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Development group to bring Chinatown to the Triangle

This concept art shows what Morrisville Outlet Mall may look like following renovations.
This concept art shows what Morrisville Outlet Mall may look like following renovations.

Triangle residents will say “ni hao” to a local Chinatown this Fall.

The new Chinatown will occupy a nearly vacant outlet mall in Morrisville, N.C., this September, said Mark Herman, CEO of Panda Properties Sino, which put the area under contract. The Durham-based Panda Properties Sino plans to transform the mall located near Raleigh-Durham International Airport into an East Asian emporium, featuring authentic restaurants, gathering spaces, boutique shopping and a five-star hotel. The $130 million project will open in two phases—about 115 spaces will open in September, and the rest will open in January 2013.

In contrast to traditional Chinatowns that develop due to residential patterns over time, the development plan behind the Triangle’s Chinatown was directed and intentional, encompassing all Asian cultures, Herman said.

“What we’re doing is different than those Chinatowns of Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington,” he said. “We’re going to highlight and depict modern Asia. This is going to be a cultural center where people are going to be able to come and learn about authentic Asian culture from every ethnicity—not just Chinese.”

The entire development is privately funded by Chinese and American investors, Herman said, adding that an acclaimed Chinese architect will conduct a comprehensive renovation of the area to ensure that construction accurately captures Asian influences.

The five-star hotel in Chinatown will have an eastern theme, Herman said. He expects room rates to be about half of those offered at comparable hotels in the area.

“You can’t open up a business and call it ‘Chinatown,’” he said. “You can’t put up a coat of paint on a building and call it ‘Chinatown.’ Our enterprise and idea started in China, and we want to bring our visitors there.”

‘The best of Asia'

More international students at Duke hail from China than any other country, but not all students are aware of opportunities to learn more about Asian culture, said Eileen Chow, visiting associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies. Chow, who teaches the course "Chinatowns: A Cultural History," noted that a local Chinatown fills a niche by providing an accessible way for students to learn about Asian cultures.

“One of my course’s assignments was to carefully look at Chinese restaurants in the area—I had six students interview at Grace’s Cafe in Trent Hall,” she said. “That told me that students just don’t know where to go.”

The new restaurants in Chinatown will serve authentic Asian cuisine, Herman noted. There will be more than 30 restaurants in the development featuring delicacies from countries such as China, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.

Because each restaurant will be specialized, each will only serve its respective nation’s best food, said Tony Tran, manager of Akashi Japanese Grill and Sushi Bar, who recently signed a lease to open a sushi restaurant in Chinatown.

“‘Chinatown’ is just the name—we want to focus on making the dining represent all of the best of Asia,” Tran noted. “The restaurants will be successful because they will draw from everybody—not just all Asian people, but all Americans.”

Cultural offerings

In addition to the food-centered community hosted by Chinatown, the development can serve as a much needed venue for Asian celebrations, Tran said, adding that large communal spaces will be available for rent.

“We need a gathering point,” he said. “We need a place to celebrate our weddings and our new year—one that can cater food from one of the restaurants in the development and host 400 to 500 people, which is the normal size of a Vietnamese or Chinese wedding celebration.”

Chow noted that Chinatown’s shopping, restaurants, meeting areas and church could help foster a sense of community centered around Asian culture, a support system that some students have trouble finding.

About 20 percent of students identified as Asian American in Fall 2011, according to the Office of News and Communications.

“Last Fall for the Autumn Moon Festival, [the Duke Chinese Student Association] was looking for a place to gather and to have their celebration, but they realized quickly that there were over 100 participants, and they struggled to find an area that [would] fit them,” Chow said.

In addition to cultural offerings, Chinatown will provide educational opportunities that extend beyond the Triangle on the weekends.

“In terms of education, we are going to be able to have 500 students of all ages [who can be taught] everything to do with culture from all Asian communities—language, art, calligraphy, martial arts and just everything that you can imagine,” Herman said. “I also see this as a place where schools throughout the state bring students by busloads to learn about incredibly rich Asian cultures.”

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