Pending Chinatown in South Salt Lake anticipates fall 2011 grand opening

Story and multimedia by CHLOE NGUYEN

Read the proposal plan for South Salt Lake City’s new Chinatown

Chinatowns have become a major part of the American culture. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 4.6 percent of the American population was of Asian descent in 2009. Utah’s Asian population was 2.1 percent of the state’s total population of 2.7 million. Since 1952, when Utah’s first and only Chinatown was torn down, there have not been plans for a replacement. But this changes in fall 2011. South Salt Lake City will be the home of Utah’s new Chinatown.

Salt Lake City Chinatown (SLCC) will be replacing the Rocky Point Haunted House, located at 3390 S. State St. For now, a billboard on State Street that announces the project is “coming soon” is the only thing that informs the public of the Chinatown.

The $15-million investment, initially proposed by Chinatown Investments Inc. in 2005, is headed by Hong Kong developers Yue So and Wai Chan. They had hoped to complete construction in December 2007, with a grand opening scheduled for March 2008. Plans called for transforming the area into a tourist attraction, with ceramic tile roofing, paper lamps, granite flooring and Asian-style fountains. But in late 2007, the country’s financial crisis stopped the production process. Banks were unwilling to lend money to business owners and potential clients of the project, according to Andrew So, 26, the project’s manager and son of Yue So and Wai Chan.

So is a graduate of New York University. After completing his degree in economics, So moved back to Utah, where his parents resided while plans for SLCC were in progress; the family is originally from Hong Kong. So says his parents have had their eye on a Salt Lake City Chinatown for about 10 years. He says his role as the project’s manager is his first partnership with the family business. And although So’s Chinese accent can sometimes cause minor barriers when conversing with people in English, he says language isn’t a problem most of the time because the majority of his clients speak in Chinese.

It has been two years since So actively promoted SLCC, but now the project is finally under way once again. “We paid attention to the market and believe now’s the time,” So said. “People are still very interested.”

To a majority of Utahns, SLCC will be their first introduction to a Chinatown in the state. More than 80 Chinatowns are spread across the country, and many are anticipating the day when Utah will be added to the list of states that have a Chinatown. But, actually, Utah was on that list a century ago.

During the 1900s, Plum Alley was the location of Utah’s first Chinatown. It ran north and south, dividing Main and State streets and crossing at 100 and 200 South. Nearly 2,000 Chinese immigrants resided there in 1907, according to KUED. Plum Alley served as the center for Chinese culture in Salt Lake. Chinese people developed a community with grocery and merchandise stores, laundries and restaurants.

The Joss House, an informal place of worship, and the Bing Kong Tong, which helped members of the Asian community find jobs and legal services, were also a major part of Plum Alley. It was a richly textured community.

But with the racial segregation happening during the time, white residents of the state tended to view Plum Alley as a center for widespread vice and illegality, with presence of gambling and opium dens, according to KUED.

In 1952, Plum Alley was torn down and the Regent Street Parking Terrace was erected in its place. Visitors who walk by the location will notice a brown plaque that stands by the street sign labeled as Plum Alley. The location marks Salt Lake City’s Tour Stop #11; the plaque was installed there in 2002 by the Utah Heritage Foundation for the Utah Travel Council. The plaque is the only public reminder of what used to be Utah’s first Chinatown more than a hundred years ago.

Now, over a century later, Utah will once again have another Chinatown.

Unlike the Chinatown in some other well-known locations, such as New York or San Francisco, where the community occupies an entire neighborhood and features street-front stores, SLCC will be similar to an Asian-style plaza, or mall. However, a similar feature will be the gate to the Chinatown and a temple for worshiping the Asian gods, such as Tsai Shen Yeh, the god of wealth, and Guan Yin, the Asian version of the Virgin Mary. Chinatown Investment Inc. has previously opened two successful Chinatowns in Orlando and Philadelphia that carried out the same structural plan.

