Beyond the towering blue and red gate on State Street, there is a kung fu studio, a hair salon, a home-goods store, two Taiwanese dessert chains, a Korean bakery, restaurants serving a variety of cuisines, and the largest Asian supermarket in Utah.
Even with all that happening with its 22 tenants, many Utahns may only know the shopping center called Salt Lake Chinatown — at 3390 S. State St., in South Salt Lake City — for the massive gate they see as they drive past.
Though it’s referred to — even by the property’s manager, Elyas Raigne — simply as “Chinatown,” the complex is home not only to Chinese culture but Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures.
Raigne said Salt Lake Chinatown is frequented by many people and cultures, not just those of Asian descent. “The [shop] owners, they treat everybody well here,” he said, adding, “we get all kinds of people.”
Authentic baked goods
The different businesses are centered around the main attraction: The Chinatown Supermarket, 30,000 square feet that contains aisles of delicacies and Asian staples — as well as a bakery, produce, a deli, and seafood and meat counters.
In the Chinatown Supermarket, Jeffrey Chen most days is busy behind the bakery counter, where he has been the baker for nearly five years.
Chen makes authentic Chinese breads and pastries, including Hong Kong sesame balls, pineapple buns, taro milk buns and fried banana cake. He said his best sellers are pineapple bread and egg-topped pastry, which are always sold out by 1 p.m.
“Today, I’m making some bread, and my helper is cooking and baking the bread. I still have to do some pork steam buns,” Chen said. He makes everything fresh each morning, and it often sells out before the afternoon, but he gauges what and how much he makes on the crowd flow. “Today, I have to slow down a little bit,” he said.
Chen, who moved to the United States from China 5-½ years ago, said the biggest difference between American and Chinese breads is sugar.
“Chinese breads are more soft and less sugar,” he said. “[In the] United States, the culture, they like high-sugar fruit, high-sugar bread, and cake. That’s the difference in our Chinatown, we keep the Chinese style, everything has less sugar, less fat, less salt, and [is] better for people.”
Chen said his favorite part of working at Chinatown Supermarket is making bread — but second is the store’s Chinese barbecue. “The barbecue pork, it’s very famous in Hong Kong,” he said. “And our chef here had more than 20 years’ experience in Hong Kong.”
Connecting to culture
ChickQueen, which is right inside the front doors, was started by Guljoo Kim and is now managed by her son, Ryan Moon.
“My mom was already a good — well, great — cook,” Moon said. But before opening ChickQueen, she threw herself into researching other restaurants, traveling to Seattle and California “just to glean ideas,” he said.
Fried chicken is one of the most popular street foods in Korea, Moon said, but that it’s not easy to find Korean-style fried chicken in Utah. When ChickQueen opened three years ago, they were the only one that served it. (Since then, another Korean chicken restaurant has opened in Provo.)
Chicken is served either boneless or bone-in, and comes plain or in such flavors as honey garlic, spicy hot, sweet soy sauce and green onion. The chicken is paired with sesame, house ranch or Korean spicy dipping sauces. It can be ordered with rice, but Moon said fries are more popular.
Moon, who grew up in Salt Lake City, said that the restaurant helps him connect to his Korean roots. “A lot of Korean people come in here, a lot of people who go to Korea, or did missions in Korea,” he said. “It helps me out a lot, because I get to speak Korean more often, practice more. So it’s nice.”
What a gate means
According to Winston Kyan, an associate professor of art history at the University of Utah, in Chinese culture, “pailou” or gates are “used to commemorate important events or personal accomplishments.”
This is done through messages written on the gates themselves, and the ornate gate that welcomes visitors into the Chinatown Supermarket parking lot says “zhong guo cheng,” which Kyan said translates to “Chinatown.”
In China, Kyan said, these gates are traditionally found outside temples, mausoleums and certain neighborhoods. But in the United States, they mark the official entrances to local Chinatowns, and most were built between the 1960s and 1980s.
“The sense of commemorating something is the same,” Kyan said. “However, what is being commemorated changes.”
Kyan — who has written about the architecture of Chinatowns — said he doesn’t know the exact meaning of the Utah Chinatown gate, but, he can make an educated guess: That the gate isn’t symbolic for the Chinese American community, but marks the entrance to the shopping area.
Kyan speculated that the gate at Salt Lake Chinatown primarily serves as advertising. “If you have ever been there on the weekends, you know that the advertising works,” he added.
Utah’s past Chinatowns
Chinatowns and similar Asian enclaves began forming in the United States in the 1800s, a result of racist immigration laws and bigotry against people of Asian heritage.
And while other cities — most famously on the West coast, San Francisco — have larger Chinatowns, Utah’s history of such neighborhoods goes back to the 1860s.
Once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at Promontory, Utah, the Chinese immigrants who laid much of the tracks began moving into Chinatowns around the state — from Salt Lake City to Ogden, according to Daniel Liestman’s 1996 article in Utah Historical Quarterly.
Utah’s first Chinatown was in Plum Alley, a short street in downtown Salt Lake City, parallel to Regent Street between what’s now City Creek Center and the Gallivan Center. Such enclaves rose and fell rapidly in Utah, both because of anti-Chinese sentiment and the tradition of immigrants earning money to move back to China.
The current Salt Lake Chinatown opened in fall 2011, and is planning to expand. Raigne has acquired a venue next door, a shuttered strip club. There are no plans to build on that space yet, aside from expanding the parking area.
The growth of the state’s Asian American population — the fastest growth rate among Utah minorities, according to In 2020, U.S. Census data — seems to favor that kind of expansion.
‘We’ve bounced back’
Raigne said the market area of Chinatown hasn’t been as affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as much the restaurants have. He recalled a Thursday in March 2020, just as businesses were being shut down, when visitors flocked to the market and carried away bags of supplies to stock up.
The restaurants struggled to make ends meet with customers not dining in, but many adapted to take-out and third-party delivery services, Raigne said. Now, parking is completely overrun on the weekends and the crowds are back, including couples trying different restaurants for date nights.
“Our goal is to keep a variety [with restaurants] with not too much overlap,” Raigne said, adding that management oversees and approves the menus. “We work with them as they open up and as they get going … We try to keep a lot of variety. There is a little bit of overlap, but for the most part we try to make sure each one is unique in some way or another.”
And while anti-Asian sentiment was rampant during the pandemic — because China was the first country that experienced the novel coronavirus — Ragine said Salt Lake Chinatown didn’t experience much of that anger.
“We’ve not seen anything negative,” he said — though adding that it was always in the back of his mind when he watched the news.
For now, Raigne continues to act as a jack of all trades at the market, and encourages all to come and visit to see what’s inside.
“We’ve bounced back and even beyond what it was before COVID,” he said. “We’ve got more restaurants, we’ve opened up some new places. So we are back to what it was before, and beyond.”
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