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That L.A. Phenomenon, the Asian Mall, Spreads Across U.S., Canada

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

With business booming and her staff doubling, Emily Fu looks as though she is living the California Dream.

After immigrating from Indonesia 22 years ago, she opened a real estate office that catered to immigrants. Today she also manages Asian Square Mall, and she is proud to proclaim that not one retailer has left in the last five years.

One might file Fu’s story among other tales of immigrant entrepreneurs thriving in Southern California. But Fu works just north of Atlanta, off a six-mile stretch of highway that runs through the hamlets of Doraville and Chamblee.

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Twenty years ago, the strip was a red-light district and a nearby General Motors plant was the only substantial enterprise in town. Now, according to researchers, Buford Highway has the greatest ethnic-owned business concentration in the Southeast.

Well off the radar screens of most mainstream companies, a pattern of business and real estate development once unique to the Los Angeles area has emerged in various forms across the United States and Canada. Nowhere is this more visible than around the Asian malls and ethnic shopping areas that dot the landscapes of Atlanta, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada.

With the Asian population in Georgia doubling to 150,000 and growing 40% nationwide since 1990 to 10.5 million, according to Census Bureau estimates, these new developments are booming along with the diverse neighborhoods around them.

These Asian-oriented developments profit from the neglect of the mainstream white business world.

“It’s not that this market is forgotten,” said Eugene Su, president of Focus, a San Gabriel department store that caters to Chinese customers. “It’s that we’ve never been understood in the first place.”

North of Atlanta, locals are betting that suburban cultural diversity can become a tourist attraction. Doraville and Chamblee are home to DeKalb County’s recently dubbed International Corridor, a five-mile stretch of highway lined with mostly Asian malls. At its heart is Chamblee’s International Village District, a worn group of streets lined by Asian-oriented shops, as well as a few catering to Latinos and Eastern Europeans. They serve a mix of immigrants, mainly Chinese and Korean.

These Asian-oriented businesses did not exist as recently as 15 years ago, and Atlanta was an obscure backwater to Asians overseas.

“I had to explain to people in my country where it was,” Fu said from her Buford Highway office. “ ‘It’s where President Jimmy Carter is from,’ I said. ‘They grow peanuts.’ ”

Since then, Asian entrepreneurship has put Doraville and Chamblee on the map. In the mid-1980s, Jack Halpern, owner of a number of malls in the area, rented space to an aspiring Korean restaurateur. Then he rented to the man’s brother-in-law and, soon after, to many more Asians. About two years ago, a visit to Los Angeles’ Koreatown inspired Halpern to invest even more heavily in ethnic malls.

“I think Los Angeles is always five or six years ahead of us on these trends,” he said.

Once the ball got rolling, businesspeople and consumers alike were attracted to the ethnic retail opportunities. Roger Lin, owner of the Atlanta area franchise of 99 Ranch Market, the Buena Park-based chain of Asian supermarkets, opened a mall along Buford Highway. An office of the World Journal, billed as the nation’s largest Chinese newspaper, is one of its tenants, as is a Chinese school believed to be the largest in the Southeast. The mall parking lot is perpetually crowded with cars, some bearing license plates from as far away as Mississippi, a five-hour drive.

Outside the nation’s capital, a similar scene plays out in another ethnic retail space. The flag of the former South Vietnam flutters atop crowded Eden Center, a once standard outdoor plaza that was Washington’s largest when it opened in 1953.

In the early 1980s, Vietnamese immigrants became tenants. According to Joe Wood, a geographer at George Mason University, as recently as five years ago the Vietnamese had the second-highest rate of immigration in the Washington metropolitan area. Most live scattered across Fairfax County and flock to Eden Center to eat and shop.

Asian American developers behind a number of these malls see themselves as innovators in development. On the West Coast, many mall developers think beyond the paradigm of an urban Chinatown.

Omar Lee, a California businessman, built the Great Wall, billed as the first enclosed Asian-oriented mall in the Seattle area.

“Chinatown is to my business as Pittsburgh is to the steel industry,” Lee said.

Traffic congestion, poor parking and an aging infrastructure often plague old urban ethnic centers and make them economically obsolete.

Seattle’s Chinatown is of “historical significance,” says Lee. “But we’d rather have an Asian mall, central to all, right on the freeway.”

But the Seattle mall is innovative in another way. It is pan-Asian. A Filipino grocery occupies space next to a Chinese bookstore. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants sit near the Chinese-owned 99 Ranch Market. Unlike the usual ethnic enclave, where one ethnic group or another concentrates exclusively, this mall and others are melting pots.

Meanwhile, a much more ambitious project is being launched in San Pablo, an economically struggling town outside of San Francisco with large Latino, black and Asian populations.

There, Orange County developer Frank Jao is developing International Marketplace, a 600,000-square-foot ethnic-themed mall, with Asian retailers, a Latino-owned cineplex and, perhaps, an International House of Pancakes. It is to be completed next summer.

For the businesspeople who invest in these malls, their interest is piqued when an area’s scattered population of Asians becomes large enough to support such an enterprise. How many that is can vary but, in general, one key characteristic of the mall sites remains the same--they start with bargain real estate.

“Pretty much any ethnic development has been through minorities investing in ‘recycling’ neighborhoods,” Jao said. “Neighborhood revival is part of our mission.”

For Jao and the Doraville and Chamblee project, funding comes from private investors, banks and government revitalization funds.

Many of the 23 Chinese American banks headquartered in Los Angeles County provide construction, commercial and industrial loans as mall start-up capital, said Wei Li, a professor at the University of Connecticut who studies Southland Asian business.

The capitalization of Southern California’s Asian malls is varied, according to anecdotal evidence, Li said. Some are are funded by private shareholders, others by lending institutions. Some are even financed by the Chinese government, although experts know little about the extent of that involvement.

Finding financing for a project in an ethnic neighborhood can be a complex and difficult task.

Su, president of the Focus department store that anchors San Gabriel Square, says that mall is backed by a Taiwanese commercial bank and private investors.

Su believes that simple, old-fashioned emotions and needs lead Asian customers to these stores: homesickness, sentimentality and, of course, the unique Asian products that are made available.

“You can’t be successful here without understanding the Asian market,” Su said. “The Pizza Hut across the street that opened up a couple years ago went out of business.”

Su says that most of the business world pays little attention to his customers. He says that shopping in a mainstream mall can become a series of small humiliations: a salesperson ignores a woman who speaks imperfect English; a diminutive Asian man is advised to shop for clothing in the boy’s department.

Chinese immigrants are not merely purchasing clothing, and developers are not merely building malls. Business owners, residents and developers are creating spaces where they feel at home.

Su draws an analogy to explain. “Typically, white customers complain they can’t find their way around in our mall,” he said. “Well, welcome to the immigrant experience.”

“On one hand, we are Americanized in the sense that we’re building these malls. After all,” Su said, “malls are part of the typical American experience. But just as we are building, we are doing so with our own ethnicity in mind.”


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