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ASIANTOWN : Commercial-Cultural Complex Expected to Anchor Southland's Next Chinatown

March 16, 1987|DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writer

Frank Jao and Tony Lam have a vision.

When they look down Bolsa Avenue near its intersection with Bushard Street in Westminster, they see a huge commercial and cultural complex that, when completed, will cover 20 acres and house 440 retail shops. They describe it as an anchor for Southern California's next Chinatown--and "Little Saigon" just doesn't express the reach of the dream.

"We want to call our community Asiantown--not 'Little Saigon,' which is too negative and reminds people of the bad experiences from the (Vietnam) war," said Lam, a leader in Orange County's Southeast Asian community and former president of the county's Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

Financed by wealthy Taiwanese and local Indochinese investors, the $30-million development is intended to be a cultural center for Southeast Asians and a commercial magnet for the county, say Jao and Lam, drawing shoppers from miles around, just as does Los Angeles' Chinatown 40 miles to the north.

There are those who caution that there are hazards in too much ethnic commercial growth too quickly in an area previously dominated by blue-collar, white residents. But most of the reaction to Jao's grand scheme--from Westminster's City Hall to the shops along Bolsa Avenue--seems to be positive. And already the vision is well on its way to becoming reality.

Jao launched the first phase of his project in 1985, when he opened a shopping center called Asian Village in the 9200 block of Bolsa Avenue with 160 shops and restaurants. Directly across Bolsa Avenue, to the south, is the next phase: Asian Gardens, a 150,000-square-foot pagoda-like structure that Jao says is within two months of completion. Already, he says, nearly 90% of the building has been leased.

Once completed, the huge, two-story structure will house 200 boutiques, ethnic shops and cafes. Four main restaurants will cover 4,000 to 16,000 square feet each, and there will be an additional banquet area for 2,000 people.

Custom oil paintings, handmade tiles and restaurant decorations are being imported from Taiwan. To help promote cultural activities, there is a performing stage surrounded by a water pond.

City officials in Westminster, where there has been some friction in recent years between longtime white residents and the quickly expanding Southeast Asian population, are supportive of Jao's plans, largely because of the anticipated tax revenue the project would bring to the financially strapped municipality, Mayor Elden Gillespie said.

"Their money is the same as anyone else's," Gillespie said. "Asiantown will bring a lot of people, and anybody that wants to develop Westminster--well, I love them."

John M. Liu, a professor of comparative culture at UC Irvine, is among those who sound a word of caution about the possible repercussions of such rapid growth, pointing by way of example to hard feelings in recent years in Monterey Park between white residents and a rapidly growing Chinese population there. In that city, Liu said, there have been numerous incidents of racially motivated vandalism, arson and "some Klan activity."

"In some ways the area resembles Monterey Park due to the rapid progress and ethnic change," Liu said.

The growth along the stretch of Bolsa Avenue in Garden Grove and Westminster that has come to be known as Little Saigon has been fast, furious and somewhat unfocused. Before 1978, large sections of Bolsa Avenue were lined with bean fields and half-empty shopping centers. But a rapid influx of Indochinese immigrants changed all that, and by 1984 more than 200 shops and restaurants owned by transplanted Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian merchants covered the area. This year, that number is expected to reach 760, according to Jao.

The sprawling shopping district is a major commercial center for Orange County's estimated 100,000 Southeast Asian immigrants--the largest such concentration in the country.

To some, Asian Gardens is the next step in a natural progression of growth for the area.

"Building the area is like building a beautiful house," said Winston Luu, a computer sales executive in Santa Ana, "At first you invite people to come in, but you don't have the right furniture yet. But slowly but surely you make it comfortable for everybody."

Said Bill Hong, who has owned and operated the Hong Kong Low Restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown for 31 years: "Vietnamese have been so successful with their shopping malls they now need to put a place like Chinatown in Orange County. And instead of catering to Vietnamese only, it's much better to have a lot of people come from all over the state to visit."

David Lee, owner of General Lee's Restaurant in Chinatown and a prominent figure of that community's Chinese immigrant era, said: "We're not the eager beavers like the Vietnamese. It took us years, more than a century to build Chinatown. These Vietnamese are so successful they'll probably build theirs in a decade."

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