clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘The best Koreatown outside of Korea’

One immigrant’s enterprising vision transformed the neighborhood into a bustling Korean-led mini city in the heart of Los Angeles

The 2.7 square miles known as Koreatown is a happy mix of flashing neon lights, nondescript office buildings that house innovative restaurants and dark nightclubs, and eclectic shops in old Art Deco buildings papered with signs written in hangul. The densely packed neighborhood is home to more than 120,000 residents, around 20 percent of Korean heritage. And even though the majority of its population is Latino, Koreatown—the first and most famous Koreatown in the U.S.—retains a distinctly Korean air. As Helen Lee, daughter of Koreatown’s late founder Hi Duk Lee, says: “It’s the best Koreatown outside of Korea.”

The story of Koreans in America starts in the late 19th century. A slow trickle of exiled social reformers had arrived in San Francisco in the 1880s. According to Los Angeles’s Koreatown, in 1902, philosopher, activist and political dissident Chang Ho Ahn and his wife, Hye Ryeon (Helen), became the first married Korean couple to come to America. In January 1903, the SS Gaelic arrived in Hawaii, bringing around 100 Korean immigrants fleeing famine and political turmoil. After the Japanese formally annexed Korea in 1910, more Koreans, including students, picture brides, and political refugees, immigrated to America, settling in San Francisco, before migrating down to Southern California to work in farming communities such as Riverside and Claremont.

Chang Ho Ahn, now the leader of the Korean independence movement and founder of the Korean National Association, eventually settled with his young family in a large, rambling Victorian house at 106 North Figueroa Avenue on Bunker Hill in Downtown LA. According to Katherine Yungmee Kim, historian and author of Los Angeles’s Koreatown and senior communication editor at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, a small Korean enclave of around 300 people grew up around the house.

“The first community was in Bunker Hill,” Kim says. “That’s where the Methodist Mission was, and that’s where Chang Ho Ahn’s family house was. That family house was hugely important. It was sort of a rooming house, a consulate, job training—everything all in one place for the community.”

According to Kim, in the 1930s, Korean-Americans began to move to West Adams, especially around Jefferson Boulevard. “They moved there, because, as people of color, they weren’t allowed to live in other areas,” Kim says. “There were racially restrictive covenants in place until 1948. So, they were able to live in that area among African-Americans and Latinx and the Japanese-American community.”

In 1938, the Korean Presbyterian Church moved to 1374 Jefferson Boulevard. The Korean National Association, hub for the independence movement and community activities, opened that same year at 1386 Jefferson Boulevard (both are still there today). “With the two of those buildings side by side there, and then a bunch of different families moving into the area, it really cemented that area as a Korean community,” Kim says.

During the 1940s and 1950s, a few thousand new Korean immigrants moved to America, including GI Brides, international students, and Korean War orphans. But it was the passage of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 that greatly increased the number of immigrants allowed in the country. “That’s what set everything in motion for changing the landscape from a fairly white demographic to the multi-ethnic demographic that we see now in LA,” Kim says. Thousands of Koreans moved to Southern California and joined friends and family who had come in the first and second waves.

“By 1970 there was like a 4,000 percent increase in Koreans in the U.S.,” Kim says. One of these immigrants was a man named Hi Duk Lee, whose enterprising vision would transform a neighborhood into a bustling Korean-led mini city in the heart of Los Angeles.

Lee came to Los Angeles by way of Germany in the late 1960s. Lee, who had a degree in chemical engineering, had worked in factories and other labor-intensive jobs in Germany and the U.S., but wanted something more. He set his sights on a declining stretch of Wilshire Boulevard; the depressed area was home to once glittering and glamorous landmarks including the Ambassador Hotel, the Gaylord, Chapman Market, and Bullocks Wilshire department store.

“One person described him once as a prickly pear,” his youngest daughter Helen Lee says of her father, who died in March. “He’s definitely someone that what you see is what you get. He doesn’t care what people think. But he is the real deal. He’s very genuine… He never wants to say no to anyone… if they ask for help, he always wants to say yes. He always wants to help.”

A workaholic with a passion for Korean history, Lee had not been in Los Angeles long before he identified the lack of Korean-centric stores in Los Angeles. “He saw that there was a lack of Korean restaurants and places for Koreans to buy groceries,” Helen Lee says. In 1971, Lee opened the Olympic Market at 3122 West Olympic and stocked it with favorite brands from back home.

