The collapse of Vietnam in 1975 created a wave of Vietnamese immigrants fleeing Ho Chi Minh’s oppressive, communist regime. Oklahoma opened its arms (much wider than other states) to them, and after a short time, a small community in Oklahoma City called Little Saigon sprouted up near Northwest 23rd Street and Classen, just west of the State Capitol.
Little Saigon’s early residents spoke no English. American customs were, at minimum, confusing. But despite those and other obstacles, what began as a small enclave of Vietnamese immigrants has grown into one of the most dynamic, diverse and energetic communities in Oklahoma City. Now known as the Asian District, it’s a celebration of dozens of Asian cultures, with the area’s residents numbering around 23,000. It’s the largest Asian community in Oklahoma, and its growing economy reflects its energy.
The district’s restaurants, unique retailers, markets, practices, boutiques and nightclubs make it a favorite destination for Oklahoma City residents and also bring in tourists from much farther away. On their own, the businesses in the Asian District might do fine, but together, gathered into the space between Nothwest 23rd and 30th streets on Classen, they do fantastically. Separately, its businesses sell whatever it is they sell. Collectively, they sell an experience – a bold, colorful, cultural experience that can’t be found anywhere else. And nothing waterproofs business like selling something nobody else has.
Visitors hear Asian accents and savor the smell of Eastern cooking. They see Asian architecture and walk through bright, red Asian gateways. The festival feeling of the Asian District goes on for blocks, an experience unbroken by chain stores. The District’s economic growth over the past few years may be the result of its totally home grown, entrepreneurial nature.
“I think what we see in the Asian District in terms of business growth and the redevelopment of that area is a great example of entrepreneurs starting businesses and growing something different. It’s indicative of that marriage of hard work and pioneering spirit, going out and giving it a try,” says Cynthia Reid, vice president of marketing for the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
The Gold Dome, the fifth geodesic dome built in the U.S., marks the southern entrance to the Asian District. It’s also a metaphor for the District’s success. Four decades after construction it was in disrepair and tagged for demolition. In 2003, Dr. Irene Lam, an optometrist, purchased and refurbished the building. It’s now an office building and a landmark.
Super Cao Nguyen, located in the heart of the Asian District, is the state’s largest Asian supermarket. It’s been meeting the demands of the District’s diverse population for more than 30 years, importing foods from more than 50 countries. Business, says the store’s owner, Ba Luong, has never been better.
“Business is pretty good here, especially in the Asian District. Everybody’s got to eat. The majority of the businesses here are restaurants, grocery stores or somehow food-related. We’ve all been able to weather the recession pretty well,” he notes.
Something must be going right. The Asian District is still seeing growth and expansion in less than stellar economic conditions. On the north side, it’s beginning to grow beyond its previous 30th Street border.
“The District highlights our cultural diversity in Oklahoma City. We can support and we do support many different cultures. It’s also a great example of citizen-led revitalization of an urban area. The city has done its part, but the citizens brought in all the new businesses,” says City of Oklahoma City planner Paul Ryckbost.
The city’s latest part, the District’s Streetscape Project, was completed last summer. Over the last decade, investment like this has provided new opportunities for the growth of existing businesses, too. It’s offered up a whole new way of doing business. James Vu, the owner of Kamp’s Market & Deli, knows. Kamp’s has long been a fixture in the district, but it’s seen a 100 percent growth in business over the last three years.
Kamp’s Market & Deli has been a favorite lunch spot for years, always crowded around noon. But Vu took advantage of a small city investment in the District – better street lighting – and invested his own money renovating Kamp’s. It now does double duty as a nightclub.
“Now we’re providing more nighttime entertainment, live music and other things. At one time, at night, this area was dormant. There were no streetlights in the Asian District. It wasn’t as safe as it is now. You drove through it at night to get from point A to point B. But I think because of the revamping, more businesses, including Kamp’s and the Grand House, are staying open later, offering some kind of nightlife outside of Bricktown or downtown,” says Vu.
It’s no secret that the Asian District is seeing a lot of prosperity in otherwise rough times. But there’s no secret to the District’s success, either. Lam invested in a building and brought more businesses to the area. The city invested in lights and gave interested entrepreneurs the opportunity to offer up an animated nightlife. There are examples like these, private and public, large and small, all over the Asian District. Together, the city and business owners created a fully immersive, branded experience that makes an unbeatable backdrop for business.
Says Reid, “What you can see in the Asian District is how the city’s investments – in infrastructure, in improving and defining the space excellently – catalyzed a lot of investment by the individual business owners. It’s clear that the people that live and work there are proud of that space. They’re investing in it. They’re attracting new customers. They’re bringing new people in. There are new restaurants, new retail shops. It’s proof that when you invest in an area, more investment follows that.”