James Chen, founder of Chinatown Plaza
Inspired by the glittering mega-resorts that bloomed from the barren desert, James Chih Cheng Chen transplanted a mini-Chinatown straight from Southern California to an empty lot two miles off the Strip 15 years ago. It has since spawned a vast Asian commercial district in a state that’s home to the fastest expanding Asian population in America.
For Chen, their success story could have only happened in Vegas.
“I was very inspired by the creativity of Las Vegas—it started from nothing in the desert,” said Chen. “I find American spirit here.”
Traditionally, Chinatowns were built one noodle shop at a time, keeping pace with the local Asian population. But Las Vegas’s Chinatown rapidly mushroomed from one modest shopping center off I-15 to three square miles in less than a decade. It now claims the length of Spring Mountain from Valley View to Rainbow and extends another mile south to Flamingo Road.
Three years ago, Clark county implemented a zoning requirement in the district, such that redevelopment in the area now has to fulfill certain Asian-themed design requirements.
Chen’s two-story Chinatown Plaza acts as the district’s anchor, and sits at the intersection of Spring Mountain and Wynn, west of I-15. Its parking lot is usually swimming with locals shopping at the Chinese supermarket, tourists arriving by minivan from Los Angeles, by bus from overseas, and by taxi from the convention center.
In 2007, Las Vegas had 3.5 million foreign visitors, according to LVCVA estimates. About half of these tourists are from outside North America, 26 percent from Europe, and 14 percent from Asia. But while the U.S. Department of Commerce expects the number of European travelers to stay flat, the number of Asian travelers is projected to climb 21 percent over the next five years.
What they’ll find here is a batch of well-maintained shops and restaurants—all of them outposts of Southern California chains—set around a courtyard-like space centered around a golden statue of the characters of a 16th century Chinese classic Xi You Ji, or Journey to the West.
“We wanted to build a newer Chinatown to show the new image of the Chinese immigrant,” said Chen. “Firstly, it’s friendly to the mainstream.“
Where Chinatowns in other cities often harbor restaurants that flout cleanliness standards and don’t have signs, menus or staff who speak English, Las Vegas’s Chinatown is as master-planned and friendly to the public as Summerlin.
Chen, who was born in Hunan, China, raised in Taiwan, and landed in Los Angeles in 1971 at the age of 22, first laid eyes upon Sin City in the early 70s. He was wowed, but right away missed the authentic Chinese cooking from Southern California.
Simply put, “Chinese believe their food is supreme,” said Chen.
In 1978, Chen started what may have been America’s first Chinese vegetable farm, based on the belief that it was the variety of produce—among them Shanghai cabbage and Chinese leek— that made Chinese food great. He imported experts from Taiwan, hired 80 Mexicans, and opened a supermarket to sell his vegetables.
James Chen, right, at his vegetable farm in 1979
As he watched the mega-resorts descend upon Las Vegas and the tide of tourists swell in the 80s and 90s, Chen predicted that the little town of half a million would be worth 50 times its weight in tourists. And even if only 5 percent of them were Chinese, their combined demand for Chinese food would be prodigious.
So Chen enlisted two partners from back home, his brother Terry as his manager, and rounded up an established grocery chain, a handful of successful restaurants, a bookstore, an herb shop from Southern California.
He hired a Chinese American architect to design a mall with gabled roofing typical of traditional Chinese architecture. The construction crew, also imported from Southern California, were so inexperienced with the unyielding desert earth that two drills were shattered before the project broke ground.
As for location, Chen passed up the dilapidated Commercial Center on Sahara with its ocean-sized parking lot, in favor of an empty lot on the narrower Spring Mountain Road.
“At that time, Spring Mountain was not very desirable area, and it was one more mile from the Strip,” said Chen. “But we were confident that Chinese will travel for Chinese food.”
