Nothing like a little FOMO to inspire an entrepreneur.

Just ask Kenny Poon, who, after watching business opportunity after business opportunity slip through his fingers, opened five trendy spots in Chinatown in the last five years, including his most ambitious, Chinatown Square. It's a cavernous food hall that feels almost out of place in the neighborhood with its extremely sleek New York vibes, and that draws crowds late into the night for its raucous, second-floor bottle-service lounge.

"I missed a lot of chances in Chinatown already," he said on a recent morning, seated at the long benches at the back of Chinatown Square. His hair gelled spiky and sporting a near-constant grin, Poon, 39, had just come from taking one of his kids – he has four – to the dentist.

It's been a learning curve for Poon. Years before he started bringing the zeitgeist to Chinatown, he ran a bustling store there, catering to Asians looking for hard-to-get Nokia and Samsung models. Though already a dominant player in the neighborhood's nascent cellphone industry, he envisioned opening up more shops to corner the market. But, he says, his brother, who ran the business with him, wasn't interested. Poon hesitated. Then it was too late.

The same thing happened with bubble tea. In 2012, he opened one of Chinatown's first shops, Tea Do, but didn't open a second one fast enough. A few years later, the market was saturated.

And now? He lives in "fear of missing out" on the chance to capitalize on an idea, said his longtime friend and frequent business partner, Dave Taing, with a laugh.

Thus the sprint. "Right now," Taing said, "we can't move fast enough."

The duo, who co-own Chinatown Square, have a number of projects in the works, including some that look outside of Chinatown, notably, another massive food hall project at a University City development. (Their company is called Poon Taing – just like you'd guess it sounds — and Poon, who moved to the United States when he was 14, initially did not know what the sexual slang word meant, though, cheekily, Taing did. Poon was fine with a little bro-y humor. After all, those are their  names.)

Thursday night at the Johnnie Walker Lounge, upstairs at Chinatown Square, which some say is one of the few nightlife spots in the city that’s racially diverse.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Thursday night at the Johnnie Walker Lounge, upstairs at Chinatown Square, which some say is one of the few nightlife spots in the city that’s racially diverse.

Their momentum, sparked by Poon's initial bets on Chinatown, is a marker of what the neighborhood has become: a destination for young people, Asian and non-Asian alike.

"It's not just the traditional Chinatown, where you come for chow mein," said Margaret Chin, chairperson of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., who remembers a time just a decade ago when Philadelphians would travel to New York City's Chinatown and Flushing to get what you couldn't at home: Shanghainese soup dumplings, roast duck, freshly killed chickens.

Now, on top of all kinds of Asian cuisine, Chinatown offers an alternative to a city nightlife scene that's often either mostly white or mostly black. It was something that Reena Sok, 28, noted as he smoked strawberry hookah with his friends Thursday night while a DJ blasted Drake at Chinatown Square's Johnnie Walker Lounge. "Multiple cultures can come here and still feel happy," said Sok, whose parents grew up in Cambodia.

Much of the change has been driven by an influx in the last eight years of entrepreneurs from the Chinese province of Fujian, where Poon was born, and the rising number of affluent Chinese international students coming to the neighborhood hungry for more options. Millennials also make up nearly half the population in Center City zip code 19107, which includes Chinatown, according to a 2014 Pew report, and while Asian property ownership has risen over the last decade, largely affluent white residents have moved into the neighborhood's new condos, said Penn professor Domenic Vitiello, who authored the 2017 article, "Who Owns Chinatown: Neighbourhood Preservation and Cchange in Boston and Philadelphia."

Amid all this change, Poon has emerged as the Chinatown tastemaker.

There's no one who matches his stature in terms of how many "New Chinatown" businesses he owns, said Jack Chen, the Fujianese owner of neighborhood spots like restaurant Sakura Mandarin and dessert shop A la Mousse, as well as his and Poon's Yamitsuki Ramen. (This, Chen said, is in partly due to the traditionally risk-averse Chinatown business owners of the older generation, who generally kept businesses in the family.) Poon's places are booming, said PCDC's Chin, and they have changed the dynamic of the neighborhood by appealing to the "young folks."

Just don't call him the "king." Poon was reluctant about the title, citing Eastern cultural practices of modesty, respect and keeping a low profile. He didn't want people in Chinatown to think he was going around boasting. And yet, the title seems accurate for the way that Poon is leading the neighborhood's hip evolution.

