Hi Duk Lee (이희덕) died on 7 March at the age of 79. Two weeks passed before his death was reported on the website L.A. Taco. Only then did the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Korea Times, KTLA, NBC, and ABC run stories on the passing of this
pioneer, whose name and accomplishments remain unknown to most Angelenos, including even the residents of Koreatown, a neighborhood for which he more than any other deserves to be credited as the creator of.
I’ve written and spoken often of Los Angles’s diversity and enclaves and the role they played in my decision to move to Los Angeles. Although Koreatown was always to me one of the most intriguing neighborhoods, years passed before my thoughts turned to its origins.
Nostalgic local historians have recounted over and over the story of Christine Sterling‘s role in re-shaping Plaza Olvera and Chinatown (Peter Soo Hoo‘s contributions are nearly always overlooked). Maybe a few Angeleno’s recognize the name, Hamanosuke Shigeta, who opened the first Japanese restaurant 135 years ago in what became Little Tokyo. Far few folks, I reckon, recognize names like Ahmad Alam, Asael Gonzalez, Balkishan Lahoti, Belal “Bill” Dalati, Cezar Brelaz, Dan Quach, Frank Jao, the Parseghian family, Fekere Gebre-Mariam, Francisco Carvalho — immigrants and refugees without whom there would be no Little Arabia, no Little Armenia, no Little Brazil, no Little Ethiopia, no Little India, no Little Saigon, and no Oaxacatown. All are still very much alive, however, which, ironically, results in their being apparently less noteworthy for local historians who tend to fixate on the more distant good ol’ days.
Although Koreatown is itself a popular destination for both locals and tourists, not that many years ago it was still widely regarded by many native Angelenos as an enclave which existed only to serve Koreans. When I first visited Los Angeles in 1998, my two Los Angeles-born hosts showed me around, dutifully taking me to a mix of tired tourist traps, places of actual interest, and the ethnic enclaves of Chinatown, Little Ethiopia, and Little Tokyo. As we drove around the city in a car (the worst way to explore Los Angeles, incidentally), we passed by the highrises of Koreatown without stopping. When I expressed interest in visiting this obviously thriving district, I was informed that there was nothing for me there, and so at my earliest convenience, I naturally decided to spend the day exploring it on my own.
I again explored Koreatown for my neighborhood exploration series, California Fool’s Gold, in 2010. In researching the neighborhood, I read about Mr. Lee, whose story I found fascinating and inspiring. Here obviously was a dreamer who took huge risks and as a result experienced both hardship and fortune. I felt as if it were the sort of story which would make a good Hollywood movie — that is if Hollywood made movies about Asian-Americans more than once every twenty years.
Living in Silver Lake, I pass by the Lee family home often. If you’re not trapped inside an automobile, it’s hard to miss. That said, the name on the gate, “Hi Duk Lee,” didn’t register until 2017, when I snapped a photo. Could the father of Koreatown be alive and well and living in Silver Lake? It appeared so. I wondered whether or not his neighbors recognized him as such and wanted to profile him for Pan-Asian Metropolis but what little information I was able to glean suggested that he might grow prickly about the subject and what’s more (and contrary to popular belief), many Angelenos have no desire whatsoever to be in the spotlight. I decided to leave him alone and let the mystery be.
Hi Duk Lee was born 29 July 1939 in Korea — then still occupied by the Empire of Japan. Both of his parents were farmers. In 1961 he graduated from Chungnam National University with a degree in chemistry. In 1965, during the reign of right wing dictator Park Chung-hee, Lee emigrated to Switzerland, where he studied hotel and business management for one year before relocating to West Germany. There he found work as a miner and, more fortuitously, met his future wife, Kil Ja.
The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, enacted in 1968, opened the door for Korean and other “non-white” immigrants. That year Lee moved to Los Angeles where he initially found work as a line worker in a can factory. It again had nothing to do with his university degree but then working jobs beneath one’s education level is something with which immigrants have long been familiar. Kil Ja soon joined Lee and worked as a nurse. Lee later got a job as a welder. The couple got married and had children.
When Lee moved to Los Angeles, it was home to about 5,000 Koreans — most of whom had come after the military stalemate which effectively concluded the Korean War. The first Korean-Angelenos, like other Asians, were legally prohibited from owning property and so mostly lived in rooming houses and residential hotels in and around multi-ethnic Bunker Hill.
By the 1920s, a new Korean enclave was developing along Jefferson Boulevard in the West Adams District. Korean independence activist, community leader, and former Bunker Hill resident Ahn Changho moved there — as did the Korean Free Church and the Young Korean Academy. The local Dong Ji Hoi, Korean National Association, Korean Presbyterian Church, and the offices of Korean Independence News were also all located there. Finally, it was there, in 1965, that Francis Lewe opened Korea House — not the city’s first Korean-owned restaurant, but the first to serve Korean food.
