INTRODUCTION TO LITTLE SEOUL
Drive down Garden Grove Boulevard with your windows up (paying proper attention to the road in front of you) and you might not notice that you’re passing through Little Seoul. There are no banners, memorials, murals, monuments or that many fluttering South Korean flags. Pass through on a bus and maybe you’ll notice the Hangul signs and blue tile roofs. The best way to experience Little Seoul, despite some drawbacks, is by walking in it – although your hair might pick up the smell like bulgogi by the end of your ramble. The other day I headed over there to explore it, accompanied by Una Zipagan and host of the excellent Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast, Colin Marshall.
Los Angeles currently has the largest population Korean-Americans. In fact, 17% of all Korean-Americans live somewhere in the Southland. Korean business districts have sprung up in Los Angeles’s Koreatown and Garden Grove‘s Little Seoul as well as in Buena Park, Cerritos, Fullerton, Rowland Heights and elsewhere whilst Koreans have more often chosen to make their homes in places like Anaheim, Gardena,Glendale, Hacienda Heights, Huntington Beach, Irvine, La Palma, and Torrance (as well as Buena Park, Cerritos, Fullerton, and Rowland Heights).
Although Koreatown is incontestably the main Korean business district in the entire US, Little Seoul – located about 50 kilometers southeast – is no slouch. By some estimations, it’s the second-largest Korean business district on the West Coast and the fourth largest Korean business district in the nation. Even in Little Seoul, Koreatown’s dominance is reflected by the telltale Wilshire addresses of most of the newspapers’ offices and business names like Wilshire Bank but the cultural exchange is not completely one-sided; when Colin spotted Ondal Restaurant, he alerted Una and me that Koreatown is home to Ondal 2.
Little Seoul – or officially and less charmingly “The Korean Business District” — is located along a 3.5 kilometer stretch of Garden Grove Boulevard in the city of Garden Grove, abutting against the much larger enclave of Little Saigon. The population of Garden Grove is currently about 38% Asian-American, although 73% of that percentage are Vietnamese. Koreans, after Vietnamese, are the second-largest Asian ethnicity in Orange County and Korean is the fourth most spoken language in Orange County homes.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF KOREAN IMMIGRATION TO THE USA
The first Korean to become a naturalized citizen was Philip Jaisohn (Seo Jae-Pil ), who arrived in the US in 1885 as a political exile. In 1902, King Gojong, the first emperor of Korea, granted Koreans the right to work abroad and following that, hundreds and soon thousands of Koreans were lured to American-occupied Hawaii, where the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association courted Asians of various ethnicities (so that solidarity and strikes would be difficult to achieve and undertake) to work on their plantations.
Koreans faced considerable ignorance and hostility both there and in the mainland. In 1913, California passed a law prohibiting all Asians from buying property. That same year Korean farmers were attacked in Hemet by an anti-Japanese mob of idiots. In 1924, the US Congress passed the Oriental Exclusion Act which barred all Asians from immigrating. Some Koreans, however, were admitted into the US on student visas and by the 1930s, there was a community of a few hundred Koreans living primarily in Chesterfield Square and Vermont Square, two neighborhoods on South Los Angeles’s Westside located near the campus of USC.
After the surrender of Japan to the Allies in 1945, Korea (which had been officially “annexed” by Japan in 1910) was divided by the victors of World War II at the 38th parallel. Tensions between North and South Korea escalated into all out war in 1950 and a stalemate was achieved in 1953 after perhaps one million had perished. The McCarran-Walter Act was passed in 1952 which allowed for increased immigration from South Korea. In the years that followed, war brides and mixed-race orphans joined students and professionals in the ranks of Koreans heading to America. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed for even larger numbers of immigrants and, after Filipinos, Koreans became the second-fastest-growing Asian ethnicity in the US.
