Los Angeles is home to the largest Korean community anywhere outside of Korea — a distinction it has held since at least 1979. Metro Los Angeles is home to the enclaves of Koreatown (the world’s first) and Little Seoul — as well as the communities with large Korean populations like Windsor Square, Miracle Mile, Larchmont, Hancock Park, Cerritos, La Palma, La Mirada, La Crescenta-Montrose, La Cañada Flintridge, Buena Park, Fullerton, Torrance, Gardena, Irvine, Little Tokyo, and Garden Grove.
KOREAN-AMERICANS AND ANGELENOS
Almost all Korean Americans are from South Korea (officially the Republic of Korea) — roughly 99%. A combined 1% come from North Korea, Yanbian, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere. Excluding West Asians, they comprise the fifth largest population of Asian Americans. In Los Angeles, they are the third-largest population of Asian Americans, following Chinese (including Taiwanese and Hongkongers) and Filipinos; the third-largest population of foreign-born Asians (after Taiwanese and Vietnamese); and Korean is the third-most spoken Asian language after Chinese and Tagalog. In neighboring Orange County, Koreans are the second-largest Asian ethnic group after Vietnamese.
Growing up as I did in the Upper South in the 1980s, I don’t remember any Koreans and I had almost no awareness of Korean culture. Aside from school lessons on the Korean War, I suppose I first became aware of Koreans in relation to tensions between them and the black community. The first Rated R film I snuck into was Do The Right Thing. I remember when Steve Park joined the cast of In Living Color. And then the Los Angeles Riots happened, in which Koreans — for reasons then less clear to me — bore the brunt of hostility. It’s not as if, however, any of that really provided a deeper understanding of Korean culture and I still didn’t know that the corner market at which I did much of my shopping was Korean. My Asian Civilizations course barely touched on Korea and when I went to the town’s only Korean restaurant, I invariably ordered the vegetarian yakisoba.
Six years later I visited Los Angeles for the first time. My Angeleno friends took me to the usual tourist traps: the Walk of Fame, the Sunset Strip, the Venice Boardwalk, and all that. I was most interested, on the other hand, in the urban mountains, the walkable neighborhoods, the ethnic enclaves — none more so than Koreatown. I was taken to Chinatown, Little Ethiopia, Little Tokyo, and Thai Town — but my friends continually skipped Koreatown, which I gazed at in curiosity from behind their car windows. They assured me that there was “nothing there for us” — and so, at the first opportunity, I spent the day there by myself, experiencing what turned out to be Los Angeles’s most vibrant neighborhood.
KOREAN CARS & ELECTRONICS
The first exposure many Americans, if fewer Angelenos, probably had to a Korean product was with Korean cars. I can say, without exaggeration, that I’m utterly uninterested in cars as consumer products. I have been happily car-free for a decade and am surprised that I held onto one for so long after having moved to a city with a mass transit system and bike-able streets, and walkable communities. It will probably come as a surprise to some that I actually enjoy driving. I also enjoy boating and the idea of owning either a car or boat seem to me almost equally absurd. I don’t like parking lots and the problem of car storage and pollution outweigh the joy of the occasional road trip for which I can easily rent a car. As uninterested as I am in cars, I still get the sense, whether right or wrong, that Korean cars don’t inspire any brand loyalty or inflate the egos of their drivers — both of which of course makes them more appealing to me… but not enough to buy one.
Before there were Korean cars in Los Angeles, there was Samsung (삼성), the largest Korean business conglomerate. Samsung was founded in 1938 and, like many business conglomerates, was happy to do a little of this and a little of that. They started making electronics — this “this and that” for which they’re best known today, in the 1960s. Samsung televisions were being sold in Los Angeles by 1977. Samsung Electronics America was founded in 1987. Whether or not there are Samsung-heads, I again can’t say and if I were asked whether or not I owned any Samsung products, I couldn’t rightly say. Update: I just checked and my television and receiver are both Samsung which, come to think of it, I guess I knew.
I’m fairly certain that Hyundai (현대), founded in 1967, was the first Korean car sold in the US. Hyundai began selling cars in the US in 1983. Hyundai Motors America was founded in California in 1986. In 1990, the Hyundai Design Center was established in Fountain Valley. In the 1980s, there were at least ten Japanese makes of automobile and to be honest, I think that I assumed, as a teenager, that Hyundai was one of them.
Kia (기아), founded in 1944, entered the American market somewhat later. Before Kia manufactured cars, they manufactured bicycles, including Korea’s first, the Samchully, in 1951. Kia later manufactured motorcycles, then trucks, and finally cars. Kia Motors America was founded in 1992, I believe in Irvine, where Kia cars began being sold in 1993.
Daewoo (대우), founded in 1967, had a presence in Los Angeles since at least the mid-1970s, but it was selling clothing then, not cars. They later branched into fax machines, televisions, computer monitors, and other electronics. Daewoo Motors was founded in 1983 but Daewoo only began selling cars in the US in 1997. They declared bankruptcy in 1999 and were bought by GM, who stopped selling them in 2002. Their presence on the streets of American cities may’ve been brief, but the fact that there were three Korean car brands registered even with someone like me, then driving a BMW 318is from 1991 because it was the last year before BMWs started looking less like themselves and more like Daewoos.
It’s hard to underestimate how unfamiliar most non-Koreans were with Korean culture until Hallyu, or “the Korean Wave.” The was a club, launched in 2000, called Par Avion which was billed as a global indie pop night. It was even organized by a guy who billed himself as “DJ Soju” and flyers frequently featured Hangul writing — but (aside from a trip to Seoul), the Asian music played was nearly always from Shibuya–kei like The Aprils, Motocompo, Pizzicato Five, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, and Takako Minekawa.
Korean cinema, too, was much less popular amongst non-Koreans. In the 1990s, Japanese horror developed a cult following, and Korean horror films like Whispering Corridors, Wishing Stairs, and A Tale of Two Sisters appealed, by and large, to the same audience. The Korean blockbuster, Shiri, released in Korea in 1999, finally made its way to Los Angeles in 2002 and did just OK at the local box office. By then, though, there was a small but growing audience for Korean blockbusters like Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA) and My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀) which sold well on import DVDs.
It was Oldboy (올드보이), however, that blew the doors wide open for a larger Angeleno audience, even though it took two years to cross the Pacific, finally making its way ashore in 2005. Bong Joon-ho‘s The Host (괴물) took only a year to make its way to the US. Its 2009 follow-up, Mother (마더), was released the same year in both Korea and Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to see it at the recently-demolished Bing Theater, sat next to a Korean man whom I couldn’t help but notice didn’t react to the film’s shocks and horrors. Afterward, he walked up onto the stage and was introduced as the director.
K-Pop, although the most obvious example of the ascendence of Korean pop culture, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Korean cinema. K-Pop is slick, simplistic, presumably generated by algorithms and produced in factories. Korean cinema, on the other hand — at least the films which are recognized and respected abroad — are often ambiguous, challenging, and created by idiosyncratic directors like Kim Ki-duk (김기덕), Lee Chang-dong (이창동), and Hong Sang-soo (홍상수). Somewhere in the middle, it seems, are Korean dramas which are also often the products of a single auteur and yet are (in my admittedly limited experience) invariably quite commercial. I don’t know which was the first to really attract a large international following although I remember Dae Jang Geum (2003) being quite a phenomenon and later, series like Coffee Prince (커피프린스 1호점) and Boys Over Flowers (꽃보다 남자).
Korean-Angeleno culture, too, though, has had its own “Hallyu” of sorts. Korean Los Angeles includes, now, numerous globally-recognized actors, comedians, musicians, and other entertainers. Koreatown, for its part, is much less likely to be shunned today than it was twenty years ago by Angelenos playing tour guide to visiting friends — and most of those visitors will no doubt know of and want to visit it anyway. If further proof of the rise of Korean Los Angeles is necessary, know this… there are today kimchi taco trucks on the streets of far-off places locales like New York City.