In 1971, Lee and Kil Ja opened Olympic Market with about $7,000 of their savings and a bank loan. It was located at 3122 West Olympic Boulevard — on the other side of the 10 Freeway and more than a dozen blocks north of the existing Korean enclave. Hallyu was still decades away and M*A*S*H and most Americans probably had few associations with Korea other than a conflict which by the late 1950s was already referred to as “the Forgotten War.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Olympic Market failed to attract sufficient numbers of either Koreans or non-Koreans or non-Koreans in its first few years. Back in South Korea, however, Park’s infamous Heavy-Chemical Industry Drive was just the thing to convince large numbers of Koreans to leave their homeland and naturally, the majority settled across the Pacific in Los Angeles. By 1974, Olympic Market was turning a handy profit. That year, Lee bought the building which housed Olympic Market and began to dream of creating the first tourist-friendly Korean enclave along the lines of the nation’s numerous, well-known Chinatowns.
Lee and Kil Ja also bought a large home in the hills above Los Feliz. He dug a pond in the shape of the Korean peninsula, with a green bridge representing the demilitarized zone. A huge photo of Paektu Mountain, on the China-Korea border, hung on the family’s living room wall. Amongst the decorations was a crown from the Silla Dynasty. On the bookshelf were volumes of books about the Joseon Dynasty, during which time the Lee/Yi clan were part of the ruling Yangban nobility.
Taking his cue from America’s Chinatowns, with their American-Chinese food, wonton font signage, and self-exoticized chinoiserie, Lee invested in a Downtown Hollywood project known as Oriental Village. The plans were for a pan-East Asian shopping center, with gift shops and restaurants featuring products and food from China, Japan, and Korea. The owners of the building in which Oriental Village was supposed to open, however, declared bankruptcy and Lee was out a considerable sum of money.
Lee next turned his sites to the Olympic Corridor, along which his Korean market stood. In 1975, he approached Mayor Tom Bradley, hoping to secure political support for the Koreatown Redevelopment Association. In 1975 the KDA, with Lee as director, organized the first Koreatown parade, an event covered in both local and Korean media. Lee additionally served as director of the Koreatown Chamber of Commerce and the Korean-American Friendship Association. Lee was able to win over Bradley and other politicians — but Korean property owners were less willing to foot the bill for Lee’s Koreatown dreams, even though he tried to assure them that higher taxes would ultimately lead to higher returns. Lee later recounted that forty business figures came to a fundraiser at his home and were happy to drink his booze and eat his food — but that none supported his vision.
Lee’s fellow Koreans may’ve been unwilling to invest in developing a tourist-friendly Koreatown with traditional Korean design and architecture — but they did follow Lee’s lead in transforming Olympic into a Korean commercial corridor. In 1976, the Los Angeles Times claimed there were suddenly 40 Korean restaurants. Having not yet spread to Wilshire Boulevard — arguably the heart of modern Koreatown — the Times described a very different “Korea Town” than the one we know today: “a neighborhood of small businesses, aging bungalows, and low-rent apartment houses.” The following year, the same newspaper ran a four-page guide to the quickly growing enclave titled “Where East Meets West: Exploring the Sights and Sounds of L.A.’s Korea Town.”
With little support from his countrymen, Lee decided to go it alone. He opened a restaurant and night club called V.I.P. Palace (also known as 영빈광). The sign advertised “Mandarin & Korean cuisine.” A smaller sign read “sushi bar.” Perhaps Lee was hedging his bets –providing Angelenos unfamiliar with Korean cuisine familiar fall-back options in case they were somehow intimidated by banchan and gogi-gui. Then again, plenty of sushi joints (not to mention phở joints and French pastry shops) and are still run and patronized primarily by Koreans and Koreans had for years run many of the city’s Chinese restaurants. It was a success — and it quickly evolved into the defacto community center for Korean-Angelenos and visiting Koreans like, Kim Dae-jung, who visited before he became president.
In 1977, Lee embarked on a quest to build a five-story, 230-room hotel, targeting Korean travelers. An apartment was purchased and demolished. Blueprints were drawn up — but interest rates climbed from 9% to 22% in two years. In 1979, Lee cut his losses and moved on.
Apparently undaunted, Lee’s next opened V.I.P. Plaza, a two-story shopping center, which opened across Irolo Street in 1979. Lee hoped that his fellow Koreans would marvel at his success and fall in line with his vision but the reality proved to be somewhat different. According to Lee, whereas the shopping center’s established Korean-American tenants paid rent on time and without issue, the more newly-arrived Korean tenants fought him “over every penny,” hired a lawyer, and formed an association to battle him in court. Legal woes plagued him for the next few years and his debts piled up. As Koreatown flourished, Lee’s view that his own people were the primary obstacle of his own dreams embittered him.
