Soaking Beauty and so on

On 65th Street and Stockton Boulevard, just north of the Florin Mall, the Pacific Plaza appears at first glance like any suburban strip mall. But on a closer look, the plaza reveals itself as another thing entirely. There’s a remarkable lack of chain stores here—virtually no recognizable franchises. Instead, it’s a veritable cornucopia of Far Eastern wares.

At the east end of the plaza, the Láng Café draws a lot of activity on weekends. Out front, the men play xiangqi, a Chinese game similar to chess, and smoke. Inside, a coffee bar serves boba tapioca drinks and mochas, and Vietnamese books, CDs and DVDs are for sale. At the back of the store, gray partitions hide the offices of the Láng Vietnamese language magazine.

At the Huong Lan shop and eatery next-door, a rainbow of products lines the air-conditioned shelves: pastel-colored gelatin rice cakes, tapioca and xoi—sticky rice. In Huong Lan and other small businesses in Pacific Plaza, a Buddhist altar stands tucked in some corner of the building with a statue of Kuan Kung, guardian of business owners and leaders, protector of good people from crime and attractor of wealth. The TVM floral shop, toward the west end of the plaza, sells Kuan Kungs, Virgin Marys, Buddhas, Christs and other sacred figures. TVM boasts other charms, too, like the elegant bamboo plants, shaped into elaborate corkscrews and lattices, arrayed at its entrance.

From nearby, the pungent aromas of the Wah Tsun Chinese Herbs Co. beckon. The offerings here include seven types of ginseng plus dozens of other medicinal herbs and teas. Dried seahorses curl in glass jars behind the counter, next to white ceramic jars of tea labeled with such peculiar names as “Blue People,” “Iron Goddess,” “Soaking Beauty” and “Monkey Pick.”

The centerpiece of Pacific Plaza is SF (Shun Fat) Market, a large grocery store comparable in size to Safeway. SF carries a mind-numbing supply of Asian-import and local products. A dozen types of ramen noodles, fresh fish, jackfruit, kimchi and exotic soy “meat” products tax the attention span.

Outside, the Manila Mail sits in a rack next to the Asian Inquirer, and fliers for cultural events hang taped to the glass, next to handmade listings, in Sharpie-written Asian characters, for sundry rentals. Teenagers of various ethnicities cruise by in shining sedans. And before long it becomes quite clear that the future of the suburbs isn’t so obvious after all.