A mod­ern look for Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town

Move over dragons, red col­umns and green roofs, Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town is get­ting a sleek and mod­ern makeover, re­ports in Hous­ton.

China Daily (Canada) - - DEPTH -

In 1998, Jesse Wu and his wife opened the Jun­gle Café in DIHO Square, one of the ear­li­est shop­ping malls built in Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town. They moved to Dun Huang Plaza in the heart of Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town a few years ago.

Spa­cious, light, and clean­lined, the re­lo­cated patis­serie with “splen­didly el­e­gant and mod­ern­ized de­sign”, as one re­viewer de­scribed it, doesn’t dis­play a de­sign that is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Chi­nese, just like the ar­chi­tec­ture of the Dun Huang Plaza.

“The de­sign was my idea. We kept and washed the orig­i­nal brick wall and pipe­lines on one side to give the place a nat­u­ral look. The seat­ing and dec­o­ra­tion are sim­ple,” said Wu. “At the pre­vi­ous lo­ca­tion, our cus­tomers were pri­mar­ily Chi­nese and some other Asians. Now, one-third to half of our busi­ness is from nonAsian cus­tomers.”

The in­te­rior de­sign change at the Jun­gle Café and at other restau­rants and busi­nesses re­flects change on a larger scale as ex­hib­ited by the style of shop­ping cen­ters and busi­ness build­ings that make up Chi­na­town. The area stretches 10 square miles with most busi­nesses in 2.3 square miles.

In the past, most restau­rant own­ers in Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town would just paint the walls, put down ta­bles and chairs, hang up a few paint­ings and call it done. They have come a long way from then, and now the move is to a more mod­ern look, out­side and in­side, and of­ten with­out or with just a min­i­mum of Chi­nese el­e­ments.

“Now most would seek a themed de­sign with uni­formed style. They care about the aes­thetic as­pect of the place more than be­fore,” said Zhang Fan, an in­te­rior de­signer with an art de­gree.

Han­lin Zhu, who holds a de­sign de­gree from Sichuan Fine Arts In­sti­tute, said that in the past typ­i­cal Chi­nese el­e­ments such as cherry wood fur­ni­ture, dragons and phoenixes were widely used in in­te­rior de­sign.

‘Mod­ern look’

“Hardly any­one asks for that when it comes to de­sign,’’ she said. “They want a more mod­ern look, and if they de­sire some Chi­nese el­e­ment, it’s pre­sented in a more el­e­gant and un­der­tone fash­ion — such as sparse use of the colors yel­low or red, or a mod­ern ver­sion of tra­di­tional lat­ticed win­dows, usu­ally in har­mony with a mod­ern set­ting.”

“Most new busi­ness own­ers now are young peo­ple in their 30s. They are ei­ther sec­ond gen­er­a­tion born here or em­i­grated from China with some money. Many of them are well-ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als with good taste. They are more fash­ion­able and mod­ern with new ideas,” said Zhu.

Ed­ward Tsao, a lo­cal ar­chi­tect from Tai­wan, has ex­ten­sive knowl­edge of the trans­for­ma­tion in style and taste of Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town.

“When I first came here to study ar­chi­tec­ture at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton in 1981, the first and only ma­jor Chi­nese restau­rant was the Golden Palace on Bel­laire Boule­vard. It’s still in busi­ness to­day. Its dec­o­ra­tion is tra­di­tion­ally Chi­nese — a red wall with a pair of phoenix painted in gold and colors, just like many other Chi­nese restau­rants dur­ing that time,” said Tsao.

DIHO Plaza, the first Chi­na­town shop­ping cen­ter, was built in 1983. The L-shaped one- story struc­ture was de­signed by the son of one of the devel­op­ers.

“At that time the gen­eral de­sign con­cept was that a Chi­na­town in a ma­jor US city needed to have some Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics. So it sports red col­umns and a roof made of green cylin­der tiles spe­cially im­ported from China,” said Tsao.

The sec­ond shop­ping cen­ter was the Dy­nasty Plaza. It was de­signed by a Hong Kong ar­chi­tect who used a more mod­ern style to present a clean im­age of Chi­na­town, which has been im­proved on ever since. The two-story mall used mod­ern bricks and mod­ern form; over­all ap­peal­ing and pleas­ing to the eyes with­out strong Chi­nese el­e­ments. “How­ever, it’s too small,” said Tsao.

In be­tween those de­vel­op­ments, ex­ist­ing Amer­i­can­shop­ping malls and of­fice build­ings were pur­chased by Chi­nese that in­creased the size of Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town.