By 1980, Koreans owned more than 200 commercial properties in Koreatown, with a total worth of over $20 million. By then, Los Angeles was already home to the largest Korean community outside of Korea (China’s Changbai Korean Autonomous County is only home to 14,000 and Osaka‘s population is less than half that of Los Angeles’s). Blue LADOT “Koreatown” were erected at three points along Olympic Boulevard that year, giving Koreatown the semblance of official recognition although according to former city councilman Tom LaBonge “when they actually made the Koreatown signs — which everybody thinks official — Mayor Tom Bradley and John Ferraro, they just went up and put the signs up on a street light on Olympic. They didn’t do any paperwork. `
1980 happened to be the same year that Little Tokyo saw the opening of Little Toyko Plaza, which applied Asian aesthetics to a neighborhood which, unlike Chinatown, had previously been architecturally indistinguishable from its neighbors. Somewhat ironically, the designer of the buildings and the now iconic Yagura Fire Tower was David Hyun, a pioneering Korean-Angeleno architect. Hyun had previously been approached by another prominent Koreatown developer, Gene Kim, about designing his planned-but-never-realized Korea City project. The tiles of the plaza are blue and look suspiciously like the shiny blue ones one ubiquitous in Korea and Koreatown alike. In fact, Hyun used some of the same tiles on his Korean-style residence, in Silver Lake.
In 1982, Lee accompanied Tom Bradley, the Korean consul, and a few state officials to oversee the installation of a Koreatown sign on the 10 Freeway‘s Normandie Boulevard exit. Later that year he sold his commercial properties and headed first to South Africa and then China, spending the next ten years learning the tea trade — and writing a 520-page memoir. He later worked in cosmetics and several other businesses before selling his Los Feliz home. The new owner filled in his Korea-themed pond. Koreatown, on the other hand, continued to grow more Korean. By 1985, there were more than 2,800 Korean-American owned businesses on Olympic and Wilshire Boulevards.
Lee returned to Los Angeles around 2002 and moved, with his wife, into their house in Silver Lake. When he was about 70, he embarked on another business venture, opening a nursery called Echo Garden on a surface parking lot in Highland Park. He apparently worked twelve hours a day. In 2013, it moved to Eagle Rock. Living in Mideast Los Angeles and working in Northeast Los Angeles, Lee apparently deliberately avoided Koreatown. I wonder what he thought of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, or “사-이-구” as many Koreans know it. I wonder what he thought when it overtook Downtown and Westlake to become Los Angeles’s most densely-populated and arguably most vibrant neighborhood. In 2010, as a side effect of the Bangla community’s successful campaign for official recognition for Little Bangladesh, Koreatown’s borders were finally officially recognized.
Today Koreatown is both gleaming and grimy — a district of booking clubs, bustling sidewalks, Korean cinemas, hostess bars, cramped convenience stores, clean supermarkets, plastic surgery clinics, noreabang, bingsu joints, and soju bars. Instead of hanboks and gat there are women in coral eyeliner wearing white undershirts beneath dresses and men wearing baseball caps. Lee wanted something that looked like a Joseon Dynasty village but instead Koreatown evolved into something that looks a lot like Busan.
Lee envisioned a Koreatown bounded by 8th Street to the north and 11th street to the south but the Hangul dominates business signs all the way over to Beverly Boulevard. Garden Grove has it’s own Korean enclave, Little Seoul, and residential Korean enclaves have sprung up in Buena Park, Windsor Square, Larchmont, Cerritos, Diamond Bar, Torrance, Irvine, Glendale, and Gardena. Metro Los Angeles is home to the largest Korean community outside of Korea and Korean is the fifth most spoken language.
The old Olympic Market building was demolished and replaced in 1992 with the multi-story 한국 프라자. The site set Lee intended for his hotel is instead home to Shinhan Bank. The old V.I.P. Plaza building is still there, though, looking more traditionally Korean than most of its neighbors and renting exclusively to Korean businesses — none of which are likely battling the building’s owner in court. The old V.I.P. Palace, meanwhile, was long ago painted orange and is home to a celebrated Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza, which serves as the emblem for Oaxacatown in much the same way its predecessor did for Koreatown in the old days.
The service for Lee took place at Han Kook Mortuary, in Harvard Heights, not far from Koreatown.
“The Koreatown That Never Was” by Sam Quinones, 2001, Los Angeles Times
“The Seoul of Los Angeles: Contested Identities and Transnationalism in Immigrant Space” by Kristy H.A. Kang, 2009
“Eagle Rock Disappoints Plant Nursery Owner” by Ajay Singh, Eagle Rock Patch, 2013
“How Three Pioneering Immigrants Forever Changed the Course—and the Culture—of L.A.” by Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Magazine, 2015
“올림픽마켓 열어 LA코리아타운 역사를 만들다” by 이주현, 2016, Korea Daily
Context: Korean Americans in Los Angeles, 1905-1980, Survey LA, Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey, 2018