Chinatown Market: haven and home for Asian American communities in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by INDIA BOWN

On the south side of Salt Lake City, the mountains are accompanied by a grander view. The crimson paifang arch structure marks the entrance to the Chinatown Supermarket. 

The Paifang, a traditional Chinese arch, is the first structure seen before getting into the Chinatown Shopping Center.

The aroma of traditional Vietnamese beef pho fills the air before even getting to the shops. Sweet sounds of sizzling fresh meats on the grill and the pure enjoyment of cooking your own hot pot meal. 

Chinatown is home to all these sensations.

In the 5.7-acre shopping community, the largest cultural Asian shopping center in Utah takes on an even bigger role within the daily lives of Asian American communities in and around the Salt Lake area — a safe haven.

On 3370 State St., the marketplace and surrounding businesses made their debut opening on July 30, 2014. Before that, Salt Lake City wasn’t known for Asian markets or substantial in size for that matter. 

The development of the shopping center went through many phases and with the initial proposal for Chinatown starting in 2005. Lots of trial and error occurred, but with the importance of the project and having a hub for Asian people in Salt Lake City, a $15-million investment was headed by Hong Kong developers Yue So and Wai Chan, according to Voices of Utah.

The population of different Asian American communities residing in Utah, and Salt Lake City in particular, is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, the population was 5.4% in April 2020.

Salt Lake City’s Asian American population is among the faster-growing populations of diverse groups. Having a larger population of Asian Americans, especially those that continue to grow, signifies the need for the Chinatown Center. With South Salt Lake being one of the most Asian populated areas in the county, the location of the marketplace is pivotal to communities nearby. 

The outside of the Chinatown Shopping Center with access to the market and other shops inside.

Amongst the karaoke bar, boba shops, and hot soup restaurants, the marketplace and its products are the main attraction. Aisles of all kinds of authentic cuisine, from Chinese to Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese, to Indian, Filipino, and Japanese, the supermarket accommodates the Asian American residents of Salt Lake City.

Justine Nguyen, a University of Utah student and a Chinese-Vietnamese American, came to Utah for school from the East Coast, hoping to find a place that could provide a multicultural food experience. Then she found Chinatown. 

 She likes to order a Bánh mì sandwich at the supermarket, a French baguette filled with pickled carrots and radish, meat, or tofu, along with other fresh veggies and jalapeños. With just the perfect balance of spicy and sweet, she thought no other sandwich could compete with those she previously tried in Utah. 

“I love the feeling of familiarity, the people, the ambient lighting, the chaos of the market, it creates a sense of home for me that I’m missing here in Utah,” said Nguyen over direct messaging. 

Nguyen, from Maryland, said there are more Asian markets there. The state also has a higher Asian American population of 6.7%, according to the Census Bureau

The inside entryway, guarded by a panda bear statue, leads into Chinatown Supermarket.

This wasn’t too much of a cultural shock for Nguyen but with the overall lack of diversity in Utah, the 19-year-old college student wanted a place to call home. “The Chinatown Market is a place where I can go to get a sense of home and feel safe,” Nguyen said. “With recent events (Covid-19 and the growth of Asian hate), it’s scary going around Utah myself. I don’t have to worry about that here (Chinatown) and I can fully embrace my culture.”

Having previously worked at the Tiger Sugar Boba Shop in Chinatown, Nguyen emphasizes the way the experience allowed her to “immerse herself in the Asian culture of Utah.” 

The cultures that are highlighted are available to those from different groups as well, giving people from different nationalities and backgrounds the same opportunity to discover all that Chinatown has to offer. Part of Nguyen’s experience includes helping people from other cultures on their food journeys. 

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Cynthia Wang, a Chinese-Vietnamese American, gives insight into the tie to her identity that the shops and restaurants have. 

“It feels like home. It smells like the spices and flavors my parents used in their cooking. I see people who look like me,” Wang said over direct messaging. 

The third-year student describes what it was like living in Utah growing up, and how markets that were around before the Chinatown market had some traditional Asian products, but in smaller selections and markets. “It makes me feel seen,” Wang said. “Growing up here, there were very few restaurants that served food from my culture, but most of them catered to white consumers.”

The South Salt Lake Chinatown allows the majority of residents in Utah to gain a new perspective through the cultural diversity the market has to offer in customer and employee interaction. Engaging with people from all walks of life is a valuable experience, especially when minority populations continue to rise. 

The majority of Utah’s population is white, the Chinatown is a community for the underrepresented. For those who haven’t had a place to belong or relate to. A community to be able to “blend in” as Wang describes it. 

With the occasional homesickness, Aurora Xu, 36, a Chinese immigrant, had a relatively easy time adapting to Salt Lake City and its culture. 

Asian snacks and drinks are two types of purchases Xu said make her visits to the Chinatown Market. Whether the snacks are shrimp chips, choco-pies, or mochi, Xu enjoys the foods that feel more familiar.

About the living adjustments and the transition of living in Utah, Xu said the Chinatown has foods from her hometown, making connecting to tradition “easy for shopping and with the Supermarket having a lot of restaurants.” 

Even though her journey to finding her community wasn’t as difficult as others moving from out of state, Chinatown is a meeting ground for social interaction and for cultivating more relationships. Restaurants around the market like Hero Hotpot are hot spots for Xu and her friends to get together. 

The impact that Chinatown has on different Asian American communities in Salt Lake City has brought various groups together in celebration of Asian cultures. 

A marketplace, one unlike the American grocery store chains, is more than just the produce and products that reside there. It’s a home, a safe haven, a market for all Asian Americans. 

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