By Charles Lam
There goes a 3-foot Elsa with verve, walking through South Coast Plaza on Halloween afternoon, passing Sears and Din Tai Fung before getting on the escalator down to go to Uniqlo. A Minnie Mouse and an astronaut flank her; behind the trio are two adults—a man dressed in chinos and a casual button-up shirt, and a woman in a simple top and black pants—watching diligently as their children go from store to store looking for candy.
Hundreds of costumed kiddies join the scramble—Captain America and Optimus Prime for the boys; Katniss Everdeen and a galaxy of Disney princesses for the girls. They mix with the regular Saturday mall-going crowd. But as Elsa's family reaches the bottom of the escalator, the father and mother pull their wards to the side and speak to them in Mandarin, a language rare in South Coast Plaza even a decade ago, but nearly ubiquitous today.
Many of the trick-or-treaters had a similar posse: Mandarin-speaking nannies, heavily pregnant mothers or casually dressed fathers— all of them tuhao (a Chinese phrase used to describe the nouveau riche). They're not just here for the free Snickers. Four tourists rest their feet at Starbucks after a few hours of shopping, their table surrounded by Nordstrom bags. At the BMW Gallery, families ask questions in so-so English about modifications. In Bloomingdale's, a boyfriend scrolls his finger across the screen of a rose-gold iPhone while his significant other gets dolled up by one of the store's makeup artists. Instead of Facebook or Reddit, he browses Weibo, China's largest social network.
Foreign shoppers have always flocked to South Coast Plaza. Summers, especially, bring Saudi royalty, Russian billionaire girlfriends and busloads of Japanese tourists who go directly from LAX to the mall, then back. But over the past few years, Chinese are the one group that has changed the dynamic of South Coast Plaza, so much so that the distinctly tonal Mandarin is now as common a sound as French accents or MILF-speak.
“I really noticed an explosion [of Chinese] this past year,” says Andrew, a twentysomething Vietnamese-American who has worked at two different stores in the shopping center during the past five years. “It used to be a few would come in at a time, but since Din Tai Fung opened, it's about 50-50. Half the people I help are Chinese tourists—they ask about the post cards or travel pillows. Then it's other employees. Locals are third.”
The quintessential mall for OC's rich set, one of the most lucrative in the United States, is now a major tourist attraction for tens of thousands of Chinese: Orange County families having their second or later child, students parachuted into the United States to attend high school or college, corporate types staying for a quick meeting and some leisure time. They come in such high numbers that South Coast Plaza has turned its marketing prowess on overdrive in a way never seen for any other ethnic group—and it's just getting started.
“We're here on business,” says a man in Mandarin. He and two of his co-workers are in from Shanghai and are spending their downtime shopping at the mall's luxury jewelry dealers. They clutch their phones, looking for Wifi so they can find a digital map of the place. On the man's web browser is a picture of a gold watch.
“We've heard of South Coast, so we wanted to see it for ourselves,” he says. Before he can continue, his traveling partners tell him they've found the store they're looking for. He quickly says goodbye and walks away, his eyes back on the watch on his phone.
Attracting Chinese has become a longtime, important project for South Coast Plaza for good reason. “Orange County” as a brand still has cachet in China—famously, a housing tract an hour north of Beijing created by a Newport Beach developer has the same name. The country's explosive growth has created a generation of residents newly armed with billions of dollars in spending power; the United States for Chinese has become like Europe for Americans—a boast-worthy travel destination to top all other locales, an experience they can take home and hold above the heads of their friends. In 2013 alone, 1.8 million Chinese tourists visited the U.S., with more than 800,000 of them stopping in California, according to the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau, a tourism organization funded by various hotels and businesses in the city. Each tourist spends more than $5,000 in the country, almost 25 percent more than other international visitors. Despite a slowing Chinese economy, that tourism money has yet to stop.
Though the overall economic effect on Orange County is hard to pin down, the number of tourists is expected to grow to 4 million by 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And thanks to the efforts of the Visitor Bureau, Costa Mesa is constantly present in China's luxury magazines and on Air China, vying for space right next to Macau, Hong Kong and Sydney, among other popular Chinese tourist destinations.
Industry experts credit Werner Escher, South Coast Plaza's executive director of domestic and international markets and the man responsible for much of South Coast's international success, for creating the mall's Chinese wave. Now in his mid-80s, he has worked for South Coast Plaza for nearly five decades, back to when the Segerstroms were transforming their lima bean fields into buildings. It was Escher who convinced the clan to let him court Japanese starting in the 1970s, at a time when that country's economy was booming and Americans still dismissed its residents as goldfish farmers.
Japanese at South Coast became a trend piece for local journalists for years. But as the Japanese economy sputtered in the 1990s, Escher pivoted toward China. He first visited in 2004; by the next year, long before any large influx of Chinese were coming to the United States, Escher helped bring a production of the National Ballet of China's Raise the Red Lantern to the then-Orange County Performing Arts Center (now the Segerstrom Center for the Arts).
“We have adapted,” Escher says. “We certainly have Mandarin-speaking concierge and sales associates. We have the largest selection of brands, particularly luxury, and so many of our stores have stories to tell. There's a history to the shoes, the clothes.”