In the style of a new kind of Chinatown entrepreneur, he's always on to the next hot new idea ("There's so many bubble tea shops," he said, "I don't even care no more."), but also has the old-school connections to seal the deal.

Poon’s Tea Do bubble tea shop is next to several old-school Chinatown staples, like restaurants Tai Lake and Ting Wong.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Poon’s Tea Do bubble tea shop is next to several old-school Chinatown staples, like restaurants Tai Lake and Ting Wong.

It's a life he's been preparing for since he was a teen.

When he graduated from Samuel S. Fels High in the Northeast, his parents, who owned a Chinese takeout at Broad and Dauphin Streets, near where he grew up, gave him $50,000. They told him he could either go to college or get into business. He chose the business.

He bought a share of his uncle's Chinese buffet in Fairfax, Va., where he learned every aspect of the business, including cooking and running the front of house, and as the only buffet in the area, he made all his money back in six months. But soon after, two other buffets moved in, offering the same prices but with more options. He watched as the competition killed his business. After two years, Poon sold his share of the buffet to his cousin and moved home to Philadelphia.

He opened KenShin Asian Diner in Northern Liberties, a neighborhood he thought was poised for growth, but he decided profit margins were too small in that part of town. Then he worked in real estate as a property manager and an agent; he made good money but hated doing sales.

In 2011, a hair salon owner who had once bought a cellphone from him called asking if he knew anyone who'd be interested in taking over her lease at the corner of 10th and Cherry Streets. "How about if I take it?" he asked. Never mind the commission, he told her. She cut him a good deal. Poon started renovations to turn the spot into a bubble tea shop, much to his family's disbelief: You're spending all this time and money on a property and it's not even for a restaurant?

But Poon bet right. Tea Do, open until 11 p.m., quickly became a hangout for students across the city. He used the profit from Tea Do to fund a second floor for the karaoke bar Tango, which established itself as a nightlife spot with events like Thirsty Thursday, lip sync battles, and a ladies bikini contest. (Taing, who used to run popular "Asia nights" at Philly nightclubs in the aughts, helped expose Poon to the local nightlife industry.)

Then followed Korean fried chicken franchise Bonchon in 2015, Yamitsuki Ramen in 2016, and finally Chinatown Square in 2017, a more than $2 million undertaking that involved digging into the building's foundation to open up the space, curating the vendors and getting liquor brands to sponsor the upstairs karaoke rooms and bar. (It's why Philadelphia is home to the country's only Johnnie Walker Lounge. Poon loves the brand so much, his friends like to say that when he perspires, as he did during the interview for this story, he sweats Johnnie Walker.) The pair funded the renovation with a mix of self-financing, family investment, and an $879,000 Small Business Administration loan.

David Lee (left) and Peter Orbach mix drinks at Japanese street food stall Hi Kori at Chinatown Square.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
David Lee (left) and Peter Orbach mix drinks at Japanese street food stall Hi Kori at Chinatown Square.

With all the more expensive businesses opening up, is there a fear that they'll displace the older businesses or longtime residents?

Sieu Nguyen, who runs Lee How Fook, the Chinese restaurant her parents founded, said the patrons who are coming to the neighborhood for the karaoke bars and the hot-pot restaurants aren't bypassing her restaurant, but coming to Chinatown specifically to try out the new places – and that's not a bad thing.

"We still have longtime customers that are very loyal," Nguyen said.

And while affordable housing is important to maintain, says Chin, the PCDC chairperson – the organization's banner project is the mixed-use, 20-story Eastern Tower – she sees the neighborhood's new economy as a positive change. Those businesses play an important role in bringing more people to Chinatown, she said.

"We want to preserve our tradition, our culture, but at the same time, to welcome other folks to come in, too," said Chin.

The organization's executive director, John Chin (no relation to Margaret), has noted the businesses are still Asian-owned and offer more mobility than the Chinatown business of yore.

Also important is that the new businesses engage with the community, said Wei Chen, civic engagement coordinator for Asian Americans United, like how ViVi Bubble Tea has offered its space for efforts like voter registration.

As for Poon, he says he's committed to the tradition of Chinatown. The last thing he wants is for Philly's Chinatown to become like Washington's, which he describes as scrubbed of Chinese culture and filled with national chains.

That's not Chinatown, he said. "That's Americantown."