Mini-Chinatowns in US Suburbs

As I was reading this WSJ story, it reminded me of the analogies to Atanu’s RISC model – a cluster of services offered on a common platform for a distributed (geographically spread) populace so that the cost of doing business comes down for all the service providers:

Nine years ago, James Chih-Cheng Chen built what he calls America’s first “master-planned Chinatown” [on a vacant lot a mile from the Strip in Las Vegas] — and, on the way, helped take immigrant enterprise into new territory. Mr. Chen and a few others, mostly East Asians with capital, have come up with an angle that lets middle-class immigrants move away from the coasts and into America’s inland car culture without leaving their own cultures behind.

These investors have brought to life what might be called the ethnic commercial enclave, a cross between the regional mall and the corner store. Because their customers live scattered in unsegregated subdivisions, instant-Asia shopping centers can park anyplace where the rent is low and the drive-time reasonable. These commercial spaces are taking on all the intimate social functions of the old immigrant neighborhood. The neighborhood is the only thing missing.

Rice-loving shoppers from the suburbs are driving to about 70 stand-alone Asian shopping centers on the coasts — not only in New York and Los Angeles, but Seattle, Baltimore and Miami — and to about 50 in such mid-American cities as Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

Capital flowing in from East Asia, itself already full of giant malls, is the main force at work here, along with masses of well-paid immigrants. The U.S. now has 12 million Asians. Their buying power, pegged by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, is $344 billion. In 20 states, Asians make up between 2% and 6% of the population: too few to congregate, perhaps, but enough to ignite a demand for very fresh fish.

Mr. Chen learned that early on. His Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza opened for business in 1995. By 1998, it was complete: an imperial arch on Spring Mountain Road; a golden statue of Xuan Zang’s “Journey to the West” in the parking lot; and a two-tiered shopping center under tiled roofs with dragons at every tip. By mall measures, the plaza is an 85,000-square-foot mini. But it has nine restaurants, shops with Asian goods from jade to ginseng, and an anchor supermarket where tree-ear fungus outsells Cheez Whiz. The place is usually jammed with Asians. In a desert city fixated on fantasy, Chinatown Plaza has matured into an oasis of authenticity.

In suburban Los Angeles or New Jersey, and the old urban enclaves of New York or San Francisco, Asian districts encircle Asian malls. In Las Vegas and young cities like it, the ghettos are gone. Hispanics, more numerous and less affluent, still cluster, but Asians often migrate from the coasts and integrate economically before they arrive. Along with the many others who move to Las Vegas each year, Asians are buying houses in the developments that are advancing into the desert like pink-stucco lava flows. Still, they’re rarely more than 10 miles from Chinatown Plaza.

India needs microcities in rural India – this is where RISC comes in.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.