Walk, shop, eat and talk.
Those are the things Yia Vang wants people to do when they visit his spacious building on St. Paul's East Side.
Called Hmong Village, it's a labyrinth of indoor merchant stalls, fresh produce vendors, bustling kitchens and offices geared toward the region's tens of thousands of Hmong residents, many who live in St. Paul.
There's something for just about anyone of any age: clothing, fragrant cosmetics, jewelry, steaming bowls of pho noodle soup, even a video-game arcade.
"People like to one-stop shop," Vang said.
A trip to Hmong Village isn't like going to Southdale. It's similar to other ethnic marketplaces, such as the multicultural Midtown Global Market or Somali Karmel Square in Minneapolis, where many small family-run businesses rent smaller spaces to sell goods and services. It's perhaps the most local of local economies.
Vang and eight partners bought the 108,000-square-foot building at 1001 Johnson Pkwy., last year. It was a former St. Paul Public Schools building and warehouse. They spent about $3 million to upgrade mechanical systems and build stalls. No city subsidies were given.
There are 40 offices, 35 produce booths, 17 restaurants and 230 merchant stalls. Rents range from $500 to $2,000 per month, with utilities included.
Vang said all of the space is leased, but not all of the businesses are open yet.
A grand opening is set for next Saturday.
While he's proud to provide a new place for people to buy and sell things, Vang said he wants Hmong Village to become a community center where elders and children and people in between can gather and interact. Because it's indoors, it will be good for older people in winter, he said.
To market, to market
The East Side is a long way from Laos, but hand-painted murals by Ger Yang on the produce area walls remind folks of the lush jungles, tall mountains and coursing streams of the old country.
The produce area is an open hall with stalls that offer fruits, veggies and flowers -- some that can't be readily purchased at local supermarkets. Some of the produce comes from nearby farms.
Through a hall, the walkway is lined with small stalls, complete with walls and floor coverings that have roll-down doors, similar to an indoor storage building.
Merchants sell a range of products, from DVDs to vitamins. They offer tailoring and electronics repair.
In one space, Zoua Paj Vue hung frilly blouses on a rack. She's preparing to open her first business, Beautiful Boutique, and she's excited about the location. "A lot of Hmong people are shopping here," she said.
Many steps away, Richard Yang was bellied up to a counter sipping green tea out of a small cup at MN Hmong Health Tea. He has visited Hmong Village a few times. "This promotes business for Hmong people, and it's a great place to hang out," he said.
As Yang was relaxing, cooks in the food court were busy cleaning up after lunch rush and replenishing steam trays and to-go dishes.
At Her Kitchen, Neng Her spooned BB-sized balls of fluorescent green and pink tapioca into a plastic cup, where they would be covered with coconut milk to become a sweet dessert drink called "tricolor."
She relocated her business to Hmong Village because the place she used to have is going to be demolished for a road extension. "I'm Hmong, so I like working with other Hmong," she said.
It's clear the mall is stocked with Hmong cultural pride, but Yia Vang points out that there are shops owned by Mexican, Somali, Thai and Vietnamese merchants, too. People of any background are welcome, he said.
He just wants a place for people to walk, shop, eat and talk.
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148