The next two ma­jor shop­ping cen­ters to be con­structed — Hong Kong City Mall and Ster­ling Plaza — still re­flect the devel­op­ers’ Chi­nese roots. Hong Kong City Mall com­bined a green roof façade and red col­umns on the ground floor with a steel and glass mod­ern style for the sec­ond floor. A cou­ple of Chi­nese pav­il­ion styled arches dec­o­rate the huge park­ing lot.

Ster­ling Plaza’s Chi­nese el­e­ment is less prom­i­nent. Red col­umns have been aban­doned in fa­vor of a mod­ern look, but there is a dec­o­ra­tive green roof with a cou­ple of oc­tagon-shaped roof struc­tures much like the tra­di­tional Chi­nese pav­il­ion roof but in a sim­pli­fied ver­sion.

Tsao de­signed the Cor­po­rate Of­fice Plaza that was built in 2005.

“It’s a pro­fes­sional of­fice com­plex built with mod­ern con­crete tilt. The de­sign is sim­ple and clean to give a pro­fes­sional feel. Red awnings and lat­ticed win­dows were used to give it a hint of Chi­nese feel,” he said.

While the Jun­gle Café is com­pletely mod­ern with­out a hint of Chi­nese fla­vor, the Mon­go­lian Hot­pot, a fon­due restau­rant chain from China, uses Chi­nese el­e­ments in a taste­ful and mod­ern style.

The Hot­pot has two lo­ca­tions. Most cus­tomers at its Chi­na­town lo­ca­tion are Asian, while the one out­side of Chi­na­town gets half its busi­ness from non-Asians, ac­cord­ing to Dan Wong, man­ager of the Chi­na­town lo­ca­tion.

Atyp­i­cal of the av­er­age Chi­nese restau­rant, the Hot­pot’s kitchen can be seen by cus­tomers through a big glass panel.

“We are con­fi­dent enough about the qual­ity of our ser­vice that we left the kitchen vis­i­ble for all to see what’s be­ing done there,” said Wong.

Zhang de­signed the fon­due restau­rant in Chi­na­town. It fea­tures typ­i­cal Chi­nese color of red and gold doors with lat­ticed win­dows. The art of cal­lig­ra­phy is also vis­i­ble but pre­sented as wall pa­per, not as hang­ing pieces of art as in the tra­di­tional Chi­nese style.

Rus­tic wood pan­el­ing and grey brick walls give the restau­rant a nat­u­ral look. The mod­ern treat­ment of Chi­nese cul­tural el­e­ments is well meshed with Western-style white ta­bles and black leather chairs.

“Now most of them would seek a themed de­sign with uni­forme style. They care about the aes­thetic as­pect of the place more than be­fore,” said Zhang.

Drop­ping the past

Zhu has been do­ing com­mer­cial in­te­rior de­sign for busi­nesses for more than a decade, and he said what clients want now is quite dif­fer­ent from the past.

The largest ad­di­tion to Chi­na­town has been the Dun Huang Plaza on roughly 10 acres of land. It was de­velop in three stages dur­ing the first decade of the new mil­len­nium.

Dun Huang was nicely done, said Tsao.

“Its de­sign was com­pletely mod­ern with­out any Chi­nese el­e­ment. The stone panel, mold­ing, steel rail­ing and red brick exter­ior cost a lot of ex­tra money, but it’s very pleas­ing to the eyes and gives Chi­na­town a whole new im­age,” said Tsao.

Be­sides shop­ping malls, two other ma­jor struc­tures have played a role in shap­ing the im­age of Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town — the Golden Bank build­ing and the Amer­i­can First Na­tional Bank (AFNB) build­ing, both on the newly im­proved seven-lane Bel­laire Boule­vard, and only a cou­ple of blocks away from each other. The 12-story AFNB is the tallest struc­ture in Chi­na­town.

Both build­ings were the brain­chil­dren of Henry Wu, founder and chair­man of AFNB, and a ma­jor share­holder in the Golden Bank.

The Golden Bank was formed in 1985 by a small group of Chi­nese im­mi­grants mostly from Tai­wan. Wu, a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer who made money from im­port­ing and ex­port­ing plas­tic ma­te­ri­als, took con­trol of the bank in 1992. Then its to­tal as­sets were $50 mil­lion.

“At that time I had in mind to build a land­mark build­ing in Chi­na­town, and I thought it would be good for busi­ness be­cause I do think im­age is im­por­tant,” said Wu.

The Golden Bank build­ing, de­signed by ar­chi­tect C. C. Lee, is a rec­tan­gu­lar three­story steel and glass struc­ture. While mod­ern, it in­cor­po­rated the typ­i­cal Chi­nese el­e­ment of red col­umns and an arched front. When first built, an an­cient Chi­nese — a cir­cle with a square hole in the cen­ter — in red was used to dec­o­rate the build­ing.

