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Chinatown brings a taste of the Far East to the Southwest.
Photo: Jacob Kepler (above and below)
You might find something peculiar about some of the world maps for sale at Great Wall Book Store inside Las Vegas Chinatown Mall. The focus of the maps is not North America (located in the top left corner), but Asia. The maps, like Chinatown itself, show Westerners a view of the world from a different perspective. Here one can indulge in and learn about Eastern food, fashion, and customs.
Two miles west of the Strip on Spring Mountain Road, industrial buildings give way to bright red and orange pagoda-roofed retail plazas, restaurants, and office buildings. Though officially christened “Chinatown” in 1999, this neighborhood has evolved into a pan-Pacific hub where Asian tourists capture reminders of home and Asian immigrants find work, relatively inexpensive lodging, and familiar customs. Virtually all Asian cultures are represented in Chinatown’s offerings—Chinese feng shui figurines, Taiwanese boba tea, Vietnamese pho noodle soup, Malaysian flatbread, and Philippine pastries.
Chinatown serves one of the fastest-growing Asian communities in the country, one that has increased 58 percent since 2000. The area is a haven for the estimated 150,000 Asian-Americans who call Clark County home and a significant portion of the roughly 1.6 million Asians and Asian-Americans who visit Las Vegas each year (population estimates based on 2005 U.S. Census Bureau and Clark County data).
Start your adventure at Chinatown Plaza, a two-block area presided over by statues of Xuan Zang and his traveling companions from the novel, Journey to the West, an account of their travels to meet Buddha. In Chinatown Plaza’s southwest corner, Great Wall Book Store sells Asian cookbooks and Chinese-English dictionaries, along with bronze cavorting cat, beaming Buddha, and contemplative Confucius figurines.
You can browse JJ Fashion in the mall for silky kimonos of gold, scarlet, black, and royal blue. The shop also sells delicate porcelain tea sets and sake services to suit any tastes. In the windows at Jana’s Jade Gallery you’ll see delicate carvings of semiprecious stones and crystals. To bring a symbol of good fortune and beauty into your home, pick up a carved, deep blue sodalite and jasper parrot perched on a clear quartz stand for a couple hundred dollars. If your budget is tighter, settle for a white onyx boxer puppy for $30.
Stop at the Diamond Bakery for a slice of mango mousse cake, its melt-in-your-mouth fluffiness contrasting with a decadent glaze, or a tropical island fruit tart. If you’re not hungry, stop by anyway to gape at the elaborate birthday and wedding cakes on display. You’ll find it hard to leave without buying something to nibble on.
Wash down your nosh with a tropical smoothie from #1 Boba Tea. Try the passion fruit jelly. You can have it or any of the other smoothies and teas with or without boba—the chewy, semi-sweet marble-sized tapioca beads that rest at the bottom of the cup. If you opt for the boba balls, be sure to grab a wide-mouthed straw that streamlines the beads’ passage from tumbler to taste buds.
After a few hours of shopping, you will have worked up an appetite, and your next move is to decide among the delectable cuisines Chinatown offers. The kids will stare at the roast pigs hanging just inside the door of Sam Woo BBQ, where specialties include Hong Kong-style barbecued duck, pork, and beef. For Mandarin and Szechwan fare and an upscale ambiance, you can opt for Emperor’s Garden. Other tasty stops within the plaza include Kapit Bahay for Philippine fast food and Sushi Moto for sushi and other Japanese delights.
You can end your Oriental odyssey at 99 Ranch Market. The store serves as the neighborhood grocery outlet for the Asian-Americans who live in the area. While it caters primarily to Chinese-Americans, people from all over the world will appreciate the market’s variety of products. Seafood is a special draw, highlighted by squid and octopus, and the meat counter offers such delicacies as chicken feet and leg of goat. The market also carries more varieties of tofu than you can shake a soybean at—savory, fried, pressed, marinated, soft, firm, and silken.
Chinese overcame much to help build Nevada
The intrepid merchants and restaurateurs of Las Vegas Chinatown carry on a tradition that started nearly a decade before Nevada became a state. Chinese immigrants endured a long, arduous journey to first acceptance, and now celebration, in Nevada.
A state historical marker in Sparks notes, “Sizeable Chinese communities grew up here, in Virginia City and other towns. Their contribution to the progress of the state in its first century will forever by remembered by all Nevadans.”
The first Chinese came to what is now Dayton during the California Gold Rush in 1856 to construct a ditch to bring water from the Carson River to Gold Canyon.
Following the discovery of the Comstock Lode, many Central Pacific workers on the country’s first transcontinental railroad bolted for Nevada’s silver fields. Faced with a labor shortage and a demand for high wages from the Irish immigrants who remained at work, Central Pacific imported and employed thousands of Chinese workers. Many stayed in Nevada upon completion of the railroad and originally were allowed to participate in placer mining, albeit only on ground already mined and abandoned by whites. But soon, prejudice prevailed and rules were established to prohibit them from seeking treasure. Still the Chinese persevered in Nevada, and thousands more immigrants flooded the state to support the mining operations.
Coming to America to escape the poverty of their home provinces with limited education and facing discrimination, most Chinese immigrants settled for menial jobs as laborers, cooks, laundrymen and gardeners—jobs which matched their reputation for patience, neatness, and a strong work ethic.
Carson City, which along with the Chinese government, is planning a $50 million Chinese Workers Museum, was home to 800 Chinese in 1880—almost one-third of the city’s populace, concentrated in the capital’s five-block Chinatown. The museum, pending release of Bureau of Land Management property and adequate fundraising, will grace Carson City’s east side, encompassing a new Virginia & Truckee Railroad station along Highway 50. Some 1,500 Chinese workers build the V&T in the 1860s and 1870s.
Unfortunately, as the mining boom subsided in the last quarter of the 19th Century, many white miners who found themselves out of work also found the Chinese convenient scapegoats. Thugs raided Chinatowns throughout northern Nevada, anti-Chinese leagues proliferated and eventually, beginning in 1882, federal restrictions were placed on Chinese immigration and prospects for citizenship.
But the Chinese overcame these hardships to thrive in Nevada and to even play a significant role in the founding of its largest city. Perhaps using the knowledge passed down from ancestors who served during the Comstock days, Wong Kee and Ong Loy operated restaurants and Ying Lee was proprietor of a laundry in Las Vegas even before its official establishment in 1905.
Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza
4255 Spring Mountain Rd., Las Vegas