Wed, Apr 18, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Success is in the bag

How Taiwanese native Lin Su-hwei ended up owning the popular Manhattan Portage trademark

By Chris Fuchs  /  Contributing reporter in New York

A Manhattan Portage bag with its distinctive red rectangle and image of the New York City skyline.

Photo: Chris Fuchs

During the 1980s, while Manhattan Portage was earning its street cred in the gritty Big Apple as the go-to bag for bicycle messengers, Lin Su-hwei (林淑惠) was thousands of miles away in Taiwan.

What Lin didn’t know at the time was that more than two decades later, she would own the trademark known for its bright red rectangle and image of the New York City skyline — a symbol emblazoned on Manhattan Portage goods sold worldwide, including in Taiwan.

The brand celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.

“The art of business is not the money,” Lin, CEO of Portage World-Wide, said in a recent interview at the company’s headquarters in SoHo. “It’s kind of like you create something which does not exist and you make it exist. This is the beauty and happiness [of it].”

BORN TO DO BUSINESS

Lin is one of six children born into a family in Kaohsiung with a knack for business. Her parents owned and ran a pharmaceutical factory, manufacturing, distributing and importing medicine. They also had a store.

Lin studied international business and tourism in college in Taiwan and traveled to Japan for graduate school. But it was a trip to New York City in the 1990s with US$3,000 in cash that really got things started.

“I decided to go outside the country to challenge myself,” Lin said.

At first, she worked for a friend who owned a design company called Token, which sold jewelry. Her English limited, Lin peddled the goods in Koreatown in Manhattan, offering buyers a better price by insisting they pay in cash only.

But eking out a living proved tough, Lin said, as some customers tried to take advantage of her being a newbie.

“Every night I cried.”

A phone call home set her straight. “My mother said, ‘Su-hwei, don’t think this way. Life is like a marathon, and if you don’t run until the end, you don’t know who the real winner is.’”

Then came a request from a Japanese friend — Lin was asked to help find a messenger bag.

Without the convenience of today’s Internet, Lin conducted her search the old-fashioned way, by stopping bicycle messengers on the streets of Manhattan. They, in turn, directed her to Manhattan Portage.

Lin ended up buying Token in 1996, using that company to export Manhattan Portage bags to Asia.

Through a mutual friend, Lin said she also got to meet the founder of Manhattan Portage in 1998, and the two became partners. Lin established Portage World-Wide to handle retail, wholesale and international sales, and opened a retail store that year in the East Village of Manhattan.

Lin worked virtually seven days a week for eight years, manning the counter and interacting with customers, despite what she said were her poor English skills. She recalled having to sometimes resort to body language to communicate.

OBSTACLES

There were other obstacles too. In the early 2000s, armed robbers targeted her shop. And in Japan, someone had already registered the Manhattan Portage trademark, thus preventing the bags from being sold in that country.

A plane trip to the American embassy in Tokyo and a lawsuit helped get the trademark returned in 2006.

That was also the same year Lin bought the Manhattan Portage trademark and became the sole shareholder of Portage World-Wide.

Lin has since closed the East Village shop, operating just one now on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan. The company also has a higher-end sister line called Token.

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