The first five years were nail-bitingly slow, but then, not only did the tourists come, the local Asian population multiplied faster than Chen could imagine. Nevada has seen the largest percentage growth of Asians of any state for the last two decades. There were only 40,000 Asians in Nevada in 1990, but the number has since quadrupled. And though eight out of ten live in Clark County, they don’t cluster in any one area but spread all over the valley, making the 20-minute drive to Chinatown for crispy duck and dim sum.
Even as other strip malls clear out—the most recent valleywide retail vacancy rates are as high as 13 percent, according to CB Richard Ellis—Chinatown Plaza has no vacancies. In fact its overflowing traffic has driven the growth of shopping centers down the street.
Portland-based Harsch Properties already owned an industrial complex next door to Chinatown Plaza when it was built. In 2001, it went through a major remodeling with an Asian theme, and added a pagoda and a retail area in the back. Then two Chinese partners built Pacific Asia Plaza at Spring Mountain and Decatur.
Business has dropped off lately as the recession hit and international arrivals to the U.S. have slipped by about 10 percent so far this year, but the economic slowdown is less of a factor than swine flu.
“It’s like SARS,” said Chen. “Many people read SARS flu started in China, so nobody wanted to visit Chinatown.”
When the SARS scare hit in 2003, Chen contacted the Clark County Health District to publicize the fact that there should be no reason to fear catching SARS from visiting Las Vegas’s Chinatown, and held a “No SARS Under the Stars” party to encourage the public to come back to Chinatown.
It’s a dose of cultural and community responsibility that demanded more of the perennial entrepreneur than business sense, and as business flowed, Chen relaxed and took a wider view.
“Chinatown is also for our Chinese descendants to enjoy their roots,” said Chen.
Today Chinatown Plaza hosts an annual Chinese New Year celebration that draws crowds of locals curious about Chinese culture.
Casinos have started coming to Chinatown too to advertise. Typical down seasons in the casinos—Christmas and Thanksgiving when most Americans stay at home with family—are high seasons for Asian American tourists who like to go on holiday to places like Las Vegas.
Domestic and overseas Asian tourists each make up a third of Chinatown Plaza’s business, according to Chen. Ordinary Chinese travelers have long had to face a difficult process to get a visa to America. But since the U.S. loosened visa restrictions for Chinese travelers, tour groups with children have begun showing up in Chinatown.
Most tourists come through San Francisco and Los Angeles, as only Korean Air offers non-stop service to Las Vegas. Direct flights from abroad are key to increasing the tourist flow to Las Vegas, according to Jesse Davis, who heads the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s three-member international marketing team.
“We do view China as being among the emerging markets with the most potential business and leisure travel,” said LVCVA’s Davis.
The LVCVA’s first formal efforts to market to Asia began last July. They hired Brand Story, a marketing agency based in Shanghai, China, and participated in trade shows and sales missions wtih media in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Macau and Hong Kong.
Hoping to capitalize on the potentially massive overseas Chinese market, Alan Chen, who is 30 and James Chen’s eldest son, has set up an office in Shanghai for the local Chinese American Chamber of Commerce that he started.
“We wanted to have a base where people who want to go visit have a place to ask what they can expect in Vegas,” said Alan Chen.
He’s also making business connections and scouting tour operators that have insurance and are properly inspected. Last year a tour bus carrying overseas Chinese tourists crashed in Nevada and tarnished Vegas’s image in the minds of many who had barely heard of Sin City.
“We want people on the team who follow the rules,” said Alan Chen.
“Of course some people may criticize,” said Chen. “We had one reporter from San Francisco, they think San Francisco Chinatown is better. Some people like the older style Chinatown.”
After the Wall Street Journal featured Chen on its front page in 2004, developers and city officials came calling from as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., looking to hire him to build Chinatowns in their cities.
He turned all of them down.
“I told them, we’re very lucky because Vegas is so unique, so different,” said Chen with all sincerity. “To try to build a Chinatown by Niagara Falls, I guess you have do it the old, traditional way—very gradually.”