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Meet Kenneth Li - the 'Mayor of Houston's Chinatown'

There is one man who’s been there to see all of the expansion and history of Houston’s Chinatown. Meet Kenneth Li.

HOUSTON — If you've ever driven down Bellaire Boulevard, you've probably seen Houston's Chinatown.

Over the years, the area has expanded and evolved. And there's one man behind it who's been there to see it all.

Meet Kenneth Li.

"You can see on both sides, this used to be another shopping center, but they convert into mixed-use," Li said while driving through Chinatown. "This used to be an apartment..."

Driving with Li is like taking a trip through history.

Li is a man often referred to as the "Mayor of Houston Chinatown" because there's not much Li doesn't know about the shopping plazas and businesses that line Bellaire Boulevard.

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Born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, Li moved to Houston with his uncle in 1983.

"I went to Houston Baptist University. At the same time, my uncle opened up the first Asian store on Bellaire Boulevard...a supermarket called Diho Market," Li said.

Now it's called Jusgo Supermarket. The store still operates today.

"We never imagined that from one store, one shopping center, we would expand to miles of Asian business corridor," Li said.

Li began his real estate career by starting the Southwest Realty Group, which he still runs more than 30 years later.

Now Li's working on bringing more Asian-Americans to Houston.

"When I arrive in the 80s, this was about 30,000 Chinese-Americans and about 30 to 40,000 Korean-Americans," Li said. "The overall population less than 100,000."

Li was instrumental in developing Bellaire Boulevard into the center of Houston's Asian community after the city's old Chinatown, which was located near downtown, began running out of room.

Li recognized the potential for development. So he began working with politicians and investors, later helping to from the Southwest Management District he's now chairman of.

"We are probably the most diversified district," Li said. "We have over 110 countries and immigrants living in these 10 square miles.

Today, Houston's "new" Chinatown is one of the country's largest.

"The Chinatown on Bellaire is only 0.7 miles, but there are 20 shopping centers and over 150 restaurants," Li said.

Not to mention the banks, apartments, condos and community centers.

But among the countless contributions Li has made, he says the diversity and culture celebrated here is what he's most proud of.

"Houston is the city of the future," Li said. "Because we have the most diversified demographic and we're a gateway city for a lot of international people to come."

And when he's not busy volunteering his time or working as chair of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, you can find Li enjoying the community he calls home.

"They've been here for 15 years...I come here twice a week," Li said. "We're all a big family."

Michelle Choi on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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