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From healing hands to haute handbags

Times Staff Writer

It’s hard for some people to think of Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel without fixating on food. The main drag through the San Gabriel Valley offers so many variations on Chinese, Taiwanese and other Eastern cuisines that it’s like taking a trip to Asia without the plane.

But San Gabriel’s seafood shops and boba teahouses are just the easiest entry point to an area that’s become the epicenter of Chinese culture in Southern California. Take some time after a meal of Sichuan pork or dim sum to drive the two-mile stretch between New and Walnut Grove avenues, and you’ll discover not only restaurants but a series of storefronts offering samplings of luxury, pop culture and relief from the stress of modern life.

The goods and services are not always readily apparent. Operating from freestanding stores and, more commonly, mini-malls, some Valley Boulevard businesses split their signage between English and Chinese characters; others are identified only with the latter. Either way, the signs are sometimes difficult to read, especially from the speeding confines of a car. Further hints of an East-West language barrier are names that don’t necessarily indicate what’s inside: Who would guess that Dragon Seed offers women’s fashions, or that Time River sells carved jade vases and 4-foot-high amethyst geodes at $1,000 a pop?

Nonetheless, those who choose to step into this parallel universe will be rewarded with an ever-evolving array of unique services, and unusual or elite products. And they might be surprised to find that some of the luxury items they seek on the Westside can also be found just a few miles east of downtown.

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‘We have all these different stores’

“When I say I have a business in a Chinese area, my friends say, ‘You have a restaurant?’ I say, ‘No. Heck, no.’ All they know is restaurants. We have all these different stores here,” said Kirk Liu, 25, who holds a PhD in finance from UCLA and has been helping his girlfriend with her new high-end boutique on Valley Boulevard.

“The only thing we don’t have is Disneyland,” said Cici Shi, a 21-year-old USC student who opened Addictive Element in December with a little “pocket money” and some help from her parents back in China.

Located on the second floor of a mini-mall attached to the recently opened Hilton Hotel, Addictive Element doesn’t exactly scream “fashion.” The name is a reference to Shi, a self-described “super shopaholic” with an expensive taste for handbags, shoes and accessories, as evidenced by the Chanel belt and Marni shoes she was wearing, as well as the $700 to $2,000 Chloe handbags, $350 Manolo Blahnik heels and other straight-from-the-pages-of-Vogue items she stocks.

Like its merchandise, the store itself has a certain European sensibility. Its walls are draped with floral curtains, and its floor is ringed with generously spaced shelves and shoe displays next to fluffy white seat cushions.

“The Chinese, all they know is Louis Vuitton. They have no idea about European design. I just want Chinese people to have better taste,” said Shi, who lived in Switzerland for five years before moving to the U.S. three years ago.

Shi’s clientele is primarily Asian -- not by design but by location. Few non-Asians know about Addictive Element and other stores in the area. That’s because the businesses don’t advertise anywhere other than local, Chinese-language media -- if at all.

San Gabriel is one of several valley cities, Monterey Park and Alhambra among them, with a burgeoning Asian population and cultural life. Alhambra’s Main Street, for example, boasts its own vigorous set of restaurants, stores and dance clubs. The region, once known for attractions such as the San Gabriel Mission, has undergone a rapid demographic transformation in the last 15 years, especially in the southwestern San Gabriel Valley, which had been populated largely by Anglo and Latino families. Between 1990 and 2000, the valley experienced a 20% increase in its Asian population.

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Shi’s business is one of several unique stores filling out the plaza next to the new Hilton, which opened in December. (It is the first marquee hotel in San Gabriel, and its location on Valley Boulevard is testimony to the area’s commercial vitality and overseas connections.)

Among the other plaza shops are Taly Woodsilk, which sells towels and apparel made from silk-like wood fibers, and Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak, a reflexology spa.

Originally from China, Lily Chen and her husband, Zuo Zhi, own two round-the-clock, 3,500-square-foot Tibetan foot baths in Beijing. They’ve lived in the U.S. for 13 years but opened their first American branch in San Gabriel only three months ago.

Inside this small, dimly lighted spa, a dozen overstuffed chairs face an enormous flat-screen TV tuned to Chinese television. One wall is decorated with colorful drawings of Buddha and Tibet’s Potala Palace, the other with reflexology charts. The foot baths are Tibetan because they use herbs imported from the region.

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An hourlong session is performed with a bucket of scalding hot water and a pair of healing hands. For the first 15 minutes, the feet rest on a peg just over the herb-soaked water, then into the bucket they go, in preparation for half an hour of kneading by a licensed foot masseuse. What to do while waiting? Drink the endless cups of jasmine and green tea that are served pretty much nonstop.

Chen and Zhi chose San Gabriel because, Chen says, “We have lots of friends here.”