The seeds of Koreatown were planted in Los Angeles in 1971, when Lee Hi Duk opened Olympic Market on Olympic Boulevard in Wilshire Center. Lee opened several more businesses and by the mid-1970s, Koreatown was established and growing, although it wasn’t officially recognized until 1980. Koreatown spread outward in all directions from Olympic, including into South Los Angeles, where there were well-publicized incidents of racial tension. Most infamously, in 1991, a black 15-year-old named Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a Korean shop-keep, Soon Ja Du, at Empire Liquor in Vermont Vista. When the Los Angeles Riots erupted on 29 April, 1992, Koreatown was hit especially hard and 40% of all looted businesses in the city were Korean owned. The incident came to be widely known amongst Korean-Americans as “Sa-I-Gu” (4-2-9).
It has sometimes been hypothesized that the riots were one of the primary catalysts for Koreans’ exodus to the suburbs but in fact, that movement had been occurring for a while. Koreatown was and is often an entry point for Korean immigrants who in many cases choose to then make their homes in communities with highly ranked school districts rather than convenient access to Korean shopping districts. By 1980 there were more than 11,000 Koreans living in Orange County (nowadays there are Korean populations that exceed that figure in several Orange County cities) and the Korean businesses district of Garden Grove was already firmly established.
GARDEN GROVE BACKGROUND
Garden Grove was founded by Alonzo Cook in 1874 and the agricultural town’s economy depended in its early years on the production of apricots, chickens, chilies, grapes, oranges, peaches, strawberries, and walnuts. When Garden Grove incorporated in 1956, the population had grown to about 44,000 — mostly white, working class folks would follow the post-war suburban sprawl emanating from the nearby Harbor area and its aerospace industry and transformed the city into an almost entirely residential one.
Garden Grove Boulevard (originally Ocean Boulevard) was designated Highway 22 in 1934. It was the primary thoroughfare until 1965, when construction of the Garden Grove Freeway began, slashing and burning its way through the city and having an especially deleterious effect on the area immediately surrounding it. In the 1970s, a redevelopment program was launched to reverse Garden Grove’s declining fortunes. In neighboring Westminster, similarly caught in a downward spiral, anti-Communist (and therefore presumably uber-Capitalist) Vietnamese were wooed to bring business to Bolsa Avenue. Around the same time, the first Korean businesses began to appear three kilometers north in Garden Grove.
The stretch of Garden Grove Boulevard that’s now home to Little Seoul was then largely undeveloped although there were a couple of strip clubs, adult video stores, seedy motels. One such lodge, the Ranch Motel, was the site of the grisly torture and murder of a Huntington Beach prostitute in 1985. By then the Korean redevelopment of the area was already underway.
In 1955, a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning diver Sammy Lee, was rebuffed when he first attempted to buy a home in Orange County. The Fresno-born athlete and Korean War veteran was told that the reason for his rejection was because he wasn’t white. The case garnered lots of negative press and ultimately, Lee was sold a home in Garden Grove. After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (effective in 1968). In part due to the presence of Sammy Lee, many Korean-Americans set their sites on Garden Grove.
As with Koreatown, the first Korean business established in Little Seoul was a supermarket [was it the now-closed Han Nam Supermarket?]. By 1980 there were 80 Korean-owned businesses in the neighborhood and in 1981, the first Korean Festival was held in nearby Garden Grove Park. The name “Little Seoul” was applied at least as early as 1986 and predictably complaints were made by some about signs written in Hangul. In 2001, signs designating the area the “Korean Business District” were placed at the eastern and western ends of Little Seoul.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Right now Little Seoul is served by Orange County Transit Authority‘s bus lines 29, 33, 35, and 56. The neighborhood is located just west of the old West Santa Ana BranchLine of the Pacific Electric Railway, which connected Santa Ana to Watts until 1950. For the time being the closest train station is 13 kilometers east in the city of Orange. Metro is working on ultimately restoring rail to the neighborhood with its West Santa Ana Transit Corridor project but when that will be completed (or even begun) remains to be seen.
