Van Nuys resident Choon Ja Kim used to drive half an hour to Koreatown in Los Angeles to rent videotapes of such South Korean soap operas as "History Flows" or "Life Is a Merry-Go-Round."
But now a small version of Koreatown, with video shops and other stores that carry imported products, has sprung up in Van Nuys, saving Kim and many of the San Fernando Valley's about 50,000 Koreans a trip downtown.
The most visible indication that a 12-block section of Van Nuys Boulevard between Saticoy and Vanowen streets has become an offshoot of the downtown Korean commercial district is the plethora of signs using the Korean alphabet, hangul.
The newest one is the big, blue sign for California Korea Bank, which recently opened the largest of its eight branches on the boulevard because its officers believe that the area is destined to become a center of Korean commerce in the Valley. The bank has received $12 million in deposits since it opened in April.
By June, an aging strip center south of Sherman Way is to be torn down and replaced by a $2.2-million shopping mall that will contain about 35 businesses catering to Korean tastes for such items as dried seaweed and a spicy, bottled salad called kim chee .
Now there are at least 25 businesses in the area that depend largely on a Korean clientele, including computer stores, auto repair shops and restaurants.
But the business that matters most to Kim is a video rental store near Sherman Way that opened about a year ago and stocks South Korean soap operas. Kim's condominium is just a short drive away.
"I can come every day if I want," said Kim, a slight woman in her 40s who works in a coffee shop.
Many Korean-Americans feel most comfortable shopping in stores where they can converse with the owners in their native language, according to a survey conducted by business leaders in the Korean community. The studies further indicate that Valley residents would prefer to shop locally instead of commuting to the downtown Korean business district, which is roughly bounded by Vermont Avenue, 8th Street and Olympic and Crenshaw boulevards. The same goes for banking, said Duke Chi, general manager of California Korea Bank.
"Van Nuys Boulevard is a good place to form a little Koreatown because it is in the hub of the Valley," Chi said. "We planned this almost five years ago, but we needed to get permission from the South Korean government, which owns most of the stocks in the bank."
The 1980 census reported that 60,000 people of Korean origin resided in Los Angeles. But Los Angeles officials and Korean leaders say the census did not take into account the many undocumented Koreans living in the city.
Today "there are at least 50,000 Koreans living in the Valley" alone, estimated Sohyun Chang, publisher of Valley Korean Community News, a 28-page monthly tabloid. "If I wasn't sure there were so many people, I wouldn't have started my newspaper two years ago."
Chang's estimate is corroborated by other Korean business leaders; meanwhile, city officials say there is no way to accurately assess the number.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, which collects data on the number of minorities, reported that in the spring Korean children were the second-largest minority group enrolled in Valley schools, after Latinos. (There were 1,967 elementary and junior high school children of Korean extraction enrolled in Valley schools contrasted with 53,439 Hispanic children. Five years earlier, Koreans also were the second-largest group with 1,495 children, contrasted with 34,144 Latinos.)
But the district's figures include children bused in from elsewhere in the city and do not provide an accurate profile of Valley residential patterns, said Miyeko Heishi, the district's coordinator of bilingual evaluation.
Koreans have moved to the Valley because of its reputation for good schools and have established more than 45 churches, Chang said. They live in most Valley communities, but are heavily concentrated in the Van Nuys and Granada Hills areas, he said. There is also a heavy concentration in Glendale, he said.
Chang also publishes an annual directory of Korean businesses in Los Angeles. This year, he put out a separate Valley edition with more than 500 listings. Although the businesses are scattered throughout the Valley, the largest commercial districts are in Reseda and Van Nuys.
But the shops in Reseda generally cater to other groups besides Koreans and do not feature prominent signs in Korean, said Seon Hong Kim, an official with Hanmi Bank. The bank is considering opening a branch in the Valley and is favoring Van Nuys Boulevard over Reseda, Kim said.
One reason Van Nuys Boulevard has developed is that small business owners can lease property there for about $1.50 a foot, said Steve Kim, a real estate agent in Van Nuys. In contrast, property rents for about $2.50 per square foot in Koreatown, said Suk Goon Han, a Koreatown real estate agent.
Tom Specker, a commercial realty agent who has handled properties along the boulevard for the past nine years, said: "Based on the Korean community's track record downtown, it's clear that their presence is going to upgrade the area. It's already gotten better."
Sang Hui Park and her husband opened a small grocery store about a year ago in a building that used to house two massage parlors and a bar. They sell such items as salted radishes, Asian pears, hot bean paste and fresh tuna for sushi. On a recent afternoon, while women browsed in the aisles, stopping to chat near piles of imported lacquer ware and bags of rice, Park said business was improving steadily.
Sung K. Chung, who opened a Korean restaurant near Valerio Street last month, said her husband decided to start the business because he couldn't find fresh soybean curd that met his exacting standards outside of downtown Koreatown.
"We thought that if we offered the food closer to the Valley, people would come," Chung said.
Down the street, Chris Kim said her family opened the doors of their restaurant a year ago because "we heard there were a lot of Korean businesses here." In her spare time, "I can get my hair done, get a video, have something to eat at Korean businesses," said Kim, 19, who is studying to be a pharmacist.
Patrons of the area may also buy two major Korean newspapers from news racks along the boulevard. Andrew Chang, director of market research for the Korea Times' L.A. Edition, said his newspaper has about 30 racks in the Valley, 10 of which are in the Van Nuys business district. Published daily except Mondays, the paper is transmitted by satellite from Seoul to Los Angeles. A second section contains Los Angeles-area news.
Shoppers from the West Valley say the trip across town is worth it. Cho Jung, of Northridge, who recently brought her children to a Korean dentist on the boulevard, said she still enjoys shopping in downtown Koreatown but finds Van Nuys very convenient.
"I'm here because American doctors are not as kind, and it's difficult to talk with them," she said while waiting for the dentist.
Behind Park's grocery store, workers are building the Valley Koreatown Plaza, the shopping center that will replace the older strip center that now houses the market. Although rents are expected to go up from about $1.60 to at least $2 per square foot, video store owner Young Lee said most owners are looking forward to the move because it is expected to improve business.
There is already a waiting list of Korean businesses eager to get into the center, said Jason Hong, manager of the property for the owner, Yong Sul, who lives in Calabasas.
Sul has "a vision about Van Nuys Boulevard. He is trying to make it like a little Korean village," Hong said.