EARLY KOREAN CALIFORNIA
Although there were a few Koreans who earlier came to the US, Korean American history begins in earnest around 1903, when roughly 100 Koreans came to work on the sugar plantations of Hawai’i. Soon after, many of those Koreans left the territory to try their chances in the US, arriving alongside even more from the Korean Empire mostly via the Port of San Francisco. By 1905, there was a Korean community of about 60-70 established in Riverside‘s Pachappa Camp, where that year the Korean Mutual Assistance Association (KMAA) was established. By 1906, there were roughly sixty Koreans living in Los Angeles County.
Further reading: Pachappa Camp: The First Koreatown in the United States by Edward T. Chang and Hannah Brown, 2018
DOSAN CHANG HO AHN
Ahn Chang-ho (안창호, also known by his pen name, Dosan) moved with his wife Heyryon “Helen” Lee to Riverside in 1904. There he worked in the orange groves of the Inland Empire and taught Korean migrants. After the Great Freeze of 1913, which devastated citrus groves, Ahn and his family relocated to Los Angeles, first settling in the Crown Hill neighborhood and then Bunker Hill. There, his home served as the location of Hungsadan, or the Young Korean Academy — a focal point for the emerging community.
Dosan returned to Asia to fight against the Japanese, departing from San Pedro on the SS Sonoma. He would never see his family again. First, he was arrested by the occupational forces in 1932. After his release, he was again imprisoned in 1937. He died in Seoul in 1938.
In 1937, Ahn’s surviving family — Helen Ahn and their children Philip, Philson, Ralph, Soorah, and Susan — moved to a home near the intersection of 34th Street and McClintock Avenue where they remained until 1946 and which during that time served as a meeting place for Korean independence activists. In 1966, the home was moved to its current location where it was restored by the University of Southern California, which maintains it as the USC Korean Studies Institute.
The intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Van Buren Place was designated “Dosan Ahn Chang Ho Square” sometime before 1999. Downtown Riverside’s Dosan Ahn Chang-Ho Memorial was dedicated in 2001.
KOREAN CHURCHES & HOUSES OF WORSHIP
It’s hard to overstate the importance of churches and other houses of worship to immigrants and refugees and Koreans are hardly an exception. The US and the Joseon Dynasty established diplomatic relations in 1882 and American Protestant missionaries began converting Koreans in 1884. Today, the majority of Koreans are not religious and Christians account for about 27.6% of the population. Korean Americans, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly Christian and of the 70-80% who identify as such, although interestingly some 40% converted to the religion after immigrating to the US.
Churches offer not just religious instruction, of course, but also an opportunity for social interaction as well as language instruction, financial aid, and other community resources. There are a lot of Korean churches in Los Angeles. Korean Christians, like all of the best Christians, have a propensity for yelling through megaphones which render their messages both extremely unpleasant and utterly unintelligible. When I worked in Hollywood, a convertible van full of congregants used to tote a life-sized cross up and down Sunset Boulevard — which I guess is possibly what Jesus would’ve wanted.
Although myself not religious, I’m a fan of architecture and thus a fan of Los Angele’s many mid-century churches, Spanish Colonial chapels, and stunning cathedrals, which more often than not, seem to conduct their services in either Spanish, Tagalog, or Korean. Several of the most memorable weddings I’ve attended have involved Koreans and taken places in beautiful churches like the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles and Wilshire United Methodist Church.
In 1904, Missionary Florence Sherman established the Korean Methodist Episcopal Mission in what’s now Downtown’s South Park neighborhood. The first pastor was Hugh Cyn and the congregation numbered about 25. In 1911, the pastor returned to Korea. By then, the church had moved from its original location (long ago demolished). The Korean Methodist Church finally purchased a permanent home, the former Swedish Lutheran Church, in 1945.
There were also, by then, several other Korean churches, including the Korean Mission in Bunker Hill. The second location of the Korean Methodist Episcopal Mission closed in 1912. The Methodist and Presbyterian congregations merged into the Korean Presbyterian Church under Reverend Chan-ho Min, who remained there until 1919 when he returned to Hawaiʻi to pastor a new church.
The Korean Free Church was established in 1926. In 1930, it became the Methodist Episcopal Church, South after merging with the Methodist Episcopal Church. It moved into its first permanent location in 1945. It moved to its current location in 1960.
The Berendo Street Baptist Church was established by Reverend Dong-Myung Kim and his wife Ee-Sook “Esther” Ahn in 1957. It moved in 1964 into a new church (now home to Korean Evangelical Nah Sung) and again, in 1977, to its current location in Koreatown. The Oriental Mission Church moved into a former East Hollywood supermarket in 1975. In 1976, the Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church took over the former synagogue of Temple Sinai East (City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 91). The Korean Church of Southern California. The Korean Church of Southern California was located in Westside Village by 1977. By the early 1980s, Young Nak Church (then in Wilshire Vista) and Oriental Mission Church each had thousands of members.
KOREAN NEWSPAPERS & MEDIA
Media is also important in nurturing and maintaining community. In the case of newspapers, radio, and television — it was homegrown Korean American institutions that preceded the arrival of imports from Korea.
The first Korean American newspaper, Korean American Herald (Miju Shin-Mun), was founded in 1909 from offices near what’s today Koreatown. The second, Korean American Times (Puk Mi Sibo), was established in Westlake. Dong-A Il Bo was founded in Oxford Square. From 1943 until 1952, the communist, The Korean Independence News, was published from offices in Old Koreatown. The Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper founded in Korea in 1953, opened a Los Angeles branch office in Sunset Junctions in 1973.
By 1977, the Korean Broadcasting Company, Korean TV Productions, MBC, TBC TV & Joong Ang Il Bo were all in operation in Los Angeles. The Koreatown Weekly, the first Korean American newspaper printed in English, was founded by Kyung Won “K.W.” Lee. It was founded in 1979. By 1981, it had moved down the street. It ceased publication in 1984. Korean television networks KBS and SBS also established bureaus in Los Angeles.
In 1990, the Korean American magazine, KoreAm, was founded by Jung Shig Ryu and James Ryu. Journalist Jimmy Lee served as the managing editor from 1999 to 2007. It cease print publication in 2015 but continued to publish online out of an operation overseen by James Ryu and editor Julie Ha. In 2018, it changed its focus to a Pan-Asian American one and changed the name to Kore. It also began publishing a print version once again, overseen by editor-in-chief Serena Kim although it, too, appears to have ceased.
Today, Korean stations are especially prominent on AM Radio, where Korean language stations are only outnumbered by those in Spanish and English. They’re represented by AM 1990 KGBN (Korean Gospel Broadcasting), AM 1230 KYPA (Radio JBC Korean), AM 1540 KMPC (Radio Korea), and AM 1650 KFOX (Radio Seoul).
Los Angeles has been to several Korean Angeleno journalists and broadcasters including reporters K. Connie Kang, Corina Knoll, Jeong Park, and Jo Kwon; Angry Asian Man founder Phil Yu; and news anchors Suzie Suh, Julie Chang, Rachel Kim, Richard Choi, and Sophia Choi. At least one Los Angeles-born journalist, Jenny Jo (Cho) ended up moving to Korea to work as an anchor there.
For further reading consider on Korean media, there’s Diasporic Media Beyond the Diaspora: Korean Media in Vancouver and Los Angeles by Sherry S. Yu, 2018.
KOREAN LOS ANGELES IN THE 1910s
Korean Immigration to Los Angeles slowed considerably in 1910, when the Empire of Japan formally annexed Korea and restricted migration. Koreans already living in Los Angeles, however, were energized by Japan’s annexation. As early as 1912, the San Francisco-based Korean National Association (KNA) opened a branch in Downtown Los Angeles. Highly heterogeneous Bunker Hill supported the Korean Mission and several Korean markets.
CHAI YOUNG HONG & KOREAN-ANGELENO COMEDY
The first Korean Angeleno entertainer to reach a significant non-Korean audience may have been comedian Chai Young Hong. Hong was born in Yangsan on 26 November 1885 and arrived in Hawaiʻi via steamer on 9 December 1904. He later moved to Los Angeles where he found work as a bellhop at Los Angles’s then-most glamorous hotel, the Alexandria.