“We moved into the new build­ing in March 1995. It be­came a land­mark build­ing in Chi­na­town. By 1997 when I left, the bank’s as­sets had in­creased to $300 mil­lion,” said Wu.

Af­ter leav­ing the Golden Bank, Wu started AFNB. He said that his ex­pe­ri­ence at Golden Bank con­firmed his be­lief that cor­po­rate im­age is valu­able to busi­ness.

“I spent a lot time on AFNB be­cause I wanted to make it a great bank. To achieve that goal, I thought to build this high-rise struc­ture as AFNB’s head­quar­ters,” said Wu.

Wu man­aged to ac­quire 2.6 acres of land on a prime lo­ca­tion off Bel­laire. Af­ter years of plan­ning and wait­ing for the right mar­ket con­di­tions, the $28 mil­lion AFNB build­ing was com­pleted in 2007. De­signed by a ma­jor ar­chi­tec­ture firm EDI, it’s a typ­i­cal mod­ern high-rise de­void of Chi­nese de­sign el­e­ments.

It turned out that there was a high de­mand for of­fice space in a qual­ity pro­fes­sional build­ing in Chi­na­town — be­fore the build­ing was com­pleted, ex­cept for the four floors re­served for the bank, the rest of the space was sold to in­di­vid­ual busi­nesses be­fore con­struc­tion was com­pleted.

AFNB’s asse ts have in­creased to $1.2 bil­lion from $500 mil­lion in 2007, ac­cord­ing to Wu. “All our branches were de­signed to have a uni­form style to re­flect our cor­po­rate im­age,” said Wu, adding that be­sides four branches in Hous­ton out­side of Chi­na­town, AFNB op­er­ates an ad­di­tional seven branches in Dal­las and three in Ne­vada.

“Some­times on my way to the golf course over the week­end in the early morn­ing, I get to see the AFNB build­ing ra­di­at­ing a golden sun­light re­flec­tion on Belt­way 8. It looks so beau­ti­ful. My idea of cor­po­rate im­age meshes with a bet­ter im­age for Chi­na­town, it has worked out very well,” said Wu.

The de­sign changes in Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town, said Ed­ward Tsao, mean that the men­tal­ity of to­day’s Chi­nese is quite dif­fer­ent.

“I think this is be­cause Chi­nese are be­gin­ning to feel strong in our hearts. We no longer find it nec­es­sary to em­pha­size our eth­nic char­ac­ter­is­tics. Peo­ple com­ing here know that they are com­ing to Chi­na­town, and we feel we don’t need to flash our iden­tity with our an­ces­tral home’s red col­umns or green roofs any­more,” said Tsao.

‘Busi­ness with style’

He said that many welle­d­u­cated Chi­nese pro­fes­sion­als that have ar­rived in Hous­ton since the 1980s have made money and be­come quite suc­cess­ful. “They be­gan to do busi­ness with style,” he said.

Grow­ing up in a more open China, peo­ple are more ac­cept­ing of Western ideas and aes­thet­ics, less cling­ing to old tra­di­tions of China, Tsao said. “They are bolder and dare to dream big­ger.”

Now Chi­na­town at­tracts more non-Asians with its newer and shinier im­age. Prior to the open­ing of Dun Huang Plaza, one would spot a few non-Asians eat­ing at a Chi­nese restau­rant, mostly with their Asian friends, date or spouse.

To­day, a ca­sual stroll in Dun Huang Plaza, which is de­signed as pedes­trian friendly, shows it’s a big draw for non-Asians.

It has be­come so pop­u­lar that it got a rave cri­tique by one Yelp re­viewer named Justin Ashar.

“I love the Dun Huang Plaza. I come here very of­ten whether it’s to eat good food, hang out at one of the many bub­ble tea shops, or to get a $20 foot mas­sage,” Ashar said. “There are some other cool lit­tle stores in this plaza where you can buy gifts, get baked goods, or even shop at a Ja­panese house­hold prod­ucts store called Fit, which is like an Asian-style dol­lar store. At night­time, you will also find a few bars, a place to play pool, and even sing karaoke.”

Con­tact the writer at mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa. com

PHOTOS BY MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

The de­sign of the Dun Huang Plaza, built in 2000s with the AFNB build­ing in the back­ground, is com­pletely mod­ern with­out any Chi­nese el­e­ment, says ar­chi­tect Ed­ward Tsao. Ed­ward Tsao, ar­chi­tect in Hous­ton

The Western-styled Jun­gle Café and Chi­nese-styled Mon­go­lian Hot­pot rep­re­sent the cur­rent de­sign fo­cus at many of to­day’s busi­nesses in Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town.

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