Hous­ton’s SW Chi­na­town

Hous­ton, the fourth-largest city in the United States, has the big­gest Asian pop­u­la­tion in the South. The first Chi­na­town was east of down­town, but to­day the south­west area of the city has emerged as the New Chi­na­town, re­ports MAY ZHOU from Hous­ton.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

It looks like any other busy com­mer­cial street in Hous­ton or ma­jor US me­trop­o­lis, with one ex­cep­tion: most signs, in­clud­ing street names, are ei­ther in Chi­nese or bilin­gual, un­mis­tak­ably an­nounc­ing you have ar­rived at SW Chi­na­town, aka the New Chi­na­town.

Its broad streets, open space and clean­ness defy the pre­con­cep­tion — nar­row streets, crowded space, mys­te­ri­ous at­mos­phere or ex­otic­ness – most peo­ple have formed from other Chi­na­towns in places such as New York and San Francisco.

The orig­i­nal Chi­na­town, started by older gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese im­mi­grants pri­mar­ily from south China, con­sisted of small shops and some restau­rants along St. Emanuel and a cou­ple of ad­ja­cent streets in south­east­ern down­town. It has been in steady de­cline since 1980s.

To­day, only a few Asian whole­sale busi­nesses still ex­ist there while part of it is be­ing re­de­vel­oped into mod­ern and hip­pie res­i­den­tial parcels.

Of­ten, out­siders and new com­ers mar­vel at Hous­ton’s SW Chi­na­town when they first take a drive down Bel­laire Boule­vard west­ward from Gess­ner. Along the newly com­pleted seven-lane thor­ough­fare and lin­ing both sides are shop­ping cen­ters with big Chi­nese su­per­mar­kets as the an­chor stores, of­fice build­ings, banks and apart­ments. And in be­tween, one can spot a non-Chi­nese pri­vate col­lege prepara­tory school, a Wells Fargo branch and a Hal­libur­ton cor­po­rate com­plex. Defind­ing the bound­ary

There are dif­fer­ent opin­ions as how to de­fine the bound­ary of Hous­ton’s SW Chi­na­town. The most au­thor­i­ta­tive def­i­ni­tion comes from the Asian Amer­i­can Business Coun­cil (AABC), a non-profit civic or­ga­ni­za­tion started by a group of Chi­na­town com­mer­cial prop­erty own­ers, de­vel­op­ers, bankers and business own­ers in 2005 with a goal to pro­mote SW Chi­na­town, im­prove its safety and beau­tify the area.

Ac­cord­ing to Ken­neth Li, chair­man of AABC as well as the owner of South­west 21 Cen­tury and DIHO Square, SW Chi­na­town is bounded by Gess­ner to the east and Eldrige to the west — roughly a five-mile stretch; and about two miles long be­tween West­park and Beech­nut from north to south, mak­ing it one of the largest mo­tor-cen­tric Chi­na­towns of more than 10 square miles in the US.

Di­vided by Belt­way 8, SW Chi­na­town is split into two ma­jor sec­tions: the east sec­tion falls into the Greater Sharp­stown Man­age­ment Dis­trict (GSMD), while the west sec­tion falls into the In­ter­na­tional Dis­trict (ID). The SW Chin­town in GSMD is only a mile long along Bel­laire with an area of merely 2.3 square miles, but this is the first and most de­vel­oped sec­tion of SW Chi­na­town. Li calls this the “Golden Zone” of Chi­na­town with the most con­cen­trated Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can owned business and prop­er­ties. Asian pop­u­la­tion

Chi­nese, re­gard­less of where they are, seem to stub­bornly cling to their na­tive cuisines. To meet their gas­tro­nom­i­cal need, Chi­nese restau­rants open wher­ever they go.

And as Hous­ton’s Asian pop­u­la­tion grows — the 2010 US Cen­sus put that fig­ure at 6 per­cent of the city’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 2,195,914 — Asian gro­cery stores and su­per­mar­kets pop up to meet their home cook­ing needs. Not sur­pris­ingly, Hous­ton SW Chi­na­town started with a shop­ping cen­ter where a Chi­nese su­per­mar­ket is the fo­cal point.

