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How renovation of an iconic Chinese mall represents a shift in L.A.’s Chinese community

Affectionately known as Chinese Disneyland, San Gabriel’s Focus Plaza has always lived up to its nickname.

The giant Chinese strip mall, anchored by a Chinese grocery store, features restaurants on two levels, jewelry stores and ginseng shops, culminating in a multi-story department store and dim sum restaurant on the top floor. The expansive car park can fit more than a thousand cars, making finding a space never seemed so easy.

The plaza’s opening in 1990 indicated that the center of Southern California’s Chinese community had shifted east from Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. But now owner Tawa, who runs the Ranch 99 supermarket chain, is planning a renovation that will transform Focus Plaza into a more modern, affluent commercial center similar to those in Irvine, Pasadena and Costa Mesa.

“It’s this shift from fake California Mediterranean to ultra-modern design chic that’s probably more how modern Chinese immigrants and second-generation Asian Americans see themselves,” said James Zarsadiaz, a history professor at the University of San Francisco and author of a recent book about the San Gabriel Valley called ‘Resisting Change in Suburbia’.

Esthetician Linging Chen, right, gives Dora Becerra a facial at Eve Aesthetics in Focus Plaza.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The new environment reflects the changing nature of a Chinese community that is another generation removed from Chinatown, said Walnut resident Zarsadiaz. Cultural and economic ties to the homeland are still strong, but staff in these new malls are likely to speak English, non-Chinese businesses and customers are common, and it’s no longer the only place in town for boba.

The renovation comes at a time when Chinese tourism to Southern California is in sharp decline thanks to pandemic travel restrictions, concerns about racism and deteriorating US-China relations. Ginseng and gift shops, hotels and jewelry stores can no longer count on regular busloads of Chinese visitors. Chinese tourism spending in Los Angeles County fell to $693 million in 2020 from $3.9 billion in 2019. And tighter limits on international investment have reduced the flow of Chinese capital in California to a trickle.

Longtime visitors to the square like Kristie Hang say it has long been in need of an update. Irvine, Pasadena and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa are now attracting the most popular new restaurant openings from Asia, said Hang, a San Gabriel Valley native and local food expert.

Irvine beats us. (Focus Plaza) used to be that one plaza where you could do anything,” Hang said. “But it really hasn’t changed much since the ’90s.”

On weekends it can still be difficult to find parking, but during the week it can get so quiet that footsteps and voices echo in the square’s courtyard.

A chef prepares duck in a restaurant.

A chef prepares duck for indoor dining at HK VIP Kitchen in San Gabriel’s Focus Plaza.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

I was in seventh grade when I first visited Focus Plaza on a family trip to colleges in Southern California. Later, as a beat reporter in the San Gabriel Valley, 8090 Boba Avenue became my satellite office, where I strained to hear my interview recordings over the merry roar of Mandopop. I spent many hours combing through the storefronts, trying to decipher the confusing area diagram, which looked more like Ikea furniture instructions than a map.

There I learned that the key to understanding the idiosyncratic commercial makeup of immigrant shopping malls is understanding that they are not only in retail, but also in nostalgia.

Immigrant DVD and VHS rental stores have survived Blockbuster and Hollywood Video because Netflix doesn’t have Mandarin karaoke DVDs or movies from when Chinese star Andy Lau was a young heartthrob. There are a dozen different Chinese restaurants because there are Chinese immigrants from a dozen different regions, who prefer their dumplings and noodle soups dozens of different ways. Property and business owners set prices and rents not only to maximize profits, but also so that people in their communities can afford to be customers.

Focus Plaza was a symbol of the Chinese community’s newfound confidence and prosperity at a time when Los Angeles County’s Asian population was growing rapidly, driven primarily by migration to the San Gabriel Valley. Former President Clinton raised $250,000 over lunch at Five Star Seafood Restaurant, then called New Capital Seafood Restaurant. Immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong and a rapidly modernizing China took pride in distinguishing themselves from Chinatown.

A server pushes a cart full of food into a restaurant dining room.

The Five Star Seafood restaurant is stocked for lunch at Focus Plaza.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The renovations will involve much-needed changes, such as adding seating, easing traffic flow, and creating more public space to gather. So I won’t argue that public funds should be expended to keep Focus Plaza in amber.

But I will miss the Focus Plaza I knew. Like the immigrants who patronized it, it preserved the memories of a China that no longer exists. It was one generation’s effort to build a house of tastes, smells and feelings, a house that can live only in memory.