The area is also home to talented massage therapists, such as Wei Wong, who moved to San Gabriel a year ago and works at Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak. Wong, 51, has 30 years’ experience as a reflexologist and acupuncturist in his home city of Qing-Dao. In the U.S., he is licensed only for massage but is working toward a license in acupuncture.

Wong speaks little English. Like many area residents, he was drawn to San Gabriel because it’s easy to get by without it. Indeed, English is a second (or third or fourth) language for many of the people who live and work in San Gabriel.

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The Great Mall

Most of those people, at one point or another, have probably been to San Gabriel Square. Alternately dubbed the Emerald City, Chinese Disneyland and the Great Mall of China, the center might still be known among foodies as the home of the Chinese-Islamic restaurant Tung Lai Shun and Sam Woo Chinese barbecue. But more than that, its two sprawling stories of pastel walls, red-tile roofs and gurgling Mediterranean-style fountains offer the promise of one-stop shopping. Stroll down one stretch and you’ll wander by Health Food City, the women’s boutique Dragon Seed, People’s Place -- which sells trendy brands such as Diesel, Ben Sherman and Miss Sixty -- a pharmacy and Milan Avenue.

Milan, which offers previous-season, high-end handbags from Balenciaga, Fendi and Prada at a discount, is right next to Sam Woo, which has roasted ducks on display near the window. Go a bit further farther and you hit Gily International, which sells Chinese editions of GQ, Vogue, popular novels and computer books alongside a current selection of CDs, DVDs and video compact discs.

The square is anchored by two businesses: At its geographical center is the Focus department store. Though its two bottom floors are stocked with fairly standard fare -- albeit with Chinese pop songs piped over the loudspeakers -- its third-floor tower is occupied by dozens of independent jewelry dealers. They sell rings, bracelets, expensive watches and 24-karat gold figurines of beasts representing the Chinese zodiac.

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The second anchor is the bustling 99 Ranch Market, with a large selection of fresh and packaged foods, mainly for Asian cooking. Here you can buy not only Rice Krispies, but also a plucked black chicken (dead), a striped bass (alive), squid jerky and coconut juice to wash it all down. (Its competitor across the street, the Hawaii Supermarket, sells live turtles.)

Above the 99 Ranch Market is I-View2K4, which rents films on DVD and VCD 24 hours a day via automated machine. Li Yong Ying, 33, is originally from China and, having been in the U.S. for only two years, doesn’t speak English, but those aren’t barriers to running the store.

Most of Ying’s customers are Chinese. The majority of I-View2K4’s 5,000 titles are Asian. The 30% that are American are subtitled in Mandarin, including “Dr. Strangelove,” which on a recent day was playing on an enormous flat-screen TV behind the counter, where movies can also be rented in person.

“Chinese people who don’t speak English very well have a hard time watching American movies without subtitles. They can’t communicate with the clerks in the store. I don’t think they’re going to be a Blockbuster member,” said Ying’s Taiwanese fiancee, Elie Wu, 22.

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To those wandering by, I-View2K4 looks like any other video rental joint -- except for the ATM-like machines flanking both sides of the door.

Who knows? Perhaps I-View2K4 is merely the first American stop on a westbound proliferation of automated video rental machines. In the five months the shop has been open, Ying and Wu have had a lot of interest from other Asian video stores wanting to implement the technology, they said. But the couple thinks the technology has broader appeal. “If it works for Chinese people, it will work for Americans,” Wu said.

Maxi mini-malls

Valley Boulevard is home to several mini-malls, sandwiched between ungentrified Chinese businesses and stores that recall the area’s diverse past and present: Claro’s Italian Market, Petrillo’s Pizza, Armando’s Mexican Food.

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One of the newest malls sits on the corner of Valley and San Gabriel boulevards; among its shops is Aliser, a Victoria’s Secret-style lingerie shop that sells frilly items imported from Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in China. Though Aliser is a Chinese brand, the store’s displays echo those of its famous U.S. competitor, with a twist: Lingerie-clad mannequins sport wings and are placed auspiciously next to Japanese lucky-cat statues.

Across the street at China Audio & Video City, all of the 20,000 DVD, VCD and CD titles are manufactured in China or in partnership with Chinese companies. But the store’s offerings are more than just another example of the country’s manufacturing stronghold strength. They’re testimony to an incredibly diverse culture only now coming to the fore in the U.S.

Anyone interested in learning more about this long off-limits, often misunderstood and politically confusing country would do well to stop here. Not all the videos are subtitled in English, but many are. Just check the packages.

Opened in mid-February, the 8,000-square-foot store may bring to mind the expansiveness of Amoeba Music in Hollywood. From the outside, it might not look like much, but step beyond the plate-glass storefront and into the aisles bedecked with movie posters, and there’s a mind-boggling array of CDs and DVDs.