In 1918, he appeared in his first film, The Blind Pig, in which he played “the Chinese Man.” That Hong was Korean, not Chinese, seemed an apparent triviality and he was marketed by the L-KO Kompany as “Charlie of the Orient — the only Chinese in comedies” and nicknamed “the Chinese Charlie Chaplin. At L-KO, he starred in numerous “Charlie” comedies, his final being An Oriental Romeo, released in 1919 (the year L-KO folded).
Hong’s career never approached the heights of fame or longevity as his Anglo-American inspiration. Hong’s last starring role was in 1920’s Over the Ocean Waves. After that, he appeared in films for a few more years, ultimately amassing 22 credits by 1922. By 1925, he was working as a valet for “male vamp” star, Lew Cody. He later moved to Manhattan where, as Chester Hong, he worked in a restaurant and during World War II served as a cook aboard the SS Thomas Lynch. He died on 4 January 1946 in Manhattan.
As he died in obscurity, he was not a likely inspiration for any of the Korean Angeleno comedians who rose decades later. The first who comes to mind is Johnny Yune, who began his stand-up career in New York City in 1964 but who later lived and performed in Los Angeles. In 1977, he was invited to appear on the Tonight Show, which he ultimately did 34 times. In 1989 and ’90, he hosted a late-night talk show in Korea, 자니윤쇼 (The Johnny Yune Show).
Knoxville-born Henry Cho began a long career in stand-up in 1986 and has lived on and off in Los Angeles. San Francisco-born Margaret Cho began her comedy career in the early 1990s and later moved to Los Angeles and starred in the landmark television series, All American Girl. Other prominent Korean Angeleno comedians and comedy writers include Bobby Lee, Daniel Chun, Dr. Ken, Fred Armisen, Jane Kim, Lenny Shelton, Markiplier, Simonne Park, and Suzanne Whang.
BIRTH OF KOREAN MARKETS
Korean Angelenos have long associations with markets — everything from small corner stores up to sprawling, almost mall-like, grocery stores. Locally, Korean’s relationship with the food industry begins with the earliest immigrants, most of whom worked as field workers, truck drivers, and gardeners. Agricultural workers in the Central Valley, Inland Empire, and elsewhere in turn established relationships with wholesalers and groceries in Los Angeles.
One of the earliest wholesale grocers was Benjamin N. Kim, who operated a stall at City Market, which had then only been open for two years. and was owned by a cooperative of Chinese, Japanese, and white farmers. K&S Company (also known as K&S Jobbers) was another wholesalers at City Market, founded in 1925 by Youse (also spelled Yong-jeung and Young) Kim and Chull “Leo” Song. K&S notably sold Legrand nectarine, a new variety of the fruit developed by Fred Anderson and distributed from the Kim Brothers nursery, operated by Harry Kim and Charles H. Kim. Leo Song later was a leader of the Dong Ji Hoi or Comrade Society, a Korean independence organization founded by Syngman Rhee. In 1926, Peter Hyun founded Oriental Food Products of California in South Los Angeles’s South Park neighborhood, a wholesaler that specialized in supplying Asian restaurants. They also produced a line of products under the label “Jan-U-Wine.”
As mentioned earlier, Korean grocery stores are often more like shopping centers than most non-Korean markets as they often share space with numerous restaurants (or “grocerants” if you’re into industry jargon) and other businesses. They also, by extension, tend to be the anchors of Korean malls. Sometimes, as with the California Market (aka Gaju Market and 가주마켓) on Western Avenue, it’s almost impossible to make a meaningful distinction between market and mall.
There are several Korean grocery stores and chains today. They include Arirang Supermarket (aka AR Supermart), Hankook Market (aka HK Market), established in 1975; Zion Market, established in San Diego in 1979; California Market, established by Richard Rhee in 1987; Plaza Market (established in 1988); Hannam (established in 1988); Galleria Market (an offshoot of Hankook Market launched in 2001); Lotte (which expanded from Korea to the Us in 2006); H-Mart (established in Queens in 1982 and expanded to Los Angeles County in 2007), Little Tokyo Marketplace (formerly known as Woori Market, established in 2009), Seoul Market, and Valley Seoul Market.
There are almost too many Korean malls and shopping centers in Metro Los Angeles to count (most are in Koreatown or Little Seoul). One of the most significant in terms of size and age is Koreatown Plaza – 코리아 타운 플라자, in Koreatown, which opened in 1987. The hangar-like Koreatown Galleria – 코리아타운 갤러리아, just down the street, opened in 2001. Surely one of the strangest is IB Plaza – IB 플라자, which is an Art Deco building from the 1930s that was repurposed into a Korean mall some time ago. One of the hippest is also one of the newest, Madang Mall – 마당몰, built in 2010. Others of note include Arirang Galleria, Brookhurst North Shopping Center, Chung Ki Wa Plaza – 청기와 플라자, City Center on 6th – 시티 센터 온 6th, Cosmos Village, Garden Grove Shopping Center, Gilbert Plaza, Hanmi Plaza, Ka-Ju Plaza, Korea Plaza, Koreaone Plaza, Koreatown Mall, Lux Plaza, New Seoul Plaza, Newland Plaza, Newton Plaza, Vermont Plaza, and Western Shopping Center.
THE RISE OF OLD KOREATOWN
In 1920, the Korean population of Los Angeles proper was still just 89. The annexation of Korea by Japan had ended most immigration from the US although some picture brides came to Los Angeles through arranged marriages until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which specifically banned the immigration of Asians to the US. The Korean population of Los Angeles continued to grow, however, both through births and the migration of Koreans from the Central Valley, Hawaiʻi, Riverside, San Francisco, and elsewhere.
Many early Korean Angelenos had lived in and around Bunker Hill but it was never a predominantly Korean area. In fact, the once tony neighborhood that had originally been home to many of the city’s white Protestant upper class was increasingly home to poor and working-class Latinos, Native Americans, Filipinos, and others who lived, in many cases, in the neighborhood’s stately but subdivided Victorian mansions.
The Korean Angeleno community began to shift to the area west of USC, part of an annexation known as the University Addition that had in 1899 added 1134 acres of territory in the city’s southwest. West Adams, as it came to be known, was an area where racial housing covenants that determined where non-white protestants could and couldn’t live were less strictly enforced. The neighborhood may also have appealed to Koreans because of its proximity to the Methodist-affiliated USC and in 1926, the Methodist Korean Free Church opened its doors in Old Koreatown. Other Korean congregations followed, and several met in the neighborhood’s numerous, established black churches before finding permanent homes.
In addition to the churches, West Adams was also a suburb, which might not seem appealing to you or me but is to others. One should never underestimate the appeal of detached homes, fallow grass lawns, and two-car garages for aspiring suburbanites of any ethnicity — and the Korean enclave in West Adams had those and precious little else.
By 1930, the population of Korean Angelenos had reached about 320. During the Great Depression, local Koreans operated produce stands, grocery stores, laundry businesses, trucking companies, wholesalers, Chinese restaurants, herb shops, hat shops, and more.
The KNA opened a Los Angeles branch in 1937 that found a permanent home in Old Koreatown in 1938. From its offices, it published a political paper, The New Korea. Over the years, it also hosted the printers of the Shin Han Min Bo newspaper, the Korean Women’s Patriotic League, and the United Korean Committee. In 1991, it was designated City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 548 as “the Korean Independence Memorial Building.”
PHILIP AHN & KOREAN-ANGELENO FILM FIGURES
One of Chang-ho Ahn’s children, Philip Ahn, was notable for several reasons. Born on 29 March 1905, in Highland Park, he was likely the very first American-born Korean. As an adult, he became the first really well-known Korean-American actor in Hollywood. In high school, he visited the set of The Thief of Baghdad. Its star, Douglas Fairbanks, offered him a role in the film — which his mother refused. While a student at USC, however, he acted in the play Merrily We Roll Along, which toured the US.
Ahn’s film career began inauspiciously, if typically, for Asian American film actors of that era — playing, uncredited, an unnamed Chinese waiter. The film was Desirable, released in 1934. However, it was only a year later that he had his first credited role, as Wu Ting in A Scream in the Night. Dozens of small roles followed during which he usually played Chinese or Japanese villains.
