I assume that for most Americans, thoughts of the mall evoke the 1980s or an earlier era, when certain classes of young teenagers longed to spend their free time eating at places like Sbarro or Orange Julius, shopping at Banana Republic or the Limited, watching Hollywood blockbusters at the multiplex, and feeding tokens to machines at the arcade. Today malls across the nation are dying, vacant but for a few a smattering of offices for insurance companies and tax preparers and half-decorated with dry fountains and dusty planters.
In Asian-American communities, on the other hand — and for whatever reason, they seem to continue to fill a vital role largely resembling the manner in which they did in the Reagan era, although now young people socialize face-to-face and face-to-screen over boba or cards — often all at the same time. Unlike the malls of old, the modern Asian-American mall typically has a food court worth making a dining destination and the parking lots host not just cars but night markets. Perhaps most importantly of all, whereas the ‘80s mall was seemingly generic and interchangeable by design, the modern Asian-American mall seems to prize individuality.
A visit to the mall in my youth made me short of breath, sore of joint, and emotionally fatigued… but I a visit to an Asian-American mall is something that I actually look forward to. For this reason, because it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and because Los Angeles is the world’s great Pan-Asian Metropolis, I have made a map of the region’s Asian malls. It includes malls which cater mostly to Asian-Americans by design and evolution (i.e. Westfield Santa Anita). It includes large, enclosed malls; outdoor shopping plazas; shopping centers; and lowly pod malls. I’d love for readers to contribute more so please give me your malls in the comments.
Here are my top ten local Asian-American malls…
ASIAN GARDEN MALL/PHUOC LOC THO (Little Saigon)
Phước, Lộc, and Thọ are the human personification of prosperity, status, and luck — the three attributes which are said to form the basis of a good life. Perhaps by way of avoiding this explanation to non-Chinese and non-Vietnamese, the mall in English is known as Asian Garden Mall. The mall, developed by Frank Jao and opened in 1987, is the most iconic structure in Little Saigon and gets bonus points for hosting a night market. It also has a sculpture, created by James Dinh, titled Of Two Lineages, representing Vietnamese-American success in Orange County. The mall is served by OCTA’s 64 line.
ATLANTIC TIMES SQUARE (Monterey Park)
Atlantic Times Square is a mixed-use commercial/residential mall like the Americana at Brand at Glendale which is presumably why it’s nicknamed the “Asian Americana.” Unlike the Americana, however, there’s not that much attention paid to creating a Prisoner-like village vibe and there’s no trolley, just a vast subterranean parking structure, and most nights most of windows of the 210 condominiums are dark. Business turnover tends to be high (although Happy Family and Daiso remain constant) and the AMC regularly showcases amazing Chinese films too unpretentious for arthouses. The mall was built by developer Ronnie Lam and opened in 2010. The mall is served by Metro’s 260 line.
DIAMOND PLAZA (Rowland Heights)
Diamond Plaza is a popular mall in the eastern San Gabriel Valley suburb of Rowland Heights (sometimes colloquially referred to as “Little Taipei”), which borders and serves the largely Asian-American suburbs of North Orange County. Since it opened in 1995, it’s parking lot has been an endless traffic jam filled with cars content to just idle for hours, their occupants entering and exiting them to refuel with tea and food or play cards. It’s served by Foothill Transit’s 178, 289, 482, and 493 lines.
EAGLE ROCK PLAZA (Eagle Rock)
Eagle Rock Plaza has over the years gone by several official names including its current one, Eagle Rock Plaza (which it opened as in 1973), Westfield Shoppingtown Eagle Rock, and Westfield Eagle Rock but most people I know refer to it simply as the “Filipino Mall,” a reference to the national and ancestral origins of most of its customers as well as the orientation of its tenants, which include a Seafood City, a Pinoy Blockbuster, a Jollibee, a Chowking, and a Leelin Bakery (formerly a Goldilocks). The Filipino Mall is served by Metro’s 28, 81, 83, 180/181 lines and LA DOT’s DASH Highland Park/Eagle Rock.
EASTGATE PLAZA SHOPPING CENTER (Torrance)
Eastgate Plaza was built in 1985, in a nondescript vaguely Mission Revival style so ubiquitous in that era that it’s a wonder it’s not invisible. The inside is far more interesting, though, home to as it is to mostly Japanese tenants, which have included video stores, book stores, a food court, and others all anchored by a Mitsuwa Marketplace. In fact, I would pit Eastgate Plaza against some Japantowns and I suspect Eastgate Plaza would often come out the victor. Eastgate Plaza is served by GTrans 2 and Torrance Transit lines 3, Rapid 3, and 5.
KOREATOWN PLAZA (Koreatown)
Koreatown has several wonderful malls, including the nearby Koreatown Galleria, but Koreatown Plaza remains a favorite. Not long after moving to Los Angeles I went on a mini-vacation to Koreatown, spending most of my day in the mall, which opened in 1988. There I dined for my first time on jajangmyeon, shopped at the market, and and even bought myself a souvenir pendant to commemorate the experience. It’s served by Metro’s 28, 207, Rapid 728, Rapid 757, and LA DOT’s Commuter Express 534 lines.
LITTLE TOKYO GALLERIA (Little Tokyo)
From the outside, Little Tokyo Galleria looked more like a giant cold storage warehouse than a mall. It was built in the Smog Check Revival style in 1985, when it opened as Yahoan Plaza and was perhaps meant to withstand an attack from the Soviets. In 2000 it was purchased by a Cuban-American who renamed it the Little Tokyo Galleria. It formerly housed a wonderful video game arcade but always seemed to be on life support, never less than 35% vacant, until a group of Korean developers bought it in 2009 and remodeled the exterior, adding windows and generally softening and lightening its grim appearance and breathing new life into it. It’s served by Metro’s 18, 53, and 62 lines as well as LA DOT’s DASH Downtown A line.
SAIGON PLAZA AND DYNASTY CENTER (Chinatown)
Many of Chinatown’s businesses are owned by older, Cantonese immigrants. Saigon Plaza Chinatown Plaza & Dynasty Center, though, is specifically a hub of stalls operated by ethnic Chinese from Cambodia, Laos, and of course, Vietnam. The top floor is like a bustling, crowded bazaar. The bottom floor turns into a winding, largely empty labyrinth that seems to descend deeper and deeper into the bowels of Chinatown before depositing the visitor back on the street, confuse, blinking, and disoriented.
SAN GABRIEL SQUARE (San Gabriel)
San Gabriel Square is known to many as “Chinese Disneyland.” A more clever nickname, also widely used, is the “Great Mall of China.” San Gabriel is home to several large malls including Hilton Plaza and the even larger Life Plaza Center. Biggest of all, though, is the 20,400 square meter San Gabriel Square. Inside are several types of businesses including jewelry stores, boutiques and a 99 Ranch Market but the real attraction are the many restaurants serving Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese food. It’s served by Metro’s 76 and 487/489 lines.
THAILAND PLAZA (Thai Town)
Thailand Plaza was built in 1992. Though small it houses within its walls a restaurant (Jinda Thai), a supermarket (Silom), a book and music store (Dokya Bookstore), and other businesses. Its layout is somewhat uncharacteristic of most malls, with sidewalk-facing storefronts and an interior parking structure from which most of the businesses are accessible. Located at the mall’s driveway is a spirit house, a feature common of many Southeast Asian cultures believed to provide shelter for spirits. Thailand Plaza is served by Metro’s Red line.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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