What does it take to compete in a town where tourists can do anything from riding a sky-high roller coaster to watching fiery pirate battles?
James Chih-Cheng Chen’s answer: Go after a market that isn’t being served.
“I see so many Asian tourists here, but I see no Asian business people. They’re happy with everything in Las Vegas except the food,” Chen said. “I dreamed of a place to serve food to Chinese people.”
So Chen founded Chinatown Plaza, which opened in February 1995, on the premise that the local Asian community needs services provided by people who understand them and that Asian tourists need a place to buy their favorite foods away from home.
The two-story plaza includes a full-size supermarket, wedding chapel, medical office, real estate office, several restaurants and a variety of art, jewelry and clothing stores.
The center combines traditional Chinese and modern architecture and is spread out over a large, well-lit parking area. Bright lights adorn the storefronts and tropical plants fill the spacious walkways inside.
With 3,000 to 5,000 visitors daily, Chen said business has been better than expected, and the addition of an Asian American bank and the Far East Trade Center--which will bring the plaza to 90,000 square feet--are expected to improve his good fortune. The trade center, scheduled to open late this year, will serve as a showroom and home base for Asian business people.
Chen envisions Las Vegas as an ideal hub, given that 592,000 Asians visit annually for pleasure and business. In addition, many Asian Americans from Southern California make frequent trips to Las Vegas, often to attend conventions.
“I see Las Vegas as an opportunity for foreign trade. My people notice it, but they’re not doing anything about it,” he said.
The trade center will serve as a place for Asian manufacturers who want to display products without having to assemble and dismantle booths every few days as they do at trade shows.
The center will also cater to other business needs that manufacturers, who frequently travel without support staff, have away from home.
“They will feel comfortable. They will have their own food and be able to talk in their own language,” Chen said. “They are trying so hard to do business and we know that. We have an advantage--it’s like trying to sell an umbrella on a rainy day.”
Chen, 48, said he had the idea for Chinatown Plaza for many years but had to wait for the right time to enter the market.
Chen emigrated from Taiwan in 1971 with $30 in his pocket, first working as a dishwasher in Los Angeles and later getting involved in international trade and fine jewelry. He owned a supermarket in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and worked in videotape distributing, among other businesses.
“I started coming to Las Vegas and thought, ‘This is an amazing city,’ ” said Chen, who moved here five years ago. “After bringing friends to Las Vegas they say, ‘This is America.’ ”
Three years ago, Chen decided to kick his dream into high gear. He called on two high school classmates from Taiwan, Henry Chen-Jen Hwang and K.C. Chen, obtained financing from a Taiwanese bank and started building Chinatown Plaza. He also formed JHK Investment Group Inc., of which he is president.
Chen said that only in Las Vegas would his Chinatown Plaza survive. It isn’t in a Chinese-American neighborhood, and could never succeed if it had to rely solely on the local Asian American population.
Chen is extremely proud of his creation’s clean and modern appearance.
“This is a new concept--a Chinatown usually occurs as a natural gathering,” said Chen, who is raising three sons, ages 7, 13 and 17, here. “People expect to see produce on the street. Some say they miss the flies, the hanging ducks. . . . [but] this is an image I try to change,” he said.
But Chen estimates that 60% to 70% of Las Vegans don’t even know his plaza exists just a few miles west of the Las Vegas Strip.
Still, Las Vegas is not easily impressed.
“In Las Vegas, so many exciting things are happening. So many things happen that you have to really yell loud to be heard,” Chen said.