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There’s music of all styles and eras, as well as DVDs not only of films but also Chinese TV shows, cartoons, kung fu, travel and history. There are instructional videos for cooking, calligraphy and dance, operas in Mandarin and Cantonese, and an entire wall of vintage films, dating back to 1905, some banned by the Chinese government.

Managed by Andrew Zhao, who came to the U.S. in 1986 to study business and later was a news director for a Chinese-language satellite TV station, the store is aiming to be the best Chinese audio and video shop not just in San Gabriel but in the entire country. Given the number of other well-stocked entertainment stores, that may be a tall order. But San Gabriel is pretty good place to start.

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Local shopping, Eastern vibe

Valley Boulevard is known by many for its food, but peek inside the mini-malls dotting the two-mile stretch between New and Walnut Grove avenues in San Gabriel, and you’ll find a few surprises tucked among the barbecue, seafood and noodle shops. A sampling:

San Gabriel Hotel Plaza

227 W. Valley Blvd.

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Addictive Element

Owned by a 21-year-old USC student and self-described “super shopaholic,” this recently opened boutique offers high-end European handbags, shoes and clothes by Chanel, Chloe, Balenciaga, Fendi, Manolo Blahnik, Marni, Miu Miu, Prada, Pucci, Stella McCartney and others. Suite 298A. Hours: noon to 8 p.m. daily. (626) 284-9288.

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Taly Woodsilk

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The towels, robes, infant clothes and apparel at this chain boutique are soft as silk but made from wood, thus the name. Additional advantages of cloth made from taly wood include stain removability, water absorbency and antimicrobial qualities. Suite 158B. Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. (626) 576-4800.

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Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak

Though this spa is new to San Gabriel, its owners run two other locations -- both in Beijing. Using water steeped in Tibetan herbs, an hourlong session includes a 15-minute foot steam and 15-minute foot soak followed by 30 minutes of reflexology. Suite 218A. Cost: $70. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (626) 588-2666 or feetmassage@sbcglobal.net.

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Swiss Plaza

220 W. Valley Blvd.

Brand Shop Paris

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Offering high-end handbags at three locations, these boutiques specialize in Chanel, Christian Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Prada. Most items are new; some are consignment. Suite 104. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (626) 458-8898. Also: 1300 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra, (626) 284-9998. 1569 S. Fairway Drive, Suite 132, Walnut, (909) 598-2226.

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Just KCS

This airy shop sells second lines of high-end, name-brand designers, including Armani Jeans, CNC, D&G;, GF Ferre, Marc Jacobs and Missoni for women, and Armani Collezioni, Armani Jeans, CNC, D&G;, GF Ferre, Iceberg, Versace Classic and Versace Jeans Couture for men. Suite 103. Hours: 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. (626) 288-5550.

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San Gabriel Square

140 W. Valley Blvd.

I-View2k4

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Movie rentals are available 24 hours because they’re done by machine at this store, which opened about six months ago. Just step up to the store, swipe your card at the machine, select one of the 5,000 titles available and presto -- you’ve got your DVD. Suite 219. Cost: $1 per rental or $28 per month for unlimited rentals. (626) 571-2538 or www.i-view2k4.com.

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Milan Avenue

The emphasis at this small boutique is older seasons of high-fashion handbags, shoes and accessories, so most are sold at a discount. Brands include Balenciaga, Burberry, Chanel, Christian Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Prada. Suite 106. (626) 572-7795. Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

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99 Ranch Market

A bustling hub of San Gabriel Square, this chain market has a large selection of foodstuffs essential for Asian cooking, as well as Chinese toiletries such as shampoo and toothpaste and some household goods such as bamboo steamers. Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. (626) 307-8899.

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People’s Place

Catering to a teen and twentysomething crowd, this spacious shop has great selection and a wide variety of hip, youth-oriented brands, including American Apparel, Ben Sherman, Diesel, Gsus Sindustries, Miss Sixty and Paul Frank. Suite 104. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays. (626) 571-8161.

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Gily International

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Though there’s not much English-language merchandise here -- other than bilingual versions of magazines such as Time -- this book and music store has an interesting selection of Chinese and Japanese pop CDs. Suite 110. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. (626) 288-8188.

801 E. Valley Blvd.

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Aliser

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Manufactured in Dongguan in China, the women’s lingerie in this brand-new boutique has a Victoria’s Secret sensibility. $10 to $25 for bras, $5 to $10 for panties. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (626) 280-6711.

828 E. Valley Blvd.

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China Audio & Video City

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With 20,000 titles, this brand-new shop has a wide selection of Chinese DVDs, VCDs and CDs in the country. DVD offerings include Chinese TV shows, cartoons, opera, karaoke, kung fu, travel, history, cooking instruction and films dating back to 1905. CDs are modern, vintage and of all musical styles. Manufactured in China’s DVD and CD capital, Guangdong province, CDs average $4, DVDs $7. Some, not all, are bilingual. Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. (626) 280-0825.

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-- Susan Carpenter


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