Luckily, Little Seoul is quite flat and therefore quite easily bikeable and walkable — provided one is physically able and psychologically predisposed. Garden Grove Boulevard still often gives the impression of being a freeway and the lack of buffering road verges, measurable amounts of shade, benches, or even other pedestrians, as well as the inward orientation of businesses and the close proximity of the sidewalks to speeding cars, give off a sort of pedestrian-hostile vibe. Walkscore doesn’t have a figure for Little Seoul but assigns a score of just 55 out of 100 to the city of Garden Grove. If you need a bicycle, Little Seoul is home to Garden Grove Bike Shop.
STAYING IN LITTLE SEOUL
If you’d like to stay in Little Seoul overnight, there are several lodging options. There’s the aforementioned Ranch Motel, built in 1956 and the Tropic Motel, built in 1955. Perhaps the best motel sign award goes to the Grove Motel.
In contrast to nearby Little Saigon, where on Sundays parking lots are packed both with men hanging out in folding chairs and bad drivers, Little Seoul proved to be decidedly quiet. Many of the parking lots were almost completely empty. Some even had improbably long gates extending across their entrances. When a car alarm sounded in the distance, it only underscored just how quiet it all was.
From the sidewalk it was sometimes difficult to tell which businesses were open, which were closed, and which were completely vacant but we soon learned that within the air-conditioned environment of the great indoors, there were buzzing pockets of activity (if nothing that even approaches the level of pedestrian-dense-and-friendly Koreatown or I suspect, big Seoul).
Today the number of Korean businesses in Little Seoul reportedly exceeds 1,000. Although most of the people that I spotted entering and leaving the neighborhood residences seemed in most cases to be Latino, Anglo, or Vietnamese, under the roofs of the sprawling markets the clientele was almost (with the exception of ourselves) exclusively either Vietnamese or Korean.
MARKETS AND THE GREAT INDOORS
Despite its lack of accommodations for pedestrians, there are few errands that one couldn’t conceivably accomplish on foot or by bicycle in Little Seoul. The neighborhood is full of dentists’ offices, spas, optometrists, hair salons, &c.
Since most tourists (Korean-American non-Korean alike) are drawn to Korean business districts for the food, I’ll start there. And because they made Little Seoul possible and still prove to be the centers of human activity, I’ll begin with the supermarkets.
Until a couple of years ago, there were three markets to which to pledge one’s allegiance. Han Nam Supermarket closed and now, Arirang Supermarket (A.R. Supermarket) and H-Mart compete for commerce and Yelp reviews. Meanwhile, a new Wal-mart Neighborhood Market sits poised and ready to possibly destroy both although it’s hard to imagine a Wal-mart supporting the food courts and various other shops that make Arirang and H Mart take on the appearance of something akin to a swap meet crossed with a town square.
Korean cuisine is one of those foods that has been cautiously and only partially embraced by most Americans, who seem perfectly happy to draw the line at BBQ, Hite beer, and maybe Korean tacos whilst casting a needlessly suspicious eye at the many any varieties of soups, stews, noodles, rice dishes, banchan, anju, sea vegetables, and sweets.
Thanks in large part to Buddhism (and Buddha’s vegetarianism) Korean cuisine is not as vegetarian-unfriendly as many wary vegetarians might suppose. Most restaurants can make a vegetarian bibimbap and even when the menu lists no vegetarian items, I’ve still never been to a Korean restaurant in Southern California where the cook wasn’t capable of making a tasty and filling vegetarian dish… especially if you add alcohol to the mix.
We started our day at “pariba” (Paris Baguette) albeit the location in St. Andrew’s Square. Later we ate in a food court at a place whose sign simply stated something like “Korean Place.” In addition to the “purely” Korean restaurants, there are Korean takes on Chinesecuisines, donuts, french pastries, pizza, and sushi and Seoul Do Soon Yi Kimchi Company, a locale kimchi manufacturer.