Ahn served in the military during World War II before being discharged due to an ankle injury, after which he returned to Hollywood. He acted in many more films, plays, and television series — one of his most prominent roles was as Master Kan on the series Kung Fu, which ran from 1972 to 1975. In 1954, Ahn and his sister Soorah opened Moongate Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant that lasted until 1990. He died on 28 February 1978. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1984 and was the first Korean American to be inducted — although not the last.
Acting roles in Hollywood for Asian Americans were then — and still are, really — pretty limited. Theater has been, perhaps, a bit more open to Asian representation. The nation’s oldest Asian American theater company, East West Players, was founded in Silver Lake in 1965. Among its founders was Korean Angeleno actor Soon-Tek Oh. Oh went on to create a Korean American theater ensemble, Society of Heritage Performers, in 1995. In 1999, it evolved into Lodestone Theatre Ensemble — which, sadly, ended its run in 2009.
On a happier note, however, there are many more Korean Angelenos involved today in film, television, and theater. They include animators Kyungwon Song, Lela Lee, Peter Chung, Peter Shin, Peter Sohn, and Tammy Jean Park; playwrights Philip W. Chung; and filmmakers Alexander Sebastien Lee, Andrew Ahn, Chris Chan Lee, Grace Lee, Joseph Kahn, Justin Chon, Justin Jinsoo Kim, So Yong Kim, So Yun Um, and Will Kim.
Not surprisingly, there are even more Korean Angeleno actors, including Alexandra Bokyun Chun, Arden Cho, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, Brian Tee, Charles Melton, Charlet Chung, Chil Kong, Daniel Dae Kim, David Chung, Denyce Lawton, Donna Lee, Eddie Shin, Edward Hong, Elizabeth Anweis (aka Elizabeth Weisbaum), Esther Chae, Grace Park, Hahn Cho, Han Ye-seul, Haunani Minn, Hojo Shin, Jacqueline Kim, James Kyson, Jamie Chung, Jacqueline Park, Jenna Ushkowitz, John Cho, Johnny Yong Bosch, Jongman Kim, Joy Osmanski, June Kyoto Lu, Justin Lee, Karl Yune, Kenneth Choi, Ki Hong Lee, Lanny Joon, Lee Ji-ah, Leonardo Nam, Linda Park, Lindsay Price, Michaela Dietz, Mike Moh, Moon Bloodgood, Natasha Yi, Nicole Kang, Patricia Ja Lee, Philip Moon, Pricilla Jin Chung, Randall Park, Rick Yune, Samantha Futerman, Sandra Oh, Smith Cho, Steven Yeun, Sung Hi Lee, Sung Kang, Sydney Park, Tim Kang, Vivian Bang, Wooyeon Jo, and Yunjin Kim.
The cultural exchange between Korea and Korean Los Angeles sometimes makes its way into films. Korean director Chang Kil-soo‘s Koreatown-set film, Western Avenue, was released in 1993. Conversely, Korean Angeleno actor Steve Yuen appeared in Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 film, Okja. Korean multiplex chain CJCGV주식회사 has local locations in Koreatown and Buena Park (and offices in the Miracle Mile). It screens both Korean and Hollywood films. The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, screens Korean films (for free).
WORLD WAR II & ITS AFTERMATH
On 7 and 8 December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service struck American military bases in the occupied territories of Hawaiʻi and the Philippines. Koreans were understandably quick to mobilize against the Japanese — as, it should be mentioned, were many Japanese Americans and Captain Young-oak Kim was put in charge of a unit of Japanese American soldiers. A National Guard unit of 109 Koreans called Tiger Brigade included within its ranks Chang-ho Ahn’s son, Philson. Ralph Ahn joined the Navy, as did Susan, who as lieutenant was the first Korean American woman in the US military.
On 29 August 1942, the “Day of Hope” was observed for which a parade of Chinese, Filipino, and Korean infantrymen marched from Pershing Square to City Hall where Frank Lee sang the Korean national anthem as the Taegukgi was hoisted on a flagpole. Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, bringing about an end to both their decades-long occupation of Korea and the six-year-long world war.
With the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, the Korean independence movement ended. Many Korean Angelenos who’d come to Los Angeles as students or pastors returned to Korea. Whui Sik Min was appointed the consul general of the republic’s new consulate in Los Angeles.
THE END OF RACIAL HOUSING COVENANTS AND OLD KOREATOWN
In 1947, a dentist named Yin Kim and his wife bought a house in Country Club Park, a neighborhood where racial housing covenants were then strictly enforced. They were served with an injunction to vacate which they challenged in court. The following year, in another case (Shelley v. Kraemer), the US Supreme Court ruled that the discriminatory practice was unconstitutional. An unintended side effect of desegregation was the erasure of many communities which had until then been segregated. Blacks moved out of South Central, Jews out of Brooklyn Heights, and Koreans out of Old Koreatown, and none of those enclaves today bear more than faint traces of their ethnic pasts.
SAMMY LEE & KOREAN-ANGELENO ATHLETES
Los Angeles is, or has been, home to many Korean American athletes, including golfers Angela Park, Anthony Kim, David Lipsky, Kevin Na, and John Huh; gridiron footballers John Lee, Marcus Demps, Will Demps, and Younghoe Koo; baseball players Darwin Barney, Hank Conger, Rob Refsnyder, and Terrmel Sledge; wrestlers Cameron, Jimmy Yang, and Mia Kim; hockey players Jim Paek and Richard Park; martial artists Han Bong-soo and Kwon Tae-man; ice skater Naomi Nari Nam; skateboarder Daewon Song; snowboarder Chloe Kim; and tennis player Kevin Kim.
Who is the best known, I cannot say because even though I enjoy playing sports, I almost never derive enjoyment from watching others do so — certainly not enough to follow the careers of athletes. That said, it’s probably a safe bet to state that Sammy Lee is one of the most famous Korean American athletes Los Angeles has ever produced. The Lee family, presided over by Eunkee Chun and Soonkey Rhee, lived in Highland Park where they also managed a grocery store and restaurant.
The celebrated swimmer and diver learned to swim at Brookside Park pool in Pasadena, which then had just one day a week in which non-white swimmers were allowed to use the pool (it was drained the day after). He did his first somersault dive at a Highland Park pool in 1932. Lee snuck in practices at the Los Angeles Swimming Stadium in Exposition Park when he caught the attention of Jim Ryan, who became his coach. In 1942, he won the national championship in platform and three-meter springboard diving. In 1948, Sammy Lee won a gold medal at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. He won another gold and a bronze in the 1952 games.
THE KOREAN WAR AND THE SECOND MIGRATION WAVE
The Korean War erupted on 25 June 1950. The primary belligerents were North and South Korea but it was also a proxy war with the former backed by China and the USSR and the latter backed by their Cold War enemies in the UN. In Los Angeles, there was reported tension between supporters of Syngman Rhee’s republic and the communist north. Some Korean Angelenos made their way to the Korean Peninsula via communist Czechoslovakia to fight for the North.
Nearly 5 million died in the Korean War, including about 40,000 Americans (more than 100,000 were wounded). An armistice was signed on 27 July 1953. The Korean peninsula was afterward divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the McCarren-Walter Act) was passed in 1952 and allowed for the resumption of immigration from some Asian countries, including South Korea. War brides, refugees, and children orphaned by the conflict became the first Korean immigrants to the US since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. This second Korean immigration wave was much bigger than the first and from 1950 through 1965, about 14,000 Koreans immigrated to the US.
DAVID HYUN AND KOREAN-ANGELENO ARCHITECTS
One of the immigrants in the second wave was Ki Suh Park, who was born in Seoul in 1932 and who came to the US in 1953 to study architecture at East Los Angeles College. He earned his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1957 and a graduate degree in architecture and city planning from MIT. In 1961, he was hired at Gruen Associates and he became a partner there in 1972 and a managing partner in 1981. In 1984, he and Joon Nam Yang developed Koreatown Plaza. Park died in 2013.
Another prominent Korean Angeleno architect was David Hyun. Hyun was born in Korea in 1917. His father, Reverend Soon Hyun, was active in the Korean resistance and the family fled to Shanghai, where they lived for five years before relocating to Hawaiʻi. Hyun graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1940, with degrees in math and physics. Hyun, his wife Mary, and their children David and Than moved to Los Angeles in 1947 where Hyun studied architecture at USC whilst working as a janitor.