Olympic Market was soon a destination for the roughly 10,000 Koreans living in the LA area. “It became a place where they could find their own ethnic foods,” Helen Lee says. “I think it’s really about an owner looking for what they would be seeking themselves and keeping in mind the Korean clientele when they’re merchandising the store.” Korean-American John H. Lee remembers the importance of the market in Blue Dreams; Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots:

We lived in San Diego, but periodically, religiously, my mother took my brother and me on a two-hour drive to visit relatives and shop at a little market… For years, Olympic Market was the best, if not only place to buy Korean. My mother knew it, as did thousands of other Korean-Americans.

Buoyed by Olympic Market’s success, Lee bought five blocks around Normandie Avenue and Olympic. There he built the VIP Restaurant (now the Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza) and VIP Plaza, a shopping center that featured Korean-owned businesses including a bookstore, photo shop, and barber. All the buildings were designed in the traditional Korean-style with patriotic details throughout. “The blue tiles that you see at La Guelaguetza and VIP Plaza—those are the same tiles that are on the Blue House in Korea—which is like the White House—they just call it the Blue House,” Kim says.

Lee now had a greater dream, to bring his people a neighborhood they could proudly call their own. “They [Koreans in Los Angeles] didn’t have any good restaurants for entertainment or a meeting place,” he recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “I planned to make Koreatown. Chinese people have Chinatowns everywhere: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montebello. But there’s no Koreatown.”

More and more small Korean-owned businesses began to open near the VIP Plaza. Bigger Korean corporations began to open branches of banks and other financial institutions in the neighborhood, and wealthy South Koreans invested in the area. Relators and developers, like Sonia Suk, helped recent immigrants navigate Los Angeles real estate.

“After the Watts riots, after the freeway expansion, there was a lot of white flight in LA,” Kim says. “And so, these immigrant communities that were coming to Los Angeles were able to find affordable rents in that area. And that’s why there’s these enclaves [like Koreatown] that build up.”

Overseeing this new Koreatown was its unofficial mayor, the humble and gruff Hi Duk Lee. True to his mission to make Koreatown more than just a business district, he sponsored many community events. “I remember him hosting a lot of cultural events and fashion shows for traditional Korean clothes,” Helen Lee recalls. “He hosted things like fan dancing and traditional Korean drumming. My father just loves history, and he wanted to educate and share it with people.”

Echoing the early Bunker Hills days at the Ahn home, Lee also became the person Korean immigrants turned to for help. “I remember being really young,” Helen Lee recalls, “and having people come up to me constantly that I didn’t know, strangers, telling me that my father helped them in some way, helping them settle in Los Angeles or giving them their first job.”

According to Ivan Light and Edna Bonacich, authors of Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles 1965-1982, during the 1970s, LA’s Korean economy was “the most thriving and profitable Korean economy anywhere in the United States.” Thanks to the persistent encouragement of Lee, in 1980 the neighborhood of Koreatown was officially designated by Los Angeles County.

Helen Lee grew up at her father’s businesses, where she and her siblings and friends found endless ways to amuse themselves. “Inside the shopping mall it was almost like a little world, a little Korean world, because they had every type of store in that little mall,” she says. “I’m sure I was a terror. We would just run around, like kids run loose in a candy store, and we would just basically spend all day in these different stores annoying the shop owners.”

Koreatown continued to flourish, thanks to the enterprising spirit of many third wave immigrants. “A lot of Koreans who came here were very educated, but they couldn’t really get jobs in mainstream industries, because of their language barrier,” Kim says. “Few and far between in terms of people of that generation who could integrate into corporate America. And so what a lot of them ended up doing was becoming entrepreneurs and opening small businesses.”

Despite the success of Koreatown, the area was still plagued by poverty and violence. “My memories are really limited to the businesses my father ran, because I was so young and Koreatown at the time was not like it is now, it was pretty dangerous,” Helen Lee remembers. In Blue Dreams, Jerry C. Yu of the Korean American Coalition puts it more bluntly: “As soon as the people can afford it, they move out of Koreatown… Who would want to live here? We have the highest crime rate and the worst public education.”

A Korean shopping mall burns at Third Street and Vermont Avenue on April 30, 1992.
Associated Press

Korean owned liquor stores would be among the hardest hit by the LA Uprising, which was sparked on April 29, 1992 with the acquittal of four policemen charged with beating Rodney King. Tensions between the black and Korean communities had been at an all-time high since March 16, 1991, when 15-year old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by store-owner Soon Ja Du at Empire Liquor Store in Vermont Vista. Over the five days and nights of the violent unrest, thousands of Korean-owned businesses in South Central and Koreatown were looted, vandalized, or burned to the ground.

