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Chinatown delivers American dreams in Las Vegas
by Tom Ragan and Las Vegas Review-Journal
Sep 12, 2012 | 2038 views | 0 0 comments | 1 1 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Meghan Smith, owner of Gold Star School of Gaming at the corner of Las Vegas' El Camino and Spring Mountain roads, teaches her predominantly Asian students how to become casino dealers. For $500 at three months a pop, she prepares them for a future in minimum wage jobs at blackjack or roulette tables.

The American dream is within reach: It's contingent upon the tips. Big ones.

About a mile away on Wynn Road, Joanie Lung sells customers all sorts of feng shui books and products. It's a 5,000-year-old Chinese art that over time has morphed into a holistic approach to interior decorating.

Across the street, Helen Hsueh, publisher and president of the Las Vegas Chinese Daily News, works hard to get her three-times-a-week newspaper published — in Mandarin.

The masthead, when translated literally, means "Gamble Town Every Other Day Newspaper."

"The 'Every Other Day' is a play on words," the Tawainese-born Hsueh tells the Las Vegas Review-Journal (, trying to explain a pun in Mandarin to someone who doesn't speak Mandarin.

It's just another busy day in Chinatown, a three-mile stretch of Asian urban sprawl along Spring Mountain Road where the Roman alphabet slowly cedes to Chinese characters, where tiled rooftops turn slightly upward and where colorful sketches of breathing dragons are commonplace.

It starts one mile west of the Strip near Valley View Boulevard and abruptly ends at Rainbow Boulevard. It's one of the county's fastest growing ethnic commercial corridors, where foot spas, real estate offices, massage parlors and restaurants can be found on just about every block.


For nearly two decades, hundreds of Asian business owners have made a living here.

If not for one man, whether they realize it or not, they wouldn't have a place to do business. Without him, there would never have been a Chinatown. He created it.

He's James Chen, 64, a Taiwanese immigrant who moved to Las Vegas from Los Angeles nearly 20 years ago.

He's sort of like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey character in "It's a Wonderful Life." Would the Las Vegas version of Chinatown have come into existence without him?

In his quest for authentic Chinese food in Las Vegas on his occasional gambling trips here from Los Angeles, Chen decided to buy seven acres of land at Arville Street and Spring Mountain Road, then build the 90,000-square-foot Chinatown Plaza, complete with eateries, gift shops, even Nevada's first Mandarin bookstore.

That was back in 1995.

Since then, he's watched hundreds of Asian-owned businesses crop up around him.

"I never ever imagined it would turn out like this," says the soft-spoken Chen in a recent interview outside the Imperial arch that serves as the main entrance to his plaza. "I never knew that it would grow this fast. Attorneys told us at the beginning that we shouldn't build it, that we shouldn't even try, that it was too much of a risk, that nobody would ever come here from the Strip."

But come they do: the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Thai, the Vietnamese.

So much so that Chinatown signs went up on both sides of Interstate 15. Green. Next exit.

But Chen is too modest to take credit for it all. Or too leery.

He's not sure what the future holds, but the prelude to his development is forever etched in his head. When he happened on Spring Mountain Road more than two decades ago, the area was filled with junkyards and sheet metal shops. Vacant lots were overrun with weeds. South of Rainbow Boulevard there was nothing but dirt.

Now, it's a bustling hub, although many who have been to larger Chinatowns in larger cities — Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, to name a few — scoff at such comparisons.

Chen scoffs back.

"We'll never be like them," says Chen, 64. "Why would we want to be?"

Those places are big and dirty, a reminder of segregation, of times long ago, he says. They're urban areas whose beginnings can be traced to Chinese migrant camps, Chinese miners and Chinese railroad workers.

He sees his Chinatown Plaza as cleaner, much more efficient, sort of a master-planned development.

"We're the wave of the future," he says.

Strip malls and mini malls built around ethnic neighborhoods are the norm these days, he points out.

They're the inevitable part of future development in an area where 9 percent of the nearly 2 million people who live in Clark County are Asian, according to the 2010 census.


Overseas, the buying power among the Chinese is a well-known fact — so much so that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has China firmly on its international marketing radar. China ranks No. 7 on the Top 10 list of visitors to Las Vegas each year, preceded only by Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia, France and Germany.

It makes sense, given the fact that there are more than 1.3 billion people in China, says Michael Goldsmith, vice president of international marketing at the authority.

"When you think about that, just 1 percent of the entire population is 13 million," he says. "That means there's a growing middle class with disposable incomes and many of them are going to want to travel and take vacations. That's where we come in."

And it doesn't hurt that the Chinese, for the most part, love to gamble, said Bill Eadington, a gaming expert and professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"There's a lot less moral sanctioning that occurs in China than in Western cultures when it comes to gambling," he said.

But the Chinese, like anybody else, have their own superstitions, he adds.

There's a reason why many of the casinos don't have a fourth floor; four is bad luck because its pronunciation comes precariously close to the word "death."

There's a reason why the MGM Grand entrance was revamped in 1990 — that way, the Chinese no longer had to walk through the jaws of a lion, their equivalent of walking under a ladder.

There's a reason why the carpeting inside Wynn Las Vegas and Encore at Wynn Las Vegas are red, a lucky color among many Chinese.

"But it's got to be a dark and bold red," says Smith, the owner of Gold Star Gaming.

She purposely looked for a business location in a Chinese neighborhood, knowing that might bolster her customer base.

And when she finally opened in April 2011 on the western edge of Spring Mountain Road at El Camino Road, she made sure that the address did not have a four in it.

Her business is going gangbusters so far. It's only one of five in the city and she's already seen 500 customers this year.

"I have no complaints," says Smith, 32.

Neither do her students, who 95 percent of the time find jobs once they get their certificate from Smith.

"Man, they have a great grasp on numbers," she says, emphatically adding that she doesn't mean to "stereotype."

"It's just true," says Smith, who taught English in Thailand and worked as a dealer at Wynn Macau.

She's no stranger to overseas travel, in other words.

Nor is Chen, who travels back and forth from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, protecting the cultural integrity of his plaza.

Whether he'll ever consider a Starbucks or a Panda Express as a tenant, he doesn't know.

"I'd like it to stay just the way it is," he says.
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