Escher was prescient; in 2007, the United States and China signed an agreement to increase tourism. He convinced the Visitor Bureau to also visit the country with the Orange County Visitors Association to pitch the county and the city to tour operators and vendors. More important, South Coast changed the way it and its tenants did business.
By 2012, South Coast Plaza's shops and vendors began to accept China UnionPay, the largest credit-card network used by Chinese nationals—the first shopping center in the United States to do so. Its full website is offered in only two languages: English and Chinese. Signage in South Coast proudly gives the mall's Weibo account top social-media billing. Even advertisements for new businesses in the mall feature Chinese-language copy—sometimes at the expense of all other shoppers. Signs for Nathan Alan Jewelers, for instance, stress their GIA-certified diamonds only in Chinese script. Meanwhile, posters strewn around South Coast remind shoppers they can receive a $50 gift certificate if they charge more than $1,000 on their UnionPay.
Online, just as much effort and thought goes into South Coast's Weibo account as does its Facebook or Twitter ones. Proudly pinned to the top of the shopping center's Weibo page are photos highlighting $800 red-soled Louboutin shoes, a post that has dozens of the Weibo equivalent of retweets. South Coast Plaza's hashtag has upward of 5.4 million views, and when someone posts something at or regarding the shopping center, the response is as quick as any American Twitter conversation.
“Thanks for the Makeup Tips,” one Weibo user posted on Halloween with a photo of her and a makeup artist from MAC. “I love it!”
“What tips? Please share!” South Coast Plaza asked less than a day later.
Just last year, Orange County and South Coast Plaza received a major get when a 7,000-strong delegation of China's top salespeople from Perfect(China), a direct-sales company, visited the county for a company convention combined with tour and vacation time. Nearly a quarter of those salespeople were bussed to the shopping center as part of their trip, and according to China UnionPay, the visitors spent approximately $10,000 apiece during their trips.
Three distinct subsets of Chinese now haunt South Coast Plaza. The most obvious is people who come here for birth tourism. Many birthing house operators include trips to the mall as part of their up-to-$50,000 all-inclusive packages, (see “The OC Weekly Guide to Chinese Birth Tourism,” May 27). The trips are frequent enough that many expectant mothers—accompanied by nannies, their husbands, older children or chaperones—walk around the mall as a form of prenatal exercise, dropping into stores to browse. Many birth tourism homes are located within walking distance of the mall, making repeat visiting mothers a common occurrence.
Though the shopping center doesn't directly market to birth tourists, South Coast is known enough in Chinese tourism circles that offering visits to the mall is a plus. Lately, large groups have become more common, especially as group walks around OC's luxury apartment buildings that unwittingly serve as birth houses have drawn increased scrutiny since the summer months. The birth tourists are easiest to find in the middle of the day, when all of the businesses are open, and the walkways are less crowded.
“We've only been here a few days, and we just found this place,” a man says in Mandarin, his wife beside him. “We're near here, so we decided to walk around and look.”
It's early afternoon on a Thursday, and the pair continues around the mall holding hands. The two visit the Prada store for a few moments before taking the elevator to Hermès. After a bit more walking, they leave the mall without making a purchase.
“I actually lived near this area a few years ago, and I had visited South Coast then,” a heavily pregnant mother says in Mandarin. She declined to give her name but spoke easily while flanked by her toddler, a nanny and a stroller. She sat down on a bench, then decided to get up and walk a few more laps. “I liked it, so I decided to move back now.”
Another major Chinese group that South Coast Plaza actively targets is more standard: people the hospitality industry describes as MICE. The acronym stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions and represents trips organized by companies for their top employees as rewards or tourism generated by trade shows. They're the middle class of China, a more-or-less even gender mix of older folks who wander the mall in large groups dressed largely like tourists, with comfortable shoes, the occasional visor, a fanny pack or a passport necklace.
The 7,000-people-strong visit by Perfect(China) last year was just the start of MICE, one that South Coast pulled all the stops out for. The center dedicated a parking lot to the shuttling of the thousands of employees who stopped by, even setting out a red carpet and hiring stilt walkers clad in costume and face paint to invite shoppers into the building.
“[Many Chinese tourists] have heard about the experience from other people,” Escher says. “The biggest loudspeaker we have is the take-home from South Coast Plaza. Certainly they take home a gift or something they bought, but they take home a memory. They take home an experience.”
South Coast hasn't hosted as large of a group since then, but smaller delegations of company VIPs still visit. Just this past month, the plaza put out signs welcoming employees of Mellish Island, a Chinese company that sells wild sea cucumber harvested and prepared in the United States, a luxury offering for upper-class Chinese paired against cheaper, Chinese-farmed sea cucumber. Mellish stressed the trip as a company-bonding and relaxation event for a few thousand of its most valuable employees.
In a report, Southern California was described as a dreamland compared to China. “Far away from the haze, breathing fresh California air, Mellish Island staff are one step closer to the dream of seeing America,” it reads, describing the mood as the employees arrive.