“When the LA Riots happened, I was really affected,” Helen Lee remembers. “I didn’t realize at the time that I think the reason why was because I felt my father worked so hard on this community, and they were just burning it down.”

Many Koreatown residents felt abandoned by the city of Los Angeles during the riots. “It was a pretty big moment of disillusionment with the American dream,” Kim says. “The LAPD didn’t show up. So, it was it was a bit of a slap in the face and baptism by fire for these Korean-Americans. Their thoughts were: ‘We’ve worked so hard. We’re law abiding. We pay our taxes.’ They thought they would have gotten the protection and respect from government.”

Instead, Korean-American business owners were forced to fend for themselves for the first couple nights of looting. Kee Whan Ha, owner of Hannam supermarkets went on the air on Radio Korea, urging folks to defend their livelihoods: “Don’t go home,” he pleaded. “Protect your business. Your business is your life.”

Korean storeowners defend their property as gunfire breaks out at Western Avenue and Fifth Street.
Hyungwon Kang/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

After the looting, fires, and violence abated, Koreatown was in shambles. Many small businesses were never able to reopen. “They were not the people that could afford to bounce back,” Helen Lee says. One of Katherine Kim’s co-workers who lost her business, a one-hour photo shop, still has trouble processing what happened to her today. “There was a lot of growth that came out of this for the community and for individuals,” Kim says. “But I think it’s still very difficult for a lot of the people who went through it.”

The post-uprising decade was one of rebuilding and reflection. “What to happened to us as children led to a political awakening in young Korean-Americans,” Chang Lee, who protected his parents strip mall with a borrowed gun during the riots, told CNN in 2017. “We would help our parents as the American-born children of immigrants and not let what happened to them happen again.”

Slowly, some of these younger Korean-Americans began to invest in new businesses in the area, catering not to their culture but to a group of young professionals increasingly enamored with fast city living. During the late 1990s, South Korean investors, spooked by the collapsing Asian market, also began investing in more large scale projects in Koreatown.

Over the past 10 years, Koreatown has experienced an explosion in big ticket development, with more than 50 new projects in the works now. Korean barbecue, Korean spas and Korean bars have become increasingly popular, and more and more young, hip tenants are renting relatively affordable apartments in the area. “You are seeing this big turnover of businesses right now,” Kim says. “It’s interesting now, because that older generation of business owner is starting to age out and their kids have now gone to Stanford or UCLA, and they don’t want to run the bodega.”

When younger Korean and Korean-American entrepreneurs do invest in Koreatown, it still tends to be in trendy spots like Jimmy Han’s Beer Belly or Kang Ho Dong’s Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong. Although the transition has been rocky, overall there is little inter-generation strife. “Koreans are so proud of each other,” Kim says of older Koreans in Koreatown. “They recognize that the second generation knows what a single origin coffee is, and that they can make a lavender latte and make that fly for seven dollars. They’re like, ‘Wow—they just know what they’re doing there!’”

Koreatown is not, and has never been majority Korean, but it is still a mecca for Koreans from all over the country. “You can talk to any Koreans from Buena Park or Glendale or La Canada or the OC and everyone still comes to Koreatown,” Kim says. “It’s where people congregate, because it’s an easy, centrally located area. I call it the spiritual nexus. I really feel like it is this epicenter of the Korean-American diaspora.” She mentions her octogenarian father, who recently moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast. “He went to high school in Seoul,” she says. “But they have high school reunions in Koreatown!”

It also remains a neighborhood where people care and take care of one another. Kim fondly recalls a women’s only Korean spa she used to frequent in her younger, wilder years. “I remember one time I went in there with like the worst hangover of my life. And I was just trying to lie down in the dim room and all the older Korean women came over and brought me food, brought me water—it was like being taken care of by your Korean aunties.”

For Kim, Koreatown represents so much of what is best about America. “Koreatown is a neighborhood where the Mexican, Central American, and Korean communities work together and get along,” Kim says. “You’ll see that in the kitchens or at the grocery store- this sort of multilingual, multi-ethnic camaraderie. All of these communities within Los Angeles are integrating and coexisting in a really beautiful and vibrant way. That’s what I love about Koreatown.”

Santa Monica

How Santa Monica’s pedestrian mall became too successful for its own good

Los Feliz

LA’s ‘most recognizable and beloved’ building

Miracle Mile

LACMA is beloved. Its design never was.

View all stories in History