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Sunday, November 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Day At The Great Wall Mall -- The Future Of Asian Shopping? The Cars Are Heading To Kent

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

An elderly Chinese man slowly pushes his 2-year-old granddaughter in a grocery cart. Ahead, his daughter Mei bags a few waxy yellow star fruit as her buzz-cut son tugs on her Betty Boop shirt.

He spots an opening in the wall of grocery carts and slips through. Past the shelves of spiky frozen durian, Dong Jie trails Mei her through the produce section with the precise maneuvers of an F-15. One wrong turn, and he could get jackknifed by grocery-cart gridlock.

Mei's mother shuffles over with a bunch of gau choy. "Hao chi!" she chirps in Mandarin as she gently places the green shoots in the cart. "Good to eat."

Around them a cacophony of Vietnamese, Tagalog, Japanese and Korean clatters against the walls. Three cardigan-clad elderly women pick over 3-pound hunks of winter melon. "Look how pretty this taro is!" one exclaims in Cantonese as she spots the freckled slices of the tuber. "All peeled, wrapped and cleaned!" "Aiyaa, you should make tapioca taro," her friend suggests. "Just boil until tender, then . . ."

Next door, stylists are coaxing curls into stick-straight Asian hair at the Lotus Hair Salon. Grocery carts have been abandoned outside the doors of Pho To Chau for steaming bowls of Vietnamese rice noodles. Kids are begging their parents for Pokemon cards at the Sweet Kitty store. "A Hard Day's Night" plays over the mall speakers.

It's Saturday at the Great Wall Mall.

The 100,000-square-foot pagoda of stucco in Kent is the Pacific Northwest's first indoor suburban Asian mall. This is the future of Asian shopping. Think Southcenter Shopping Center - except instead of a Bon Marche, the big store is 99 Ranch Market, the equivalent of an Asian Larry's Market. Instead of Waldenbooks, there's Evergreen Bookstore, selling Chinese newspapers, books, magazines (even Asian Penthouse). Instead of Hot Dog on a Stick, at Mak's Juice and Desserts you can buy the same bags of waffle balls they hawk on the streets of Hong Kong.

That's the Great Wall Mall: From DKNY eyewear to Shiseido eye cream, the goods target the new higher-income Asian community in the Puget Sound region - a new generasian, if you will.

What does the new generasian want? Parking.

Asian suburbanites don't want to parallel-park a Jeep Grand Cherokee while conducting a conversation on their cell phones. They want to single-handedly whip into parking slots neatly divided by white paint and lined with green shrubbery. On this Saturday, minivans, SUVs and Lexus sedans circle like vultures for choice spots closest to the sliding-door entrances.

The mall's exterior is a beige affair, with faux Great Wall towers and green tiling that approximates a pagoda roof. Two stone lions guard the entrance, replicas of the ones outside the emperor's home at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Inside, the mall has more services than St. Mark's Episcopal. Next to the front doors, a couple is opening an investment account with Charles Schwab. This is the fifth branch the San Francisco-based brokerage has targeted toward Asian investors. All its financial specialists must be trilingual; even the intern passing out copies of the Internet business magazine The Industry Standard speaks English, Mandarin and Cantonese. A sleek computer kiosk offers instructions in English and Chinese on how to open an account.

If the stress of day trading starts to wear on you, you can go next door for herbal healing. At Pacific Herb and Grocery, owner Adon Mar helps a Latina woman find loquat syrup to treat her diabetic husband's cough. Behind the counter, a large jar contains several pounds of Indonesian bird's nest, harvested from the saliva the birds use to build their nests. An ounce sells for $250.

And, as with any mall, there's the teen scene. Here it's the bored kids who have been dragged here by parents for their weekly grocery shopping, and teens who live within walking distance. (Until now, the hottest store in the neighborhood was Ikea.) Ground zero for them is Auto Freak and Mak's. The teenager behind the counter at Mak's hands a 19-year-old Vietnamese guy with baggy jeans a pearl iced tea, a libation of ice, milk, tea and giant tapioca balls that until now could be found only on the West Coast in Vancouver, B.C., and California.

At Auto Freak, teenage Asian guys can choose from 35 brands of air freshener for their lowered Acura Integras, while Asian techno-pop blares through the lemony-fresh air.

A reflection of prosperity

The numbers have made all this possible. The mall's one more sign of a community growing large enough - and rich enough - to build a mall of its own. Simply put, size matters. At 250,000, Asian Pacific Islanders now make up 8.5 percent of the King, Pierce and Snohomish county population; they're the largest minority group - and the fastest-growing one. Great Mall developer Omar Lee is courting the burgeoning segment that's making good money. He estimates about 10,000 people will visit the mall today, and he's already looking into building another Asian mall at the north end of Lake Washington.

From Portland - and Yakima

Weekends are when you feel the power of the people.

While the mall feels like a ghost town on weekdays (except at noon, when pocket-protectored employees from Boeing crowd the pho shop and Taiwanese restaurants), on Saturdays and Sundays it draws people from as far away as Portland and Yakima.

About 30 percent of the shoppers are non-Asian. On a Saturday, though, it feels as if the entire Asian population of King County - all 173,000 of us - has crowded into the 33,500-square-foot 99 Ranch Market. A Taiwanese-owned chain of pan-Asian supermarkets, 99 Ranch has 13 locations in California, plus a few in Vancouver, B.C. (under the name of T&T Markets), Las Vegas and Phoenix.

If you're Asian, you'll think you've died and gone to grocery-store heaven.

Fish tanks towering 8 feet in the air hold live carp, tilapia and crab - on sale today for $3.99 a pound. More live shellfish sit happy as Manila clams in tiled pools under fountains of gurgling water. An enormous fryer roars to life as one of fishmongers drops a whole fish into a vat of hot oil. (The market will even fry your fish for free.)

