For Tisya Siswanto, 32, Chinatown is so much more than a tourist destination. It was the place that her family visited on the weekends to find groceries and household products that reminded her Indonesian parents of home. As a student at Baruch College, it was the place where she and her friends would hang out after class. Chinatown was a neighborhood that welcomed Siswanto every time she visited. Every time she walked down the street, she ran into someone she knew. But everything changed when the pandemic hit. Chinatown, with streets lined with shuttered businesses and devoid of its usual crowds, didn’t resemble the place in Siswanto’s memories.
“Chinatown meant a lot to me growing up in New York City,” she says. “I lived in the neighborhood for a few years and it was devastating to see the effects of the pandemic on Chinatown. A lot of businesses had closed and it was hit pretty hard and early. There wasn’t anyone coming to Chinatown.”
In an effort to help the community that meant so much to her, Siswanto decided to bring something she loves to Chinatown: candles. She had always loved collecting them, but during the pandemic lockdown Siswanto learned how to make them as well. She would buy and collect them and had so many, some were never burned. She loved smelling the different scents — the power of scent was something that intrigued her.
“Scent is a very personal thing for a lot of people. There is no one-size-fits-all for scents. It could evoke certain memories for one person and then for others they may not like it,” Siswanto says. “You really get to explore that personalization and customization when you are making a candle,” she says.
Siswanto originally wanted to make her own line of candles, but because scent is so personal, she decided to instead open a candle-making venue where people could select their own fragrances. In August 2021, she opened up the Lanterne Candle Lab in Chinatown, but the journey wasn’t easy.
“There were a lot of hesitations from the building owners because they weren’t familiar with this new concept [of a candle-making shop]. They didn’t know if something like this could actually survive. They would be taking a chance on a tenant, and they were afraid I wouldn’t be able to make rent, which happened with the previous tenant,” Siswanto says. “I had to get to know them and build a relationship with them.”
Her perseverance paid off. Today, Lanterne Candle Lab is a space that both brings people to Chinatown and celebrates Asian culture. The lab holds around 10 candle-making classes each week. It’s not a typical class. Each participant is given a pouring guide with instructions on what to do, with Siswanto on hand to provide assistance. This hands-off approach allows participants to freely chat and get to know each other. During the time it takes for the candles to set — about an hour — Siswanto encourages participants to go out and explore the neighborhood.
“We always encourage our guests to go and support other local businesses in the area, this is my way of contributing back to my community,” she says. “Chinatown is an old neighborhood and I did not want to seem like [new businesses] were taking over or not serving the community.”
The candles themselves also pay homage to Asian culture and are offered in familiar fragrances like honeydew, lychee, bamboo, almond cookie and even boba.
“Being in Chinatown we want to pay tribute to our area. We see a lot of fruit stands and we want to blend those things that are already known to the community [into our fragrances],” she says.
Lanterne candles are also environmentally friendly. Empty candle vessels can be brought back to the store and reused, and the candles themselves contain natural products. All fragrances and oil are natural, nontoxic and paraben free.
“It’s a great place to come when you’re celebrating special occasions or a date night. You can also BYOB so that’s great,” Siswanto says.
Chris Desmond recently went to the Lanterne Candle Lab with her friend to celebrate their birthdays.
“I really enjoyed it, it was a fun thing to do together. It was fun to go at your own pace and not one was rushing us,” she says. “We’ll probably find something to eat in the area while the candle dries.
While the Lanterne Candle Lab is just over a year old, Siswanto hopes it can continue to be a space where people can get to know both each other and Chinatown better.
“It’s a new business and it’s hard to get your name out there, especially in such a big city,” she says. “We’re just a little shop in Chinatown, so more exposure will be great.”