road-side stalls. After coming to the U.S., Chinese who don't speak English can't manage outside of Chinatown, and most of the men work in restaurants. The cobbler also worked at a restaurant before, but then decided to go back to his old profession and open his own shop. But he couldn't afford to rent a better space. "I'd like to move, but the rents are too expensive and I'd never be able to turn a profit." When the weather is too cold and snowy, few people pass by this way. "We get all of the wind and rain, but none of the sun, and there's no air conditioning.

Outside of a gift shop on Mott Street, 86-year-old Mrs. Ma hawks her wares. "I don't feel like doing anything anymore. It's enough to just watch the people walking back and forth and breathe the fresh air." She retired ten years ago, and the gift shop is run by her son. A few years ago, she no longer wanted to stay home alone, so she set herself up in an empty space outside of the shop and helps attract customers to pass the time.

But this space is only the size of a twin bed, and next to it is a staircase leading to a basement, which she could easily tumble into. I broke out in a sweat on her behalf more than once. "I don't go near the staircase when I'm fetching goods -- I have the customers get it themselves." Mrs. Ma says her son doesn't like her sitting outside, but she insists, enjoying the bustle and excitement more than being stuck in the shop. So her son installed a board to protect her from the wind, hoping this will allow his mother to enjoy the small space without catching cold in the elements.

We originally also filmed a candy shop the shape and size of a staircase, where the shop owner spends his days scuttling back and forth like a crab. But after we posted the story online, the shop owner asked us to edit out his portion without explaining why. Although we don't know the reason, we know that shop owners only rent these mini spaces because they have no other choice, and there may be legal risk involved.

"I'll keep at it as long as I can. It's not a good job, but it's nice to be able to rely on myself." Chen Zengjiao smiles and says that from the time she and her husband entered the shoe repair trade, they became stuck in this corner of the city. But they have no complaints; this is the fate of Chinese who don’t take the conventional path. "Before I was all alone at home. Now I have my son, and I have customers to chat with. I like living this way."