Here’s the (incomplete) list of local Korean eats: An Ocean’s Story, Anna’s Mondu, BCD Tofu House, Boba Loca, Bonjuk, Cafe-T, Cham Sut Gol Korean BBQ, Chu Ga Jip, Chung Dam Keul, Flower Pig,Donut Time, Ga Bo Ja Restaurant, Gae Sung Restaurant, Go Goo Ryeo, Ham-Hung Restaurant, Han Woori, Hangari Hwang Hae Doh, Hangari Kalgooksu, Hodori Snack, Incheonwan BBQ House, Jang Choong Dong, Jang Mo Gip, Jang Toh, Jong Ro Shul Lung Tang, Kaju Tofu, Korean Folk Village Restaurant, Lee Sook Won Kimchi, Light Town House Korean BBQ, Love Letter Pizza & Chicken, Mi Ho Restaurant, Mo Ran Gak, Muse Coffee Shop, Myung In Dumplings, New Seoul BBQ Buffet Restaurant, Obok Bakery, Ondal Restaurant, Paris Baguette, Past Memories, Peking Gourmet, Poong Nap Dong, Seoul Soondae Restaurant, Shik Do Rak, Siroo, Smile Restaurant, Star BBQ, The Pine,Tous Les Jours, Yeh Won Korean Restaurant, andYoung Pung.
Non-Korean eats (but often either Korean owned-and-oriented or Vietnamese) in the neighborhood include Aloha Teriyaki, Alerto’s Mexican Food, Artist Crawfish Express, Casa de Soto, David’s Vietnamese Restaurant, Diamond Seafood Plaza, Diem Hen, Dzui Lounge, Genki Living, Hong Kong Express,Kim’s Restaurant, M & Tôi Vietnamese Restaurant, May Bon Phuong Restaurant, Misoya Rockin’ Sushi, Pho and Rolls Vietnamese Cuisine, Pho 2000, Phu Sandwich, and Phuoc Thanh.
SHOPPING IN LITTLE SEOUL and THE GARDEN GROVE GALLERIA
Construction of the Garden Grove Galleria began in 2004. The original design called for two levels of shops, six levels of condos, and given its size, it was set to become an icon of the neighborhood. Construction halted in 2008 and in 2010, the Garden Grove Galleria sued Cathay Bank for a breach of contract. Two months later Cathay counter-sued for essentially the same. More suits followed and the design plans were changed — the condos were to become apartments — but nine years later it still stands, only partially complete and rusting.
Complete and functioning (if sometimes barely) shopping centers in Little Seoul including Arirang Galleria,Brookhurst North Shopping Center, Garden Grove Shopping Center, Gilbert Plaza, Golden Plaza,Hanmi Plaza, Ka-Ju Plaza, Korea Plaza, Koreatown Mall, New Seoul Plaza, Newland Plaza, Newton Plaza, Town-Center Plaza, and Western Shopping Center.
Business hours in Little Seoul vary greatly but the nightlife seems to make its home in Club Rendevous, Frat House (not a dudebro sports bar) and Soju Belly as well as karaoke clubs (noraebong), which include B & G Karaoke, Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang, Karaoke Nice, and Idol Karaoke.
There are also several billiard and ping-pong halls too, including GG Billiards and Ping Pong (also listed as Hyundai Billiard), 2000 Points Billiards (which also has ping-pong), and King Billiard (which may or may not have ping pong).
There are more liquor stores than bars in the neighborhood although we ventured into none. Several have nice signage.
In South Korea, only 53% of Koreans identify themselves as religious. Of those, about 29% are Christian and 23% of South Koreans self-identify as Buddhists. In the US it’s a different story. In 1902, Changho Ahn and his wife established the first Korean American Church and today, roughly 71% of Korean-Americans self-identify as Christian.