Hyun also continued working as a union organizer, something he’d done begun in Hawaii. This — and the fact that his father had strongly criticized American-backed dictator, Syngman Rhee — led to Hyun’s being labeled a “dangerous alien” and in 1949 the Hyuns were detained on Terminal Island on charges of violating the Alien Registration Act. The Los Angeles Civil Rights Congress, the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, fellow architects, and members of the Korean American community successfully organized to prevent his and his family’s deportation.
In 1958 the US government again designated him an undesirable, this time charging him with violating the McCarran Internal Security Act. Again, organized resistance prevented the Hyuns’ deportation. Hyun founded his own firm, David Hyun Associates, Inc. in Glendale in 1953. Hyun designed several beautiful modernist homes including the Lawrence Segal House (Los Feliz, 1955), the Tapelband Residence (Silver Lake, 1957), the Haddad Residence (1958), his own Residence (West San Fernando Valley, 1960), the McTernan House (Los Feliz, 1960), the home at 300 South Rossmore (Hancock Park, 1961), and the Nisser Residence (Downey).
In 1961, Hyun formed a partnership with Richard Whitney — Hyun & Whitney. His most famous project was likely the Community Redevelopment Agency‘s “revitalization” of Little Tokyo. The Japanese Village Plaza and Yagura Fire Tower were designed by Hyun in 1978. He, presumably, had also planned to use them in the design of Korea City, a project designed by Koreatown developer, Gene Kim, in the mid-1970s but which never came to fruition. David Hyun died in 2012, a year after his wife.
HOUSE OF KOREAN ARTS AND KOREAN-ANGELENO ARTISTS
One of the first prominent Korean arts-related institutions was the House of Korean Arts, founded by Henry S.G. Song and Marie Song Lee around 1955. Moon died in June 1960. Around 1964 it relocated to Leimert Park. It sold bambooware, brassware, lacquerware, &c imported from Korea — but Los Angeles has produced (or at least been home to) many Korean artists including Carole Kim, Chloe Jeongmyo Kim, photographer Christine S. Chang, Chusu Kim, David Choe, Dayoung Cho, Debbie Han, Deborah Lee, Ella Yoon, Emma Goo, Erin Kim, Haes Muri Lee, Hellen Jo, Isabelle Lee, tattoo artist Jane Cho, John Lee, Ji Hye Lee, JiHee Nam, Jinseok Choi, Jisoo Chung, Karen Lee Williams, Kim Ryu, KyungHwa Lee, Kyungwon Song, Melly Lym, Mikki Paek, Minha Song, Narae Kim, Peter Ko, Saelee Oh, Saewon Oh, Soey Milk, Suyeong Yang, Taehee Kim, Tammy Jean Park, Tommy Yune, Tracy Park, Yeon Soo Kim, Yoory Yung, Yunjin Cho, Zibezi, and Zuty Lorz.
Nic Cha Kim wears many hats including activist, reporter, documentarian, and playwright. He also founded Los Angeles’s Gallery Row in 2003 with Kjell Hagen — which led to the Downtown LA Art Walk, which has taken place since 2009. Kim was born in Lakewood and raised in Arcadia. Another key development in Los Angeles’s arts scene was the establishment of the performance art venue Human Resources by Eric and Kathleen Kim in Chinatown in 2010.
KOREAN ANGELENO ARTISANS
Korean Angeleno artisans and their businesses include the clothing label April Meets October, Canvas + Clay Studio, Hannah Yu‘s Echo Floral, the Flower by Yoori, han boutiQ, jewelry company Hearten Company, ceramicist Hwasoban, Jennifer Rhee‘s candle company Lait, ceramacist Mipa Shin‘s Mipa’s pots and plants, Moon Jar Design, bojagi art workshop Nossi, bath product makers Ondo Body, the design shop Shin + Na, ceramicist ƒ‘s Studio Jungin, and ceramicist Yen Works.
ALFRED SONG & KOREAN-ANGELENO POLITICIANS
In 1960, Alfred Song was elected to the city council of Monterey Park, making him the first Korean to serve on a city council in Los Angeles County. Song was born to plantation workers in Hawaiʻi and came to Los Angeles to attend USC. After enlisting in the Air Force during World War II, he entered law school and in 1964 had a law office in Downtown. In 1962, he was elected to State Assembly and in 1966 to the State Senate.
Song was the first Korean to be elected to both of those positions but since then, Metro Los Angeles has been home to numerous Korean politicians including Chang Joon “Jay” Kim, Cyndi Otteson, Dave Min, David Ryu, John Lee, Michelle Eunjoo Park Steel, Sukhee Kang, and Young O. Kim.
Elected office isn’t, of course, the only way to engage in politics and over the years, Korean Angelenos have organized numerous civic and cultural organizations. In 1961, the Korean Chamber of Commerce was organized under Frank Ahn. In 1962, Charles Yoon founded the American Korean Civic Organization. The Korean Association of Southern California (KASC) was also organized in 1962 with partial funding from the Korean Consulate General. In 1963, the old Danish Hall reopened as the Korean Community Center after it was purchased by the locally prominent Leo Song, Ho “Charles” Kim, Won-yong “Warren” Kim, and Hyung-soon. The KASC moved to a new location in 1972 and later, its current location has also been home to the Korean American Community Center, which also housed the Korean Chamber of Commerce, the Korean Students Association of Southern California, and the Korean Trader’s Association of America. In the mid-1980s, the KASC was renamed the Korean American Federation. More recently, Jae Hwan Lim founded Humans of North Korea. Although neither specifically nor strictly a Korean organization, K-Town for All deserves to be singled out for serving some of the most vulnerable residents of Koreatown, its unhoused population.
KOREA HOUSE AND KOREAN-ANGELENO CUISINE
Korean Angelenos had been in the restaurant business at least since the 1920s although for decades most operated restaurants that served American Chinese or Cantonese cuisine. There are still a lot of Korean-owned restaurants that serve Chinese cuisine — and in recent years — Japanese, too, but Korean cuisine has existed on the Los Angeles restaurant scene since 1965.
The first restaurant to serve Korean cuisine was Korea House, established by Francis Lewe in Old Koreatown as early as 1963. Around 1970, it relocated to a spot in Downtown Hollywood, where it was run by Rocky Gunn and Henry Lu. The second Korean restaurant, Madame Lee’s, was established by a Korean couple in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood in 1965.
Although perhaps tailored to American tastes, for decades afterward, Los Angeles’s Korean restaurants presumably served a fairly unadulterated of Korean food. The first significant development in Korean-Angeleno cuisine likely occurred when local cooks began combining Korean-style grilled meat and Kimchi with Mexican items like burritos and tacos. Korean-Mexican fusion restaurants existed at least as early as 1996, when 2424 Pico in Santa Monica began serving Korean fillings in lettuce wraps.
In 2008, Caroline Shin and Mark Manguera opened the Kogi Korean BBQ food truck, with chief chef Roy Choi at the helm. By 2011, the fleet of food trucks had grown to five. From 2014 to 2015, there was a location in LAX. In 2016, it expanded into brick-and-mortar with Kogi Taqueria. Today, there are several Korean-Mexican fusion restaurants, including BALAM Mexican Kitchen, Cha Cha Chili, Gogobop Korean Rice Bar, Kimchichanga, and Maru Pit Stop.
If the mash-up seems at all strange, consider that Korean emigration to Mexico began at the exact same time as it did to the US and that Mexico City‘s Pequeño Seúl is home to thousands of Koreans. Of course, Mexican cuisine is also perhaps the most obvious cuisine in Los Angeles to fuse with Korean. Personally, I’m waiting for Korean-Salvadoran fusion. Someone make kimchi-topped pupusas or curtido-topped pajeon happen, please!
