A giant snake sat coiled in the center of South Coast Plaza's Jewel Court, keeping watch over a bounty of oversized coins, lush flowers and stacks of oranges. In its clutches was a glittering bronze fan, and red paper lanterns suspended from bamboo poles matched its ribbon-like tongue.
Along the upper floors of the rotunda, banners wished visitors "Happy New Year," in several languages.
The display, which will greet passing shoppers through Feb. 17 as part of the shopping center's Lunar New Year festivities, is meant to bring happiness, abundance and financial prosperity.
With Orange County's east Asian communities rapidly growing, and with exploding purchasing power making its way stateside from China, area businesses are hoping that nods to the Year of the Snake, which begins Sunday, will attract a piece of the good fortune.
"What you can see is that things like the Lunar New Year are not simply ethnic or in the margins," said Yong Chen, a history and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine. "They're entering the mainstream with big players like South Coast [Plaza.]"
Disneyland Resort is featuring Asian-inspired menu items at restaurants throughout its parks and Downtown Disney, along with a number of performances this weekend by Asian American dance troupes, said John McClintock, resort spokesman. It's the resort's second year holding a major celebration.
It's also Starbucks' second year selling Lunar New Year-themed gift cards.
And South Coast Plaza, which for decades has billed itself not as a mall, but a world-class shopping destination, is leading the charge.
"They know the global market," Chen said. "They're visionary. The things they've done have been very effective."
South Coast Plaza's marketers have successfully tapped into Chinese demand for "lavish, bigger-name products." That demand, Chen said, is "growing at insane levels."
For example, he said, a popular brand-name outlet store might have a limit, "saying each customer can only buy 10 handbags — five with the logos, five without. It's that kind of consumption."
At least for now, that brand demand seems to be something of a one-way street, Chen said.
Asked if any Chinese brands were gaining the kind of cachet Western luxury brands enjoy, he quipped, "Call me back in 10 years."
In any case, Chen said, holiday spending in particular can be a huge boon for retailers.
"In China … the New Year has become more like Christmas," he said. "The Chinese expenditure during the Lunar New Year season may very well exceed that of American Christmas shopping. So it's incredible."
The MAC Cosmetics store will be the only location in North America to offer its "Year of the Snake" make-up collection.
High-end accessory designer Roger Vivier created limited editions of its classic Pilgrim clutch in two shades of bright red — available exclusively at its Orange County boutique.
Of Roger Vivier's three U.S. boutiques — the other two are on Madison Avenue in New York and in Bal Harbour, Fla. — South Coast Plaza "just made sense," Public Relations Coordinator Sarah Hauser said. "What's special about South Coast Plaza is it has such a diverse clientele."
Given the brand's high-end price point, catering to individual clients is a top priority, she said.