In 1981, D. T. Wong, orig­i­nally from Hong Kong, came to Hous­ton from Los An­ge­les look­ing for new op­por­tu­ni­ties. “The down­town Chi­na­town was full and there was no space for us to get in, so we chose SW Hous­ton and built DIHO Asian Mar­ket in 1983,” said Wong’s nephew Ken­neth Li, who came to Hous­ton as a col­lege stu­dent with Wong.

Com­monly known as DIHO Plaza, it was a joint en­deavor by Wong with lo­cal de­vel­op­ers. The L-shaped DIHO Plaza was based on a Hong Kong model with a su­per­mar­ket as the an­chor store and smaller spa­ces for restau­rants, ser­vices or of­fices. The to­tal space was 14,000 square feet.

Li said Wong chose SW Hous­ton be­cause in the early 1980s Hous­ton was boom­ing with an oil in­dus­try and this area was pop­u­lated with mid­dle-class pro­fes­sion­als. “DIHO Su­per­mar­ket was packed on its open­ing day,” Li re­called. It soon re­placed down­town Chi­na­town’s smaller su­per­mar­kets and be­came the pri­mary stop for Chi­nese im­mi­grants. The seed for SW Chi­na­town was planted with the open­ing of DIHO Plaza.

The oil boom soon at­tracted another Chi­nese de­vel­oper, Hong Changrui from Sin­ga­pore. Hong bought five acres at the cor­ner of Bel­laire and Cor­po­rate and built an air-con­di­tioned in­door mall along with a su­per­mar­ket.

The Dy­nasty Mall was com­pleted and launched in 1987. To­day, one can find a bank, restau­rants, beauty salon, book­store and var­i­ous types of re­tail business inside. Some busi­nesses, in­clud­ing the Dy­nasty Su­per­mar­ket, opened when the mall was com­pleted and still re­main there to­day. DIHO Square

In 1987, Wong and Li bought an ex­ist­ing shop­ping cen­ter on Bel­laire east of Ranch­ester and re­named it DIHO Square. Another ma­jor su­per­mar­ket Wel­come was opened there to ac­com­mo­date the grow­ing need of more and more Chi­nese and Asian im­mi­grants. Later, ex­tra re­tail space was added to the DIHO Square.

In less than five years, three Chi­nese su­per­mar­kets and shop­ping cen­ters opened within a quar­ter mile of each other and all on the north side of Bel­laire. Smaller shop­ping cen­ters and of­fice space are grad­u­ally be­ing built by or near them, spread­ing out like a fan.

Ac­cord­ing to Christie Qin, vi­cepres­i­dent of South­ern Chi­nese Daily News and a veteran com­mu­nity jour­nal­ist since the early 1980s, dur­ing the same pe­riod the Viet­name­seChi­nese op­er­ated su­per­mar­ket Viet Hoa Food Mar­ket moved to the SW Chi­na­town on Beech­nut at Gess­ner from down­town in 1984, and the first and smaller Hong Kong Food Mar­ket was opened at the cor­ner of Har­win and Gess­ner in 1987. SW Chi­na­town started to take shape

Then the oil bust hap­pened in late 1980s. How­ever, this ac­tu­ally helped SW Chi­na­town to fur­ther de­velop. Ac­cord­ing to Li, “The sharp drop of real es­tate pro­vided the out-of­s­tate Chi­nese Amer­i­can in­vestors with op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­ter the lo­cal mar­ket. When econ­omy goes well, bought Metro Bank a year ago.

By Tai’s ac­count, when Hai Du Duong, owner of Hong Kong City Mall (HKCM) came to him for a loan in the mid 1990s, the needed amount was $16 mil­lion. Metro Bank was only able to loan $5 mil­lion. To get the HKCM project go­ing, Tai helped Duong se­cure loans from banks in other ci­ties and Tai­wan. Years later, Metro Bank also fi­nanced the con­struc­tion of Dun Huang Plaza.

To­day, at and around the in­ter­sec­tion of Bel­laire and Cor­po­rate, nine Chi­nese-Amer­i­can owned banks and five branches of main­stream banks are in op­er­a­tion, mak­ing it the high­est den­sity of banks in Hous­ton. By AABC’s es­ti­mate, the Chi­nese-Amer­i­can owned banks have com­bined as­sets of $35 bil­lion. “We call this in­ter­sec­tion the Wall Street of Chi­na­town,” said Li.