Frozen yogurt was invented in the 1970s and, for years, had no obvious connection to Korean culture. For reasons unclear to me, however, there was an explosion of Korean-owned frozen yogurt cafés. The catalyst seems to have been Pinkberry, which was established in West Hollywood by Shelly Hwang and Young Lee in 2005. In 2006, Phillip Chang opened the first Yogurtland in Fullerton. Daniel J. Kim opened the first Red Mango in 2007. In 2008, Solomon Choi opened the first 16 Handles in New York City, representing, in my view, the outward expansion of Korean-related froyo from Los Angeles. By 2009, there were seemingly hundreds of competitors and all seemed to have long lines. As with any food fad, however, it died down although there are still plenty of places to get frozen yogurt in Los Angeles.
As the capital of Korean America, it’s not really that surprising that Korean cuisine, Korean-Mexican Fusion, and Frozen Yogurt all conquered the country from Los Angeles — following the lead of Mexican and Thai cuisines (Los Angeles is also the capital of Mexican and Thai America, after all). As such, there are far too many Korean restaurants to name here but a couple of the most respected, established, and/or beloved include All That Barbecue, Cham Sut Gol, Eight, Haejangchon, Han Yang, Hangari Kalguksu, I Can BBQ, Incheonwon BBQ House, Mhat, Mo Ran Gak, Ong Ga Nae, and Seoul Garden.
While there are numerous Korea-based restaurants, bakeries, and cafés with locations in Los Angeles (e.g. Café Bora, Caffé Bene, Café De Paris, Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, Nipong Naepong, Paris Baguette, Sul & Beans, Tom n Toms, and Tous Les Jours), there are also several Korean-American restaurant and café chains that I know of (aside from the aforementioned froyo joints or Korean-owned Taiwanese bubble tea house, Boba Loca) born in Los Angeles. Two of the oldest are BCD Tofu House, founded in Koreatown in 1996 by Hee Sook Lee, and Young Dong, also founded in Koreatown in 1996, albeit by Ho Bin and Jun Suk Choi. Kaju Soft Tofu Restaurant – 가주순두부, I believe, began in Little Seoul in 1994. There’s also Gen Korean BBQ House and Genwa, I’m not actually sure when or where Love Letter Pizza & Chicken started. Anyone?
I feel compelled as a vegetarian of more than thirty years to address the fact that Korean food is not especially vegetarian friendly — especially Los Angeles Korean food. In fact, it was easier to find vegetarian Korean food when I visited Seoul a few years ago than in Los Angeles. There are, however, vegetarian Korean options available — although not necessarily the ones a non-Asian might expect. Many westerners think of items like tofu, seitan, and tempeh as meat substitutes eaten only by vegetarians and therefore might wrongly assume that tofu houses and soon tofu stew are vegetarian when in fact, they almost never are.
There are a couple of locally-produced vegan Korean items available in local markets, however. Dave’s Gourmet Korean Food is sold at numerous local farmers’ markets and includes a number of delicious products. Souzai-Ya, founded in 2011, makes pre-made vegan Japanese but currently makes two vegan Korean products — bibimbap and japchae — that are stocked at several grocery stores. An increasing number of Korean restaurants, too, have vegetarian options so the days when vegetarians had to forage through banchan whilst their friends gorge themselves on gogigui are fewer now than before.
There’s also always booze. For many Koreans, drinking and eating go hand-in-hand. There’s even a term, anju, for food meant to be consumed with alcohol. Koreans are often stereotyped as big drinkers — especially by other Asians. It is true that Koreans consume more alcohol per capita than any other Asian people but in the world, their ranking is only 17th and 26 of the 30 booziest nations are European.
The best known Korean alcohol is soju although there are supposedly more than 1,000 types of alcoholic beverages distilled or brewed from fruits and rice. For my money, makgeolli is the best although I’ve only found it at one Korean bar whereas soju and Korean macrobrews (i.e. Cass, Hite, and OB) are ubiquitous. Koreans also have all sorts of establishments in which to drink (in addition to the restaurants), including booking clubs, hostess bars, nightclubs, noraebang, &c… but weirdly, most of my favorites are sports bars like Biergarten, OB Bear, Jug Jug Sports Bar & Restaurant, and the Prince because even though most, if not all, have televisions, they’re comparatively relaxed. Frank N Hanks and the HMS Bounty are nice too — but although in Koreatown aren’t especially Korean.
Other Korean Angelenos involved in the food scene include rice cake maker Eunice Park of Lucky Rice Cake and DesignByEunice, and Jon Kim of the food stand, Seoul On Sixth.
Further Reading on Korean Angeleno Cuisine
- Discovering Korean Cuisine: Recipes from the Best Korean Restaurants in Los Angeles by Allisa Park, 2007
- L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi, Tien Nguyen, and Natasha Phan, 2013
- Eating Korean in America: Gastronomic Ethnography of Authenticity by Sonia Ryang, 2015
- Koreatown: A Cookbook by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard, 2016.
- Seoul Food: Short Stories of a Korean American Living in Los Angeles by Sarai Koo, 2019
IMMIGRATION ACT AND HEAVY-CHEMICAL INDUSTRY DRIVE
With the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (enacted in 1968), Koreans became one of the fastest-growing Asian groups in the United States, surpassed only by Filipinos. 1969 Asian American Studies Center was established at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Heavy-Chemical Industry Drive (HCI) was an economic development plan enacted in the 1970s under the regime of right-wing South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. By the early 1970s, the numbers increased dramatically with over 30,000 Korean immigrants entering the U.S. alone in 1976. Those who came to the U.S. as part of the third wave were predominantly well-educated and skilled workers, in contrast with the first wave. Many, though, were unable to transfer those credentials or immediately overcome the language barrier. Instead, many pursued goods-and services-based economic opportunities, such as small business ownership of grocery stores, dry cleaners, tailors, and restaurants
THE RISE OF NEW KOREATOWN & HI DUK LEE
The final segment of the Santa Monica Freeway opened on 5 January 1966. By then, white flight had hollowed out much of Central Los Angeles and the freeway slicing a cancerous cut through West Adams that would effectively wall off South Los Angeles. Not only did the construction of the freeway displace thousands of Angelenos and fill the air around it with noise and pollution, it also effectively killed the nearby commercial corridors by removing traffic from them and sticking them onto an interstate freeway.
With rents depressed, the area north of the 10 was primed for reinvestment and the Koreatown Development Association (KDA) helped establish a new Koreatown centered along Olympic Boulevard. In 1974, the KDA organized the Korean Street Festival to promote the area and city’s Korean population. The Los Angeles Korean Festival Foundation still organizes it to this day. The Koreatown Youth Center was established in 1975. In 1978, after lobbying by the KDA and its then-president, Hi-duk Lee, the city conferred honorary recognition of the area as Koreatown.
No one person deserves more credit as the father of Koreatown than Hi Duk Lee. When he died in 2019, however, his passing went unacknowledged until weeks later the media began to recognize his significance. Lee was born 29 July 1939 in Korea. He graduated from Chungnam National University with a degree in chemistry in 1961. In 1965, he emigrated to Switzerland, where he studied hotel and business management for a year before relocating to West Germany. There he found work as a miner and met his future wife, Kil Ja.
Lee moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and initially got a job in a canning factory. He was soon joined by Kil Ja, whom he married, and in 1971 the couple opened Olympic Market. Lee purchased the building in 1974 and began dreaming of creating a tourist-and-immigrant-friendly Korean enclave along the lines of Chinatown. First Lee invested in a Chinese-Korean-Japanese shopping center planned for Downtown Hollywood that was to have been named Oriental Village. In 1975, as director of the Koreatown Development Association (as well as the Koreatown Chamber of Commerce and the Korean-American Friendship Association), Lee approached Mayor Tom Bradley hoping to get political support for his dream.
With the support of the mayor but little from Korean entrepreneurs, Lee opened V.I.P. Palace (영빈광), a restaurant that served Mandarin and Korean Cuisine as well as sushi.
Another developer who shared Lee’s vision of a stylized Koreatown was Gene Kim (who is also sometimes referred to as the “Father of Koreatown”). Kim hired David Hyun to design a project to have been named Korea City but it was never completed and Hyun next went on in 1978 to instead design Little Tokyo Plaza which, as with Hyun’s hanok-inspired family residence, is conspicuously topped with the blue, ceramic roof tiles that one usually associates with Korean architecture.