I’m sure that some of the Korean churches in the area were built by different denominations but ones occupied by Korean denominations now include Gospel First Korean Baptist Church, Korean Garden Grove United Methodist Church, Saint Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church of Garden, and Suh Moon Presbyterian Church. Despite it being a Sunday morning and a Korean neighborhood, the churches all seemed to be oddly quiet. Only 6% of Korean-Americans identify as Buddhists and in Little Seoul there are just two temples from which to choose, Bupwahng sa Korean Buddhist Temple and Orange County Won Buddhist Temple.
LITTLE SEOUL ARTS SCENE
Little Seoul is perhaps too small to support an actual art scene. I’m only aware of one arts-oriented space in Little Seoul, Seoul Oriental Art Gallery. There are seemingly more organizations devoted to the martial arts than the creative, performing, or visual. Those institutions include Five Star Tae Kwon Do & Martial Arts, Kenpo United Karate Kung-Fu Studios, King’s Martial Arts, Musashi Martial Arts, Nam Phan Mixed Martial Arts Academy, Orange County Judo Training Center, Shaolin Warrior Academy, Shotokan Karate of Garden Grove, and Yoon Tae Kwon Do School.
I don’t know of any movies shot in Little Seoul or any actors or filmmakers from there. I don’t know of any live music venues or bands from there either. There are some mom-and-pop shops, many of which sell or rent video, music, and video games. There’s Han Nam Video, Music Town, Sam’s Video, Saranbang Video,20th Century Video, (Spanish language-centric) Video 9, Video Village, and Western Video.
The only music store that I saw was Immanuel Music, which carries a large selection of guitars, violins, and metronomes. There’s also at least one music school, Spotlight School of Music.
PARKS (not 박) AND THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Being such a small area, there aren’t a lot of parks within the neighborhood and as I mentioned, most of the activity seems to take place indoors (or in cars). However, should you wish to go outside, there’s Acacia Park, Garden Grove Park (including Garden Grove Dog Park and the Atlantis Play Center), Kiwanisland, and Liberty Park.
Though probably un-named — Donut Time seems to be the popular hangout for male, Korean, retirees and (like as with many donut shops) seems to serve as a sort of de facto community center. More official outlets for community engagement can be pursued through the Little Seoul or the Orange County Korean Community, the Korean American Coalition, the Korean American Federation of Orange County Garden Grove, Korean Community Services, the Korean-American Seniors Assn Garden Grove, the Korean American Youth &Community Center, the OC Korean Community Center, the Orange County Korean American Bar Association, the Orange County Korean Festival Foundation, the Orange County Korean Community Service Center, and Orange County Korean Social Service Information Center.
There are a couple of bookstores in the neighborhood: Dorcas Orange Christian, Korean Bookstore, and World of Life Books. Also nearby is the Westminster Branch Library and Garden Grove Regional Library. There are also popular newspapers like Korea Times and Korea Daily (both available in English language versions as well as Korean) and more locally-focused paper, The Town News. The first two are headquartered in Koreatown but perhaps maintain bureaus in Little Seoul whereas The Town News is actually headquartered in Little Seoul.
You can tune into the sounds of Korean-America by setting your dial to several Korean radio stations. There’s Radio Korea (1540 KMPC) Pasadena’s 1230 KYPA – Radio JBC (Joongang Broadcast Company), and Hancock Park’s 1650 KFOX – Radio Seoul. If you’re feeling spiritual, 1190 KGBN is the home of the Korean Gospel Broadcasting Network.
As always, please contribute your additions and corrections. Enjoy exploring Southern California, just start at Hollywood & Highland and go in any direction away from there and I guarantee it will get more interesting. To vote for other Orange County communities, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, vote here. Please leave any additions, corrections, or shared memories in the comment section. 행쇼
Los Angeles’ Koreatown by Katherine Yungmee Kim
Legacies of Struggle: Conflict and Cooperation in Korean American Politics by Angie Y. Chung
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.