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latimes.com

San Gabriel becomes brand-name destination for Chinese tourists

By Frank Shyong

3:30 AM PST, February 13, 2014

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These are boom times for the once quiet suburb of San Gabriel, which is in the midst of a transformation built on the growing international reputation of its Chinese food and services.

Statistics show about a third of Chinese tourists who travel to the United States spend at least some time in Los Angeles. Some are shunning coastal resorts and Beverly Hills opulence in favor of San Gabriel, a city of 40,000 best known for its historic mission.

“San Gabriel is famous in China,” said David Lee, chief executive of Hing Wa Lee Group, which recently opened a flagship jewelry store in San Gabriel a few hundred feet from a Hilton hotel, where many Chinese tourists stay. “It has become a brand-name destination.”

The tourism boom has helped spark new development. A 316-room Crowne Plaza Hotel is slated to open next door to the Hilton in 2015, taking over an overgrown lot that once housed a Norm's restaurant.

Hilton developer Sunny Chen is applying to build another hotel right next to that at the site of an old furniture store. With no beaches, no major landmarks and few A-list shops or restaurants, San Gabriel is an unlikely tourist destination.

But the city has a Chinese-style five-star hotel within walking distance of a thriving community of Chinese restaurants, Asian banks and multilingual travel agencies.

Visitors to San Gabriel sometimes use the city as a home base for trips throughout the Southland, returning to Valley Boulevard to eat.

“No matter where Chinese people go, no matter where they are from, they cannot change their appetite,” said Steve Chiang, a Chinese newspaper publisher and president of the Rosemead Chamber of Commerce.

Lee says he's trying to cater to Chinese nationals, who form about 70% of his business. Chinese travelers spend about $3,000 on each trip to California, more than visitors from any other nation, according to data from the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

Here they find cheaper prices for name brand products like watches and iPhones, and it's more likely that they'll be genuine in America, Lee said.

San Gabriel's “name recognition has become luxury,” said Julie Tang, general manager of Park Place International, a San Gabriel travel agency. “And it has become so Chinese. That's the reason it's been successful.”

When waves of Chinese immigrants settled in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1980s, Monterey Park was declared the first suburban Chinatown. But the epicenter of the community has been moving east ever since.

The San Gabriel Square, a 219,000-square-foot retail development known colloquially as the Great Mall of China, has drawn huge numbers of Chinese from throughout the Southland since the 1990s.

The Hilton's arrival on Valley Boulevard in 2004 funneled a stream of wealthy Chinese nationals to San Gabriel, and luxury businesses followed. Now it's almost impossible to get a room at the Hilton, which is about 90% occupied year-round.

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frank.shyong@latimes.com