In 1979, Lee’s V.I.P. Plaza opened, a two-story shopping center topped (naturally) with blue ceramic tiles. By 1979, however, Los Angeles was home to an estimated 170,000 Koreans, the largest population of Koreans outside of Korea — and many Korean entrepreneurs were succeeding from within buildings of unaltered appearance except for signs in Hangul — without concern for the aesthetic expectations of tourists. It may not much resemble Lee’s vision but it looks more than a little like modern-day Busan.
In 1980, Tom Bradley and city councilman John Ferraro had three Koreatown signs installed along Olympic Boulevard, although no paperwork was done and the move was therefore largely symbolic. In 1982, Lee accompanied Tom Bradley, the Korean consul, and a few state officials to oversee the installation of another Koreatown sign, this time on the 10 Freeway‘s Normandie Boulevard exit. Lee was apparently disillusioned, however, and sold his properties later that year and moved to South Africa and then China, learning the tea trade and writing a 520-page memoir.
Today, roughly a third of Koreatown’s population is Asian and Korea remained, at least in 2000, the most common foreign place of birth — edging out Mexico by about 5%. Lee quietly returned to Los Angeles with his family in 2002, settled in Silver Lake, and opened a nursery called Echo Garden. Koreatown belatedly received official recognition from the city on 20 August 2010 and the LADOT installed blue “Koreatown” signs in streets that reflected Koreatown’s spread from Olympic Boulevard north to Third Street.
KOREAN BELL OF FRIENDSHIP
Koreatown is Los Angeles’s most densely populated neighborhood, most populous neighborhood, and its most vibrant. Koreatown also remains indisputably the commercial and cultural center of Korean Los Angeles even as growing numbers of Los Angeles County Koreans today favor the suburbs of the South Bay and the Verdugos. One of the most obvious icons of the Harbor Area and South Bay is the Korean Bell of Friendship (우정의 종), a massive bronze bell and stone pavilion in Angels Gate Park that was modeled on the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok the Great of Silla and dedicated on 3 October 1976 in recognition of the US’s bicentennial and to honor veterans of the Korean War. In 1978, it was designated City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 187.
A more somber icon is the Peace Monument of Glendale, a statue that commemorates the women employed as sex slaves for Japanese troops during the latter’s long occupation of the former. In 2007, the US House of Representatives issued a resolution that urged the Japanese government to accept responsibility for its wartime crimes. The bronze statue, dedicated in 2018, is located in Glendale’s Central Park.
THE KOREAN CULTURAL CENTER, LOS ANGELES
The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles (KCCLA) opened in a former bank building in the Miracle Mile neighborhood in 1980 with the goal of promoting Korean heritage. It’s operated by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. To this end, it screens free Korean films, and hosts Korean and Korean American art exhibitions, music, and other performing arts. It also holds seminars and Korean language, art, and music classes. I have seen some terrible films there and some absolutely amazing ones (one of my favorites was Rough Cut (영화는 영화다)) and sometimes there are pastries and coffee.
LITTLE SEOUL & KOREAN ORANGE COUNTY
According to the 2010 census, there were then 93,710 Koreans living in Orange County, making it home to the second largest population of Koreans in any county after Los Angeles. While many prefer suburbs like La Palma, Buena Park, and Fullerton; Orange County, like Los Angeles, has its own official Korean commercial and cultural enclave, known officially as Garden Grove’s Korean Business District Garden Grove but colloquially as Little Seoul.
The Koreanization of 3.5 kilometer stretch of Garden Grove Boulevard mirrored the transformation of Olympic into Koreatown, 50 kilometers north. In 1965, construction of the Garden Grove Freeway began, another intracommunity interstate that predictably directly displaced residents along its path, impelled many of those who lived near its pollution to move away and killed much of the business along what had been Garden Grove’s primary thoroughfare. The boulevard supported several strip clubs, adult video stores, and seedy motels when ambitious Korean entrepreneurs began to transform it. As with Koreatown, it began with the establishment of a Korean market. In 1980, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times described Gardel Grove Boulevard as a “bustling corridor of Korean markets, restaurants, and other enterprises.” The character remains very suburban, however, compared to Koreatown, with few buildings except the rusting, incomplete Garden Grove Galleria topping two stories and the landscape dominated by vast parking lots flanking an overly wide street.
KOREAN LOS ANGELES IN THE 1980s
In the 1980s, Koreans were noted for establishing small businesses like dry cleaners and convenience stores. The latter were often operated in neighborhoods in which few Koreans lived and were viewed by some in the communities they served as exploitive. Tensions were exacerbated by the repeated characterization within sectors of the mainstream media of Koreans as a “model minority” — that is, one whose members have accepted their role within the racial hierarchy without fuss and whose customers were primarily less successful not because of centuries of exploitation and disinvestment but lack of comparable work ethic. Relationships were likely further fragmented by the fact that Koreans — coming from one of the most racially homogenous states in the world — found themselves tasked with making lives for themselves with only a rudimentary understanding of the racial dynamics of their new home — or even the language.
BLACK KOREA & SA-I-GU
The Los Angeles Riots erupted on 29 April 1992, the afternoon that four white LAPD officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of a black motorist, Rodney King, despite its having been videotaped.
Much of the violence that followed was directed at Koreans. Roughly 40% of looted businesses were Korean-owned. and they came to refer to the event as “Sa-I-Gu” or “four two nine.” This was hardly coincidental. Two weeks after the filmed attack on Rodney King, a fifteen-year-old child named Latasha Harlins had been shot and killed by Soon Ja Du (두순자), a 51-year-old Korean shopkeep at Empire Market. As with Rodney King’s beating, it had been caught on video and broadcast over and over by the local news.
There were already tensions between the black and Korean communities. The subject was brought to center stage in 1990 when Sonny Carson led the six-month Flatbush boycott in which participating black Brooklynites avoided Korean-owned shops. In October, Ice Cube released Death Certificate, which included a song, “Black Korea. In November, the jury found Du guilty of manslaughter, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of sixteen years. Judge Joyce Karlin decided instead, however, to charge Du with a $500 fine and sentence her to five years of probation and 400 hours of community service. Although the riots erupted six months later, many felt that the murder of Harlins was a contributing factor.
During the riots, 2,383 Angelenos were injured and 63 died. Some 3,600 fires were set, destroying 1,100 buildings. Material losses approached 1 billion. On the second day of rioting, the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies retreated from Koreatown, leaving inhabitants and business owners to fend for themselves. In the ensuing chaos, eighteen-year-old Edward Song Lee was killed by “friendly fire” whilst protecting a pizza shop. The media acknowledge the toll on Korean Americans which, for much of the country, was probably the first significant collective acknowledgment of that culture since the “conclusion” of the Korean War.
Further reading on the riots and race relations:
- Community in Crisis: The Korean American Community After the Los Angeles Civil Unrest of April 1992 edited by H. Eric Schockman and George Oakley Totten, 1994
- Caught in the Middle: Korean Communities in New York and Los Angeles by Pyong Gap Min, 1996
- Koreans in the Hood: Conflict with African Americans by Kwang Chung Kim, 1999
- Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America by JenniferLee, 2002
- On My Own: Korean Businesses and Race Relations in America by In-Jin Yoon, 2007
- Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots by John Lie and Nancy Abelmann, 2009
ALL-AMERICAN GIRL & KOREAN ANGELENO TELEVISION
The television series, All-American Girl, debuted on 14 September 1994. It was significant for several reasons. One, it was the first American television series with an entirely Asian American starring cast since 1972’s The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan — and that had been a cartoon for which the Asian American voice actors were re-cast and re-dubbed soon after its debut my a mostly white cast.
All-American Girl was also the first television series to star a Korean-American, in its case, actress/comedian Margaret Cho (although her television family members were portrayed by actors of Korean, Japanese, Hongkonger, and mixed-race backgrounds). Although a milestone for Korean American representation, it was not especially loved by audiences or Cho, who later revealed that the producers had pushed her to lose thirty pounds and that ABC had hired a consultant to teach the Asian American star how to act “more Asian.” It ran for nineteen episodes, ending on 15 March 1995.
