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The New 'Koreatown' in Centreville

Area is fast becoming a Mecca for Asian-inspired shops, restaurants and boutiques

From the parking lot of the Old Centreville Crossing Shopping Center marches an entourage of Korean drummers. Wearing colorful oversized headpieces and white uniforms beneath their vests and ribbons, they approach the crowds. Carrying hour-glass-shaped drums, the procession stops only occasionally to begin a new rhythm, weaving loudly about the crowd and into the building near the intersection of Lee Highway and Old Centreville Road.

These drummers are participating in poongmool nori (translated: "game of farmer's musical instruments"), a folk percussion ensemble dating back hundreds of years, which celebrates beginnings — a new year or a new harvest — ushering in good fortune and driving away bad luck.

But in this case, the poongmool procession is commemorating the opening of Grand Plaza, a Korean-style indoor mini-mall where Washington Sports Club once stood. The group helped entertain the crowds at the recent, two-day "Family Month Spring Breeze Festival."

The facility was recently renovated with some construction materials imported from Korea. With its hardwood floors, wood paneling and glassed-in rooms, the insides looks more like a shopping mall in Seoul than one in Washington, D.C. It contains more than 18 Korean-American businesses, some of which are scheduled to open within the year.

"Korean people especially like to cling together, live together. That's how the community survives. They get information and friendship," explains Esther Park, executive director of the Korean Community Service Center in Annandale. "When one person says that's a good place, then everyone follows. That's the general idea."

Inside Grand Plaza, there are mobile phone retailers, a chiropractic clinic, an electronics shop, an import boutique, a Korean bedding store, a Realtor, a travel agency, cosmetics, fashion and accessory boutiques, photo studios, a health and weight-loss clinic, a martial-arts studio, and a large kiosk selling cross-stitching supplies.

Other attractions opening later this year include an Asian-style spa and sauna, a Korean-style karaoke bar, and a Korean rice cake parlor.

Indeed, Centreville has all the makings of becoming the area's newest and largest Korean business outpost in western Fairfax County.

WORD OF MOUTH and advertising in Korean media — such as the event's sponsor, the Daily Sports Seoul-Washington edition newspaper, a sports and entertainment newspaper — drew Korean crowds to the newly opened Grand Plaza. The new businesses introduced themselves to customers offering specials and promotions. Feel, a photography studio, offered free portraits to seniors, complete with makeup and a traditional Korean costume called hahn-bok, while Spa World, a jjim-jil-bahng (Korean-styled spa/sauna) scheduled to open to the public in the winter, presented slide-show demonstrations of what's coming. Grandmaster Kwon, of Kwon's Champion School, gave belt-testing demonstrations despite the loud drumming processions.

Outside the building, vendors set up po-jahng-mah-cha (Korean-style stalls and stands) selling snacks such as ho-dduhk (sweet Korean pancake-like pastries), dried squid, kim-bahp (Korean seaweed laver rice rolls), and refreshments.

Grand Mart sold watermelons on the street. In addition to the poongmool nori, Peruvian dancers performed with a Latino band. There were auctions, karaoke contests, raffles and a lottery giveaway of a 2005 Hyundai Accent.

CENTREVILLE HAS long had a sizable Korean-American community, the third largest racial minority after Hispanic/Latino and Black/African-American (according to the 2000 census), and one of the largest concentrations of Korean-American populations in Fairfax County, according to the county's demographic data on its Web site.

But the recent commercial explosion of Korean-owned and operated business has changed the landscape; now commonplace are store fronts, banners and posted signs written in hangul, the Korean script, advertising everything from barbershops to churches to Korean pop concerts.

BUT THE recent commercial visibility is just a natural reaction to the large number of Korean residents living in and around Centreville — especially within the past few years. A number of the shops inside Grand Plaza are Centreville branches of businesses based in Annandale or Fairfax that see an opportunity to cater to the growing Korean population in this area.

"Annandale is a commercial Koreatown — all [Korean] businesses are there," said Erica Han, director of client services at the NWC Verizon retailer in Grand Plaza. "But this area [Centreville] is residential Koreatown. Many people live in Fairfax or Centreville and work in Annandale."

Centreville is known throughout Korean circles as an up-and-coming Koreatown, but the reasons Koreans are coming aren't so different from all the other newcomers to Centreville.

"Centreville is a newly developed area. The living costs, mainly the housing, is more affordable at the moment. It's fully packed in Fairfax," said Park. "More and more people are moving into that area. People find the place pleasant to live."

Oak Oh, a counselor of social services, who recently moved to the Little Rocky Run community, agrees that Koreans are attracted to Centreville's cheaper housing costs, especially compared to Fairfax and Annandale, and stresses that a major attraction is its great schools such as Chantilly, Centreville and Westfield high schools. But Centreville's proximity to the growing Korean communities throughout the area makes its a central Korean American hub:

"I know Centreville is pretty much the center between Annandale and Manassas. The location is a very good location," said Oh.

THE KOREAN Central Presbyterian Church (KCPC), a large Korean- American church located in Vienna that draws members from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, is looking to relocate next to Bull Run Elementary.

The church has a membership of 262 households or 909 individuals in Centreville alone, according to Joon Lim, an office staffer at its Vienna location. Lim says the City of Fairfax has the largest representation of KCPC members and historically Annandale followed, but Korean-American demographics are changing.

"Usually Annandale was the second-biggest, but Centreville has taken second place. That happened one or two years ago," said Lim.

He echoes the sentiment repeated throughout the Korean community that Korean-Americans are moving west to places such as Chantilly, Haymarket, Manassas, South Riding, Gainesville and areas further west, which has spurred the development of a Korean-American shopping district in Centreville. Adds Lim: "The center is Centreville."

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Jeanne Kim contributed to this report.