I often joke that this place is a whole ecosystem,” Sharon Hwang says. “We have the 99 Ranch Market, the salon, all the restaurants, the bakery, book store, travel agency … We want to make sure it’s a one-stop shop.”
We’re talking about Chinatown Plaza, the dining and retail center that’s easily the most visually striking element in our city’s Chinatown district. Las Vegas’ Chinatown—in actuality a mix of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and many other influences, a true international district—is kind of a miracle; it didn’t exist a little more than 25 years ago. It began when three partners—Henry Hwang, K.C. Chen and James Chen—wanted to make a place where Asian tourists could go to get a good meal. What they built was a seven-acre-plus mini-district in the style of the Emperor’s Palace, with pagoda-style ceramic-tiled roofs, a paifang entrance gate and a towering gold statue inspired by the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West. It began opening in phases in 1993, with a grand opening in February 1995.
Sharon Hwang, the vice president of Chinatown Plaza, is Henry Hwang’s daughter. She’s fiercely proud of what her father built, pointing out ornate etchings in the windows and noting that the roof tiles, imported from Taiwan, are ceramic; that’s how they hold their color in the relentless Vegas sun. “When you do something right,” she says, “it lasts forever.”
She’s right in more ways than one. Chinatown Plaza proved to be the inspiration for a neighborhood that now covers roughly three miles of Spring Mountain Road, from Valley View to Rainbow. It boasts dozens of restaurants, many of which rank among the city’s best. It features some terrific-looking built environments—a result of other strip malls adopting Chinatown Plaza’s Tang dynasty look for their own. And it has an innate feeling of community, of history. Chinatown feels rooted and real in a way few other upstart Vegas neighborhoods do. (Looking at you, Fremont East; sorry not sorry.)
But I used the word miracle earlier, and here it is: Until the recent opening of the Green Leaf Lotus luxury apartments at Spring Mountain and Valley View, no one really lived in Chinatown proper. Sure, there are neighborhoods abutting Chinatown (I used to live in one of them, two blocks north on Arville Street), but Chinatown didn’t arise from those surrounding homes and apartments; Las Vegas’ Asian population—which, by the by, grew 116 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census—isn’t really centralized in one area. Vegas’ Chinatown grew organically, yes, but from an idea.
That idea is now easily this city’s hottest off-Strip destination, and a likely candidate for more medium-density housing like Green Leaf Lotus. The district is growing so fast that a new, 80,000-square foot retail and office center—Shanghai Plaza, from China-based developer Shanghai Hui De Real Estate—has sprung up practically unnoticed; it soft-opens in late Spring, with at least 15 new restaurants. (Property manager Gary Chan says Shanghai Plaza is part of the company’s plan “to renovate all the Chinatowns in the U.S.” Las Vegas is the first build of a multi-part project that also includes New York, Seattle and LA.)
Sharon Hwang isn’t worried about challengers. “We love everybody, all our neighbors,” she says. Like many of us, she’s excited by the possibilities a fully built-out Chinatown might bring. “I bet Spring Mountain will become very competitive [for restaurants], and only the good restaurants will stay,” she says. “That’s how it is in Asia; there’s a street or district that’s … not the most high-end, but the most authentic cuisine. When people hear ‘Spring Mountain Road,’ they’ll know that’s good food.”
I’ll go further: I think Chinatown has what it takes to become one of our first dense neighborhoods. It’s close enough to the Strip for service industry folk to leave their cars parked at home, and it’s already got the markets and services that Downtown can’t seem to get started. The only drawbacks are traffic—Spring Mountain is just six skinny lanes across—and a dearth of parking in some areas. But Vegas always seems to find a way to let out its seams where business requires it.
And Chinatown Plaza will forever be at the center of it all. On February 17, the Plaza will observe the Chinese New Year with a giant outdoor party, its 25th. Las Vegans will come out en masse to begin the Year of the Pig; they’ll eat, watch live performances and learn new things about the neighborhood. But above all, they’ll celebrate together as a community that, in just 25 years, managed to build something organic and great.
Up on Chinatown Plaza’s second-floor balcony, Hwang looks out over the neighborhood and smiles. “There’s just so much good energy here,” she says.