A Chinese man in a grease-splattered white apron decapitates a roast duck on a big butcher block. "Want the head?" he asks a customer as he holds it up, its skin roast red-brown. "No?" He tosses it into the corner. Mei orders a pound of pork bellies, simmered in soy sauce and wine.

Higher standards

Mei Chan and her husband moved to Renton from China seven years ago. They used to run Noble Court in Bellevue, one of the region's more successful suburban dim sum restaurants. Usually the family comes here on weekends, eats lunch, then goes grocery shopping. Her mother, who emigrated from Beijing two years ago, comes with her. "Here the food is very fresh and the store is clean," her mother says in Mandarin. She says she used to dread going to Chinatown because it didn't meet her neatness standards.

The Great Mall is out to attract just the sort of shopper who avoids the International District. The signs are all bilingual, English mandatory. The bathrooms have automatic toilets and faucets.

"One of the not-so-desirable connotations of going into Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown is, No. 1, the parking, and, well, you don't feel the hygiene factor, with all the vegetable leaves and banana peels," said developer Lee, via phone from California. Since moving to Renton, he spends a week of every month in the Bay Area. "Maybe our grandfathers were used to that . . . (but) we're working with Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese to put our best foot forward."

Lee isn't the only one who sees the demographic dollar signs. Tomio Moriguchi, president of Uwajimaya Inc., which has grocery superstores in Bellevue and the International District, is planning a mall of his own to win over "the higher-income, more sophisticated" Asians. He's transforming his ID store into the two-block outdoor mall Uwajimaya Village - complete with 370 parking stalls, an open plaza for outdoor performances, retail space for stores and fast food, a restaurant, a bank and a five-story apartment complex.

Although the village has drawn opposition from a number of older ID merchants, Moriguchi feels the winds of consumer change. The ID is evolving, too.

He pursued his dream

In contrast to Moriguchi, Lee is the new guy. A transplant from Hong Kong via the Bay Area, he worked as a manager at Hewlett Packard until he had enough money to leave computer science behind and pursue his real dream: to become a real-estate developer. Lee spent some years doing commercial and residential deals in the Bay Area, then moved here to build houses in Issaquah and Bellevue.

The idea for the Great Wall Mall came to him like a vision: "A more upscale pan-Asian indoor mall for people who live in the suburbs." It was a vision a few others - from Vancouver, Taiwan, Hong Kong - had had, too, but none followed through. Although he had never attempted a project of this scale, Lee packed up, moved his house and started looking for a location.

Three years later, he finally settled on a former Home Base in Kent because of its easy freeway access to the Eastside, SeaTac, Tacoma and Federal Way. He drew about half the store operators from Vancouver, B.C., the Bay Area and Southern California, communities where Asian malls already flourish.

The $5 million mall still has four vacancies out of 36; another six stores are opening soon. The rent, at $2 to $3 a square foot, is almost double that in Chinatown.

`Chinatown still relevant'

So is the the International District doomed? In areas with high Asian populations such as Southern California, businesses and higher-income residents have already abandoned the historical Chinatowns for suburban Asian enclaves. However, a significant percentage of the Puget Sound Asian community remains rooted in Beacon Hill, and the Asian suburbanites here are scattered throughout different communities. "Chinatown is still very historic, significant and relevant to people who live in and around Chinatown in Beacon Hill," Lee says.

It's not likely the International District will simply melt away in the face of sterile malls. After all, grocery shopping for many Asians isn't just about picking up another 25-pound bag of jasmine rice. Going to Chinatown is a bit like modern-day ancestor worship. You go to pay homage to the ones who came before - the immigrants who tried to create something from their homeland in the Pacific Northwest. An indoor mall, on the other hand, simply apes mainstream American consumer culture.

And who really needs automatic toilets anyway? There's something to be said about grandmothers elbowing you in crowded checkout lines while lugging an overflowing basket, dashing through the rain to the fish market and picking over Chinese okra in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks. Sure, sometimes it smells. It smells on the streets of Hong Kong, too. But it's got soul.

One probably will not cannibalize the other. In a region that shops at QFC but celebrates Pike Place, the International District and the Great Wall Mall can both thrive.

Variety - and reasonable prices

Couples like Louis and Lynn Baez are leading the pack of Asian suburbanites into the Great Wall Mall. A Filipino-American couple from Newcastle, Lynn is an escrow officer and Louis is a buyer for the city of Redmond. Since the mall opened, they've been coming every week. "We used to shop at the Uwajimaya in Bellevue," Lynn says over a bowl of chicken pho at Pho To Chau. They switched to the Great Wall because Lynn thinks it's more pan-Asian and that the prices are reasonable. She points to their 4-year-old son, Joshua, who's playing with Pokemon cards. "For this little guy, I want him to develop a taste for different vegetables, not just cabbage."

In the market, Mei stands in a line six-deep. The registers here are more advanced than at Larry's, with large computer monitors that display the details of each item scanned. The market even offers its own version of a discount club card. Mei's cashier is an Indian college student who moved here from Fiji two years ago. The boy bagging her soy milk is a 15-year-old first-generation Latvian who attends Auburn High School. The Great Wall Mall has, ironically, knocked down walls between the ethnic communities in South King County.

Before they leave, Mei's son uses his allowance to buy a few new Pokemon cards from Sweet Kitty. His mother and grandmother stop at the bookstore to pick up a Chinese tabloid magazine. As a few raindrops begin to fall, her father rolls the cart into the parking lot and Mei loads the groceries into the back of their SUV. When the pork bellies have been eaten and the soy milk starts to run low, they'll be back. Next Saturday.

Sharon Pian Chan can be reached at 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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