For years after, the networks were reluctant to air anything with a predominantly Asian American cast. In 2002, pilots were taped for The Chang Family Saves The World and I Got You, neither of which were picked up. Canadian-American coproductions like Martial Law, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, and the Canadian Relic Hunter proved to be willing to represent Asians. In the US, following the success of MTV‘s A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Margaret Cho returned with her own reality series, VH1‘s The Cho Show.
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In reality, however, it was on YouTube rather than television networks that aspiring Asian American actors found a more receptive audience, with series like K-Town Cowboys (2010), Mythomania (2011), Koreatown (2012), Car Discussing with Sung Kang (2012), Baby Mentalist (2013), and Roll Models (2013) offering exposure to Korean Angeleno entertainers. At least one had been turned down by television networks after the producers had refused requests to add white characters to the cast.
The networks seem to have belatedly hired more Asian American actors with Korean Angelenos featured in starring roles on Hawaii Five-O (2010), Sullivan & Son (2012), Selfie (2014), Dr. Ken (2015), and Fresh Off the Boat (2015).
Of course, Hawaii Five-O — the earliest of these shows to bank on the draw of Asian American actors — lost face and more than a few viewers when Korean Angeleno stars Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left after learning that their white co-stars were earning more money than them despite both being the most famous cast members. Perhaps no better example of American network television’s discovery of Korean culture exists than Conan O’Brien’s discovery that he apparently has a fairly rabid following there.
KOREAN ANGELENO MUSIC
Nowadays, Korean music is almost synonymous in the minds of many with so-called “K-Pop,” the commercial pop music associated with boy and girl bands comprised of shiny-faced youths who dance and sing but almost never play instruments and apparently have no input in writing the songs or, for that matter, choosing what to wear or who they date.
There is, of course, more to Korean music than that and when re-issue label Light in the Attic Records rereleased Kim Jung Mi (김정미)’s 1973 album, Now, it turned a few psych-heads onto Kim and songwriter Shin Joong Hyun (신중현). Also worth exploring, for fans of pop with a bit more personality, is Korea’s indie-pop scene.
There are even Angelenos who work or have worked in K-Pop, including Bo-kyung “Stephanie” Kim, Brian Joo, Ellison “Eli” Kyong Jae Kim, Eric Mun, Jae Park, Jay Park, Johan Kim, Joon Park, Lena Park, Soon-gyu “Sunny” Lee, Sun-ho “Andy” Lee, Megan Lee, Nicole Jung, Samuel Kim Arredondo, Taebin, Teddy Park, Tiffany Hwang, Tiger JK, and Yoo Seung-jun. I see no reason, however, to misrepresent myself as a K-Pop fan, however, and the time I went to Gangnam, it was to see Linus’ Blanket, not Psy.
It somehow comes as a surprise just how many Korean Angeleno musicians there are pop musicians like Big Phony, Clara Chung, David Choi, James Roh and Jae Choung of Far East Movement, Jennifer Chung, Jihae Simmons-Meek of The Champagne Socialists and Neverever, JinJoo Lee of DNCE, Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ken Oak of Oak and Gorski, Kodi Lee, 박혜진 Park Hye Jin, Paul Kim, Priscilla Ahn, Run River North, Sue Jin, the multitalented Kevin Sukho Lee of Seksu Roba, Susie Suh, and Yuna Ito. There are also rockers like Hanjun Bae and Nicolas Kim of MOMS, Jennifer Hwang of Meho Plaza, Joe Hahn of Linkin Park, John Lee of aMINIATURE, and actor John Cho’s band Viva La Union. There are, too, rappers (eg Anderson Paak, Dumbfoundead, Quangou aka Steebee Weebee, and Year of the Ox), composers (eg Allison Pham and Earl Kim), classical musicians (eg Kevin Kwan Loucks and Sonia Park), and producers (eg Jae Chong, Nosaj Thing, and TOKiMONSTA).
Most Korean Angelenos pursuing a career in music seem to have arisen lately — perhaps Hallyu has made a career in showbiz seem less risky than in the past. Immigrants of all backgrounds aren’t exactly known for encouraging their children to hang all of their dreams on pop stardom. That said, learning an instrument has been something many immigrants have valued for generations. It therefore shouldn’t perhaps be such a surprise that the first Korean band in the US was formed over a century ago… and yet it was to me.
As early as 1916, a group of students who’d fled Japanese-occupied Korea as refugees formed the straightforwardly named Korean Band at their school in Claremont. They also formed a clubhouse — although it closed in 1917. The band was formed by pianist and composer Donald Young Gak Kang, who’d also organized a Korean band in Dinuba, California. In the 1920s, Kang moved back to Hawaiʻi.
KOREAN ANGELENO WRITERS
Korea has a well-established literary tradition dating back at least 1,500 years. For much of its literary history, the bulk of that literature consisted of various forms of poetry written in Chinese characters. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, however, Korea has produced numerous Korean novels and short stories. It was only in the mid-1970s that Korean literature began on occasion to be translated into English and in the 1980s, a small but growing audience emerged for translated Korean literature, exemplified by popular Korean authors like Ch’oe Yun, Hwang Sok-yong, Kim In-suk, Kim Young-ha, Ko Un, O Chonghui, Park Wan-suh, Shin Kyung-sook, Yo Ko-eun, and You Jeong-jeong.
In Los Angeles, several authors of Korean background have written novels and short stories in English. I wonder how many have had their works translated into Korean or if readers in China, Japan, and Taiwan read them the way, in growing numbers, they do contemporary Korean literature. One could always learn Korean — it is spoken by roughly 200,000 Angelenos after all ( although in my experience the ease of learning the alphabet is not at all an indication of how easy it is to learn the language).
The tradition of Korean-Angeleno writing probably begins with Mary Paik Lee, born in Pyongyang in 1900. Her family left the Korean Empire in 1905 and settled in Hawaiʻi. However, the racial discrimination proved unbearable and they resettled in Riverside’s Pachappa Camp in 1906. She didn’t get around to writing her memoir, Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America, until late in life. It was published in 1990, five years before she died.
Ronyoung Kim also came to publishing fairly late in life. Born in 1926, she wrote under the pen name “Gloria Hahn.” Her novel, Clay Walls, was published in 1987. She died that February and the novel, about a Korean family that flees Japanese-occupied Korea, was later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Contemporary Korean-Angeleno authors include writer and photojournalist Brenda Paik Sunoo, poet Cathy Park Hong, writer and artist Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, novelist Don Lee, children’s author Eunice Kang, novelist Gabrielle Zevin, Helie Lee, artist and writer Johanna Hedva, writer Krys Lee, author and screenwriter Leonard Chang, essayist and short story writer Minsoo Kang, novelist Steph Cha, novelist Victoria Namkung, and journalist/writer, Yoonj Kim.
Frankly, most of the online coverage of Korean Los Angeles has been predictably superficial, limited almost entirely to “Koreatown BBQ” listicles with the occasional day spa thrown in for good measure. The two most notable exceptions, to my mind, are Colin Marshall and Lisa Kwon. Marshall moved from Koreatown to Seoul a few years ago and still writes a great deal about Korea. Kwon still lives in Los Angeles and touches on aspects of Korean-Angeleno culture that are otherwise overlooked. Another exception is Kadaeのロサンゼルス K-TOWN LIFE【LAグルメとコリアタウン】, which as the title implies, is mostly about Korean-Los Angeles from the perspective of its Japanese American author, Kadae Kayo Lim.
There have been a few books and journals written about Korean Los Angeles that aren’t focused primarily on Korean Cuisine or race relations. They include:
- Koreans in Los Angeles: Prospects and Promises by Eui-Young Yu, Earl H. Phillips, and Eun Sik Yang, 1982
- Underemployment of Recent Asian Immigrants: Koreans in Los Angeles by Sookja Paik Kim, 1984
- Residential Patterns and Mobility of Koreans in Los Angeles County by Hak-Hoon Kim, 1986
- Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965-1982 by Ivan Light and Edna Bonacich, 1991
- East to America: Korean American Life Stories by Elaine H. Kim and Eui-Young Yu, 1996
- Los Angeles’s Koreatown by Katherine Yungmee Kim, 2011
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