Li pointed out that com­mer­cial business is not the only part of Chi­na­town. “We have com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Chi­nese Com­mu­nity Cen­ter, the Chi­nese Civic Cen­ter, nu­mer­ous Chi­nese schools, re­tire­ment home like Rainbow Vil­lage, re­li­gious groups such as Teo Chew Tem­ple, Jade Bud­dha Tem­ple, Tzu Chi and oth­ers. One thing leads to another, Chi­na­town de­vel­op­ment has been snow­balling, get­ting big­ger and big­ger in less than 30 years,” he said.

Me­dia also played a vi­tal role in Chi­na­town’s de­vel­op­ment. Of more than 10 news­pa­pers, South­ern News Group emerged as the big­gest me­dia with a daily news­pa­per, a 24-hour TV sta­tion and Chi­nese Yel­low Page as the pri­mary in­for­ma­tion source for the Chi­nese com­mu­nity. Reach beyond Chi­na­town

In 2000 Sharp­stown Re­de­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity (SRA) was sanc­tioned by the city, a joint ef­fort by Chi­na­town and main­stream de­vel­op­ers. Li served on its board from 2000-2011.

Li worked at the City of Hous­ton Plan­ning Com­mis­sion for a few years and learned first hand that lo­cal de­vel­op­ment would fare bet­ter by work­ing with gov­ern­ment and other com­mu­nity groups. Through SRA, the city gives back a por­tion of in­creased tax rev­enue from prop­erty ap­pre­ci­a­tion to the lo­cal com­mu­nity for fur­ther de­vel­op­ment.

With funds from the city to SRA, Li and other business peo­ple suc­cess­fully lob­bied the city to up­date the main road of Chi­na­town Bel­laire.

“The road re­con­struc­tion cost $30 mil­lion. The Chi­na­town sec­tion of Bel­laire has never been re­done for 30 years. By re­vamp­ing the road, we make Chi­na­town more beau­ti­ful to at­tract more in­vest­ment and raise its prop­erty value,” Li said.

In 2005, Li and other lo­cal business peo­ple suc­cess­fully lob­bied the Texas Leg­is­la­ture to es­tab­lish the Greater Sharp­stown Man­age­ment Dis­trict (GSMD), a 10-square-mile gov­ern­ment en­tity aimed at en­hanc­ing the phys­i­cal, so­cial, and eco­nomic well be­ing of the Sharp­stown com­mu­nity with funds con­sist­ing of small fees col­lected from all busi­nesses. Roughly 30 per­cent is spent on se­cu­rity and 30 per­cent on beau­ti­fi­ca­tion. Li serves as chair­man of the board of direc­tors.

“I think now Hous­ton’s SW Chi­na­town has en­tered the fourth phase of de­vel­op­ment with the open­ing of di­rect flights be­tween Beijing and Hous­ton. This makes Hous­ton a gate­way to China main­land and brings in more new im­mi­grants from there,” Li said.

Air China started di­rect Hous­tonBei­jing ser­vice in July 2013, ini­tially four flights a week. How­ever, higher than ex­pected de­mand soon prompted the car­rier to ex­pand ser­vice to a daily ba­sis in March 2014.

Li said that in­vest­ment from the Chi­nese main­land has started to come in but has not taken shape in Chi­na­town yet.

“Ci­ties like New York, San Francisco are fully de­vel­oped and have lit­tle space to ex­pand. How­ever, Hous­ton still has room to grow; there is op­por­tu­nity for them to be pi­o­neers. Also, with a strong lo­cal econ­omy, we don’t nec­es­sar­ily need for­eign funds for de­vel­op­ment,” he said. Con­tact the writer at mayzhou@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

PHO­TOS BY MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

The Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment’s Chi­na­town sta­tion has been staffed by three bilin­gual po­lice­men since the early 1990s. The of­fice is pro­vided by D. T. Wong for free as a ser­vice to Chi­na­town.

The cor­ner of Dun Huang Plaza with the Amer­i­can First Na­tional Bank Build­ing – the tallest struc­ture in SW Chi­na­town - loom­ing over in the back on Bel­laire Boule­vard.

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