In a Catonsville shopping center, workers formed a human chain yesterday to toss and stack bags of rice like sandbags. Nearby, others painted posts with green trim - all part of the last-minute preparations for the new Han Ah Reum store, an Asian supermarket that will offer everything from sandals to sushi.
When HAR Distributors of New York opens the local store Saturday, the event will stand as a symbol of the growing Asian-American presence in the Baltimore area.
The 27,000-square-foot Han Ah Reum store - complete with a Korean bakery and Japanese sushi section - takes over space that SuperFresh vacated. It will be the second Asian "super- store" to open near the border of Howard and Baltimore counties in the past two years, joining Lotte Plaza, near Ellicott City.
The stores are among the large and small businesses sprouting up to serve an Asian-American population that grew 63 percent over the past decade in the Baltimore area, according to the latest U.S. census. And HAR, which owns 17 supermarkets from Virginia to New York, acknowledges chasing the Asian-American demographics to Baltimore.
"There are a lot of Asian-Americans living in the Baltimore area and Ellicott City and Columbia," said Ho Chul Yoon, financial manager for the new store.
Census figures show that Howard County has had the biggest surge, with its Asian population more than doubling since 1990, from 8,098 to 19,124. Baltimore County was second, its Asian population growing by more than half, from 15,544 to 23,947.
Nina Song, a Korean-American restaurant owner living in Ellicott City, said Asian families are being drawn to the counties for the same reasons as other families.
"The school system," Song said. "A lot of Koreans live here because of the school system for their kids."
Asian institutions, from small groceries to Korean churches, have long existed in the Baltimore area. But it is the arrival of the superstores that signals the explosion of the area's Asian population.
"Most big metropolises have had such markets for a while," said Jai Ryu, a Loyola College sociology professor. "From the experiences of other places, they become a hub; in some places they follow the demographics, and in some ways they attract further growth."
The growth of the Asian-American population in the Baltimore region mirrors a rise throughout the nation, said Andrew Cherlin, professor of public policy at the Johns Hopkins University. The easing of federal immigration restrictions in the 1980s helped fuel the growth, he said.
"The 1990s saw a huge increase of Asian immigrants," said Cherlin, who tracks immigration data. "And we're seeing that influx in the Baltimore area."
The arrival of Asian-American institutions such as churches and stores shows that roots are being planted in the Maryland suburbs, Cherlin said:
"They want to feel comfortable. Having supermarkets and other institutions will help."
The Asian-American presence led to the opening of Lotte Plaza in Howard County in 1999. Tucked into a shopping center at Routes 29 and 40, the chain store acts as both a supermarket and a community center for Asian-Americans.
Signs written in Chinese or Korean hang on bulletin boards advertising everything from apartments to baby sitters. The store sells Korean and Chinese newspapers and magazines and prints its newspaper advertising flier in both languages.
"I feel comfortable when I visit here," said Eun-Mi Song of Ellicott City. "I can get a lot of Chinese, Korean and Japanese food."
And the supermarket has brought other surrounding Asian stores. Since the market opened, three Asian eateries have opened in the Golden Triangle Business Center that houses Lotte Plaza.
"It draws a lot of people, different types of people," said Sunny Lee, who owns a French-Korean bakery, La Boulangerie, across from the supermarket.
On a recent afternoon, Ryan Kim used the Lotte Plaza parking lot to recruit members for Bethany Lane Baptist Church in Ellicott City. Kim, 20, handed out pamphlets to shoppers as they headed to the store.
"It's a good attraction and a good marketplace," Kim said. "We had a good turnout yesterday."
Before Lotte Plaza opened, Asian-Americans in the Baltimore area had to travel toward Washington, where the population of Asian-Americans is higher, to get the supermarket deals.
"I used to have to go to Rock- ville," said Jean Hugh, a Korean-American who lives in Ellicott City. "We didn't have a choice."
Asian food lovers such as Hugh also frequented small, mom-and-pop Asian groceries in the Baltimore area. But just as with supermarkets in general, many of the smaller groceries are being hurt or forced out of business with the influx of the superstores.
Two Asian shops have closed in Howard County since Lotte Plaza opened.
"The small shops have disappeared," Hugh said.
Sharon Chen has owned and operated the Oriental Gourmet Shop on Frederick Road in Catonsville for 23 years. Chen said she is worried about a second Asian supermarket opening within a few miles of her shop but believes she has built a loyal clientele, 95 percent of which is non-Asian.
"The big stores have food, but we have more than food. We provide plants and other products," Chen said. "When the Lotte first opened, we thought it would affect us, but it hasn't been the case."
Yoon acknowledges that Han Ah Reum is being drawn to Catonsville because of Lotte Plaza.
"Wherever they locate, we go and compete with them," Yoon said. "That's the marketing strategy. That's why they put a Burger King next to McDonald's."
Local Asian-American shoppers are welcoming both.
"It's nice to have competition," said George Chin, 44, of Ellicott City. "It's better for us, the consumers."