A giant snake sat coiled in the center of South Coast Plaza's Jewel Court, keeping watch over a bounty of oversized coins, lush flowers and stacks of oranges. In its clutches was a glittering bronze fan, and red paper lanterns suspended from bamboo poles matched its ribbon-like tongue.
Along the upper floors of the rotunda, banners wished visitors "Happy New Year," in several languages.
The display, which will greet passing shoppers through Feb. 17 as part of the shopping center's Lunar New Year festivities, is meant to bring happiness, abundance and financial prosperity.
With Orange County's east Asian communities rapidly growing, and with exploding purchasing power making its way stateside from China, area businesses are hoping that nods to the Year of the Snake, which begins Sunday, will attract a piece of the good fortune.
"What you can see is that things like the Lunar New Year are not simply ethnic or in the margins," said Yong Chen, a history and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine. "They're entering the mainstream with big players like South Coast [Plaza.]"
Disneyland Resort is featuring Asian-inspired menu items at restaurants throughout its parks and Downtown Disney, along with a number of performances this weekend by Asian American dance troupes, said John McClintock, resort spokesman. It's the resort's second year holding a major celebration.
It's also Starbucks' second year selling Lunar New Year-themed gift cards.
And South Coast Plaza, which for decades has billed itself not as a mall, but a world-class shopping destination, is leading the charge.
"They know the global market," Chen said. "They're visionary. The things they've done have been very effective."
South Coast Plaza's marketers have successfully tapped into Chinese demand for "lavish, bigger-name products." That demand, Chen said, is "growing at insane levels."
For example, he said, a popular brand-name outlet store might have a limit, "saying each customer can only buy 10 handbags — five with the logos, five without. It's that kind of consumption."
At least for now, that brand demand seems to be something of a one-way street, Chen said.
Asked if any Chinese brands were gaining the kind of cachet Western luxury brands enjoy, he quipped, "Call me back in 10 years."
In any case, Chen said, holiday spending in particular can be a huge boon for retailers.
"In China … the New Year has become more like Christmas," he said. "The Chinese expenditure during the Lunar New Year season may very well exceed that of American Christmas shopping. So it's incredible."
Among the more than 25 retailers at South Coast Plaza boasting special products or events for the Lunar New Year are luxury brands like Chopard, Fendi, Dior, La Perla and Tiffany & Co.
The MAC Cosmetics store will be the only location in North America to offer its "Year of the Snake" make-up collection.
High-end accessory designer Roger Vivier created limited editions of its classic Pilgrim clutch in two shades of bright red — available exclusively at its Orange County boutique.
Of Roger Vivier's three U.S. boutiques — the other two are on Madison Avenue in New York and in Bal Harbour, Fla. — South Coast Plaza "just made sense," Public Relations Coordinator Sarah Hauser said. "What's special about South Coast Plaza is it has such a diverse clientele."
Given the brand's high-end price point, catering to individual clients is a top priority, she said.
The crystal-buckled, silk satin handbag, which will run shoppers up to $1,725, is the brand's first foray into holiday merchandising, Hauser said.
Thursday evening, South Coast Plaza officially kicked off its celebration with a reception featuring, among other things, several members of the Asian Stilt Circus Performers and a performance by the Southern Wind Lion Dance troupe, a part of the Vietnamese Student Assn. at UCI.
While South Coast Plaza has celebrated the Lunar New Year for several years, this was the center's first large party.
Guests packed into the Jewel Court area to snack on dumplings from the popular dim sum chain Capital Seafood, and sip the evening's signature cocktail.
Executive Director of Marketing Debra Gunn Downing said about 1,100 people sent RSVPs to the party. The guest list, she said, was culled from stores' top customer lists, as well as outreach efforts into the local Asian community.
"We got an incredible response," she said.
Robert Sun, chairman of the American Chinese CEO Society, said recognition of a major Chinese holiday by a "mainstream business" like South Coast Plaza definitely greases the wheels of international commerce.
"South Coast Plaza has been friends working with our organization for years," he said. "They recognize us, and we recognize them."
Frequently, he said the society will bring delegations of visiting dignitaries to shop at the center.
That's exactly the idea, said Werner Escher, South Coast Plaza's executive director of domestic and international markets.
The party and festivities, he said, are just another aspect of South Coast Plaza's longstanding commitment to creating a shopping experience, which started decades ago with the addition of valet parking and concierge services.
"South Coast Plaza doesn't just draw from the core market," he said. "It is an international destination because of the experience."
While party guests said an annual South Coast Plaza party wasn't likely to supplant dinner with family or more traditional celebrations anytime soon, it was nice to see the holiday gaining more mainstream recognition.
"This is great," said Nancy Lee, 63. She said she'd noticed more recognition of the Lunar New Year over the past "maybe five years."
It makes her "kind of proud," she said.
Paul Lee, 52, said he was enjoying the party, though his friend, Peter Cheung, 32, said festivities in China are "more exciting."
Still, Lee joked, "I've never seen so many Chinese in one place."