Ben Thanh Plaza is the name of a famed flea market and shopping area in Ho Chi Minh City that dates to French colonial days. David Dang said he knew Asians would relate to the name. And they did.
Ben Thanh Plaza owner David Dang most certainly claims title to being the most recognized – and likely most innovative – Vietnam-born entrepreneur in Arlington, even having a recent "David Dang Day" designation by the city council.
That's saying something because the census indicates Arlington's Vietnamese population ranks among the 15 largest in the United States.
Though Dang owns numerous real estate-related investments in North Texas, he’s most known for the ornate Vietnamese-style remake of what had been a staid, and struggling, almost 200,000-square-foot strip center in east Arlington.
The center at East Pioneer Boulevard and New York Avenue began life as a cookie-cutter, most-ordinary shopping amenity originally anchored by a now-long-gone Woolco in the early 1970s, then by a Home Depot. It then became the Hong Kong Market as East Arlington shifted from mostly blue-collar Anglo residents to a blended, upwardly mobile Anglo/Hispanic/Asian/African-American/Middle Eastern population.
Today, it’s among the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the Metroplex, though the word “neighborhood” understates reality.
East Arlington, with a population of 75,000, could easily be a city by itself. Within the community, the Ben Thanh Plaza stands out as an eye-catching icon, from an enormous red Asian-detailed gate and replica of a historic Vietnamese temple to Asian-styled lettering throughout.
With more than 50 tenants, the center has its own bank, its own Asian-oriented supermarket with what might be the most eclectic seafood selection in the region, offices of the Tarrant County Asian Chamber of Commerce, a radio station (106.5 FM), lawyers, accountants, salons, specialty stores and an exotic smorgasbord of 11 restaurants.
Pick your cuisine preference: Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian, Philippine, Laotian, Egyptian, Thai and even Hispanic.
Dang titled the center Ben Thanh Plaza because that’s the name of a famed, sprawling flea market and shopping area in Ho Chi Minh City that dates to French colonial days.
“I knew Asians would relate to the name and the name worked. We’re at 95 percent occupancy,” Dang says of the plaza, “shooting for 100 percent.”
Though he’s on a roll now, it hasn’t come easy for Dang.
He grew up in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, where his family prospered in tractor rental and fishing businesses.
With the Communist takeover it became clear that family businesses would be appropriated and opportunities would be few.
So, at 22, Dang and his wife, Vao, paid a substantial fee – and a bribe – to board a fishing boat with three children – the daughter of his oldest brother and two of Vao’s younger sisters. They journeyed first to Malaysia, then to the Netherlands, where he initially worked as a factory mechanic while also studying accounting. He did accounting and translation work for almost a decade before finally immigrating to the United States.
“I was lucky to find work in accounting, first in New York, then California,” Dang recollects. “But all along I could see that this was a country full of opportunities and I wanted my own business.”
He settled on the grocery business, opting to finally come to the Metroplex because the region was prospering.
“I had relatives here looking for investment opportunities for me,” Dang said. “Family is central to Vietnamese culture, and that helped.”
He originally meant to simply buy the shopping center’s grocery store, but in 2011 he took a bigger gamble. He purchased the whole center, kicking off a torturous, financially risky three-year revamp that turned out to be educational for both him and city bureaucracy.
“I wasn’t familiar with Arlington or projects of this magnitude, didn’t know the people, and the city initially couldn’t understand what I was trying to accomplish, so there were many delays – all of which made lenders nervous,” Dang recalls. “If I had known about East Arlington Renewal in the beginning, it would have gone smoother.”
East Arlington Renewal – EAR – is the city’s largest and arguably most influential neighborhood association.
Once EAR, the city and Dang developed a relationship, redevelopment picked up speed: He went from “Who is this and what is this?” puzzlement at City Hall to having a day named in his honor.
No small feat.
It helps that the plaza has become a visitors’ attraction and a cultural center within itself – events like egg rolls festivals, Chinese New Year celebrations and health fairs have become both popular and routine.
“Arlington calls itself the American Dream City,” Dang said. “It certainly has been for me.”
1818 E. Pioneer Blvd.
O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.