The report then described the nice service, the comfortable hotels, and the “American” and Chinese food prepared at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.
“Our company is like a family,” the report reads toward the end, wrapping up the trip. “We split into groups of a few dozen people, and many had never met. But by the end of the trip, many cared for each other.”
The last major clan of Chinese nationals at South Coast Plaza are high-school- and college-aged kids sent to the U.S. alone to get educated. Often the children of China's wealthiest class, they're the conspicuous consumers, spending without pause at Louis Vuitton, Rolex and the like. They're easiest to find at nights, when the stores are preparing to close, and can be identified by their fashion-forward dress and lack of interaction with anyone who's not a direct friend.
Take two male friends who left Saks Fifth Avenue, pausing at Dolce & Gabbana to scoff at some of the merchandise, before continuing into the Versace store. One wore light-brown boat shoes, capri-length light-blue jeans and a blue Hawaiian shirt. The other had on a baseball jacket with a hoodie with horns, track pants and white tennis shoes. Neither acknowledged the Asian-American salesperson greeting them.
Or the group of half a dozen twentysomethings who congregated outside the Rolex store immersed in their phones, occasionally saying a few words to one another. After a few minutes, the ringleader of the group—wearing a ripped white T-shirt, Adidas flip-flops, black track pants, and a heavy, diamond-encrusted gold watch—broke off to enter the Rolex store; he also ignored the doorman. Moments later, he left the store with a small bag. Walking through the mall, a girl, her boyfriend and another male friend crossed several fast-fashion stores while on their way to the Saks Fifth Avenue wing of South Coast Plaza. Two of them wore college sweatshirts—Pomona College for the girl, the taller of the two men wearing one from Cal State Northridge. As they passed H&M, the girl began talking about things they all might want to buy.
“It's been getting cold lately,” she said in Mandarin.
“Yeah,” one of the men replied. “We might actually need warm clothes for once.”
As they stopped near the mall's espresso stand, the Weekly approached them with a Mandarin-speaking interpreter, asking if they'd mind answering a few questions about how they heard about the plaza. After a beat, the taller of the two men responded in English. “I am sorry. We are busy and must go somewhere,” he said as the three powerwalked away. About 10 minutes later, the three peered over the handrails at Saks, looking at the stores below.
While the infusion of new Chinese money has been a boon for businesses in Costa Mesa and South Coast Plaza, the influx hasn't been a completely smooth process. As more foreigners come in, the culture clash has grown more obvious.
Escher isn't sweating it. “We're not worried about [putting off locals] at all,” he says. “Living in Orange County, we're aware of the fact that it's really branded by Disneyland and South Coast Plaza. You know it's where the world wants to shop. Isn't it wonderful that we have an international destination? I think the county's very proud of that fact.”
Neither South Coast Plaza nor any of its tenants would officially comment, but friction between the Chinese nationals and everyone else has become a topic of gossip for regulars. Recently, a Chinese child no older than 4 sat among a group of mannequins in front of Bloomingdale's, bawling loudly with apparently no supervision. Though initially alone, he began to draw a crowd—just three people at first, but quickly nearly every person who crossed from the store exit into the mall gathered.
Was he lost? How long had he been there? Should anyone help?
From a dozen feet or so away, a security guard just inside the Chanel store looked on awkwardly, unable to move from his post.
“Think of how scared that child must be,” an older white woman said.
“Is everything all right? Should we get security?” a younger woman asked.
An Asian-American couple approached the child, cooing comforting words in English to try to calm him down. He continued crying as if they weren't there. They looked at the security guard. He awkwardly acknowledged their gaze, shrugging slightly to try to communicate there was nothing he could do. The crowd, perplexed by the exchange, slowly began to filter away.
A few moments later, the child's mother turned to him. She had been looking at purses just 10 feet away. She walked 5 feet toward her son, chastised him in Mandarin for causing a scene, then returned to the salesperson as he continued to cry.
“We do get a lot of people from China coming through here,” a server at Din Tai Fung says. “You can tell because they're more reserved, and they don't speak very much English. We have a few assistants at the mall and at the restaurant who speak Chinese, but even then, only a little.”
The restaurant was one of South Coast Plaza's highest profile openings in 2014, filling a hole for any kind of substantial Chinese food at the mall. It drew lines upward of six hours at the beginning, fueled largely by Orange County's Asian-American foodies. Getting a table at lunch on a weekday still regularly takes an hour, thanks in part to the large number of Chinese nationals eating there.
“There ends up being a lot of pointing,” another server interjects before leaving to clear a table. “They normally order Tsingtao or Asahi, too.”
“Serving them can be a little difficult because they almost don't allow us to serve them,” the first server adds. “They'll be halfway through the meal and already expect their check. I know quick table turnaround is customary in China, and we're a Taiwanese/Chinese/Shanghai restaurant, but it'd be nice if they acclimated a bit.
“I feel bad. I do wish that I spoke some Mandarin so we could communicate,” he concluded. Around him, the restaurant cleared out as 10 p.m. approached. From the bar, the only visible patrons were two tables of two—all four people speaking in Mandarin. “But still, it'd be nice if they made an effort.”