Mesa doesn’t have its own Little Saigon or Chinatown — at least not yet. But the prospect of one developing over time seems bright.
In fact, some people believe that the Dobson Road area between Chandler and Mesa may soon become the new Asian hot spot.
“Dobson Plaza has always been known as an international district. It has diverse cuisines — Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese,” said Mike Nguyen, a 27-yearold Vietnamese entrepreneur who recently opened the Dragonfly Vietnamese Kitchen restaurant in Mesa.
“Dobson Road will eventually become a household name for all the Asian community,” he said.
More and more Asian businesses are cropping up along Dobson Road in Mesa and Chandler, as people move to Arizona seeking a lower cost of living and better weather.
Already, several shopping plazas are dedicated almost solely to Asian businesses along that road, and another large 100,000-square-foot Asian shopping area called “Mekong Plaza” is scheduled to open in 2007.
Mekong Plaza will eventually become one of the largest Asian shopping centers in the Valley. The developers are Vietnamese, but the plaza will target people of different Asian backgrounds. An Asian grocery store, the Manila Oriental Market, will be at its center, flanked by other smaller retail shops.
“We find that the population is welling up to support the business that will be opening,” said Philip Ta, a principal in the company. “It’s throughout the whole area. There is no one concentrated Asian area per se — not based on our study.”
Asian populations in Chandler, Mesa and Tempe have grown over the past 10 years, census data shows.
Chandler’s Asian population has grown the most and the fastest, from 2,153 in 1990 to 7,453 in 2000.
Mesa’s Asian population climbed from 4,355 to 5,917 over the decade, and Tempe’s grew from 5,748 to 7,531.
Harold Decker, a senior economic development specialist for Mesa, said he first noticed Asian businesses popping up in the Dobson area five years ago. The growth has been gradual, and the area is thriving, he said.
“Once a situation occurs where an ethnic group comes into an area, it’s osmosis,” Decker said.
New data since the 2000 census shows Mesa’s Asian population still is growing. A 2004 survey estimates there are 8,761 Asians — the bulk of those Indian, Chinese and Filipino. Koreans and Vietnamese remain in the minority, although a number of businesses along Dobson Road, including the upcoming Mekong Plaza, are Koreanowned or Vietnamese-owned.
In Mekong’s marketing studies, Ta said the Asian population still is spread out. That’s why the Dobson area isn’t as heavily concentrated as a traditional Chinatown found in San Francisco or New York City.
“Early immigrants didn’t have that much transportation capability,” Ta said.
Many Asians moving into Arizona, however, already have established themselves in the United States and don’t face the same challenges as early immigrants.
“They can live anywhere and travel anywhere to shop,” Ta added.
Local business owners and shoppers attributed the density of Asian businesses in the area to several factors: Proximity to all the freeways, Arizona State University, Mesa Community College, and hightech businesses that employ many people of Asian descent.
Exchange students at ASU often shop at the Korean and Vietnamese markets in the area, workers said. The 2000 census shows the ASU ZIP code has one of the highest percentages of Asians in Tempe.
“It brings a lot of attention to the Korean market,” said Kenny Chon, owner of Korean Video. “You see all the Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese students living in apartments near here. MCC is also right here.”
Many of those who moved here recently cited the lower cost of living as a primary incentive for the move. And many are coming from California.
Chon himself moved to Chandler fairly recently.
“It’s just cheaper than California to make a living,” Chon said. “Housing is cheaper. Gas is cheaper. All living expenses are cheaper.”
While the density of the Asian population in the area is much lower than a standard Chinatown, a Tribune analysis of census data by ZIP code shows a higher percentage of Asians living at or near the Dobson Road area in Chandler and Mesa.
Figures from the Mesa Unified School District also suggest the Asian population is higher in the Dobson corridor than in other parts of the city.
Last year, Dobson High School had the largest percentage of Asian students — 4.3 percent in the 2004-05 school year. During that period, all other Mesa high schools reported Asian enrollments ranging from 2 percent to 2.7 percent.
Mary Berumen, director of the Mesa Diversity Office, said she has noticed the Asian influx, and welcomes it.
“Mesa is not becoming diverse — it is diverse,” she said. “If you look at it, onethird of the people coming in are from different cultural backgrounds. I think that it will bring an incredible richness to Mesa.”