The project will be a 5.7-acre parcel that will include the structure of the Rocky Point Haunted House and some accompanying undeveloped land. The 63,000-square-foot haunted house will be converted into 48,000 square feet of retail space. The space behind the building will be transformed into an 8,000-square-foot formal Chinese restaurant. The project also aims to have representations of a variety of Asian cuisines. “No two restaurants will have food from the same geographic area,” said So, SLCC’s project manager.

So hopes to include vendors from all parts of Asia, including those from Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea and the Philippines. He says the retail space will include beauty salons, Chinese herbal shops, acupuncture, karaoke rooms, boutiques and massage parlors. The northeastern corner will be used as office space for Asian merchants, such as dentists and attorneys, and retail space for gift shops and smaller convenience restaurants. The project will contain about 30 separate spaces.

So and his family plan to open a 30,000-square-foot Asian market, the largest in the state. It will offer Asian goods, as well as prepared Asian dishes, traditional barbeque and bakery items. Fresh seafood will be available.

SLCC will be a gathering place for Utah’s Asian community. Its parking lot will be used for cultural festivals, such as Chinese New Year, spring and moon festivals. Common areas in the development will be open to community groups. Wi-Fi and public computers will also be available for those who want a place to sit and relax with friends, similar to a coffee shop, So says.

The Chinatown will be a part of the city’s commercial revolution. The project is in a perfect location, according to a 2007 press release by the South Salt Lake Council and Planning Commission. It will be built between State and Main Streets, across from fast food and coffee franchises. The project will be a three-minute drive from Interstate 15, and a short walk from the UTA Trax station, located on Main Street.

SLCC will be the first Chinatown permitted by the Utah legislature, according to Chinatown Investment Inc.’s proposal plans. The project will be completed without public funding and will add to the city’s tax base, which will bring in new high-end customers, according to a report by the city’s Council and Planning Commission. The development team hopes to attract people who are also visiting Yellowstone National Park and other southern Utah parks, So says. It will aim to become a tourist destination for Utah.

“I see it as a community gathering place where the local community can come together,” said former South Salt Lake City Mayor Bob Gray in 2005. His comment was included in Chinatown Investment Inc.’s proposal. “It will be the only development of this type in the western states,” he added.

The project’s production will start up again in February or March 2011, after being placed on hold since 2007. SLCC is expected to hold its grand opening in the fall of 2011.

But So says he has not started marketing the development yet. “We don’t want to lose the confidence from other people in the project,” he said. “Last time we didn’t make it happen as we promised. This time, we want to make sure everything’s ready to go before we actually start the promotional marketing.”

Even though official promotion for SLCC hasn’t started, people are already showing interest in the project.

Tong Zhou, 19, a study-abroad student from China at the University of Utah, is looking forward to having a place to communicate with other Asians. “I am really excited,” he said. “I like to see Chinese be a group and help each other. Chinatown will not only be doing business, but also spread[ing] Chinese culture.”

So says the goal of the project is to create an Asian cultural hub. “There are Asian people scattered everywhere in the state, in different counties,” he said. “We tried to create a center, a place that they can gather and celebrate some Chinese festivals.”

But the Asian community is not the only targeted patron of the project. The development team hopes to draw in non-Asians as well. “It’s a place for non-Asian communities to know more about Asian communities,” So said.

So acknowledges that the majority of Utahns are not of Asian descent, but believes the Chinatown will invite these non-Asians to explore and learn more about the culture of Asian people. A few restaurants and shops are already in the area, but So hopes SLCC will become the place everyone will think of when it comes to Asian culture, markets and cuisines.

Brandon Harker, 21, a U student studying international relations, says the project will be a great way for Asian and non-Asian groups to come together. “I think it will be fun to have something new around that will serve a growing community within Utah,” he said. “It’s always fun to be able to experience a less filtered view of a different culture and experience the cuisine.”

The project is definitely going to happen, So said. He anticipates a majority of the construction will be finished by the grand opening date, so at least some shops and attractions will be open to the public while the remaining construction, if any, continues.

“It’s going to be something really unique for the valley. We’ve never had a project like this before,” said Mike Florence, South Salt Lake City Planner, in a phone interview. “We hope it will be a place that everyone will like.”

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