Keum-Rin Baik was a college-educated accountant working for a large cement company in Korea. Frustrated by a lack of upward mobility and worried by the worsening political situation in his homeland, he emigrated with his wife to Los Angeles in 1980.
Speaking no English, Baik took a job cleaning offices with a Korean-owned janitorial service.
"I had no choice. I didn't speak English, had no money, had no connection," he said.
For five years he cleaned out waste baskets and mopped halls, while his wife worked as a nurse until they had money saved to open a restaurant, KoBaWoo House, on Vermont Avenue in Koreatown.
Business is good. The restaurant is popular with local Koreans for its specialty squid dishes. Its reputation is good enough to warrant a writeup in the local newspaper.
But the cost of putting his two children through college means Baik will be in the kitchen for years to come.
In many ways, Baik is representative of the old generation of Koreatown the immigrants who came to Los Angeles and worked hard to earn the money to start their own businesses.
Koreatown is changing as a younger generation of Koreans educated in the United States launches careers in management or the professions. Still, entrepreneurs like Baik remain the cornerstone of Koreatown's economy.
As a group, Korean Americans have a self-employment rate of 23 percent, more that twice that of any other local Asian community and almost three times the city average of 7.8 percent.
"Most of the retailers are well educated, but job opportunities (with U.S. companies) are not available because they are not fluent in English," said Krystine Park, executive director of the Korean-American Grocers Association of California. "Being self-employed gives them more stature, and they can make enough money to buy a house."
In Korea, landing a job at a major corporation like Daewoo or Samsung is a major goal of the middle class. Hindered by language skills and other barriers, however, Koreans who had white-collar jobs in their native country often find themselves limited to low-level jobs here leading large numbers of them to open small businesses such as liquor stores, video shops and restaurants.
"Just a salary is not enough to make a living, buy a house and educate your children," said Chun-Ja Lee, owner of Yi Tae Pek restaurant which recently opened on Beverly Boulevard. Lee said she spent the first three years after arriving in the U.S. working as a cook in another Korean restaurant. The money she used for Yi Tae Pek, however, came from the restaurant she sold in Seoul.
When asked why Korean small businesses have thrived, Lee has no doubts: "We work harder than anyone else."
Agreed Young-Oh Kang, owner of Jack's Liquor on Olympic Boulevard: "The only way you are going to make a small business succeed is by working very hard."
Kang, who had been a civil engineer in Korea, was also able to bring enough money to put a down payment on a small business. Now he works behind a bullet-proof Plexiglas window, selling liquor, cigars and candy to a mostly Latino clientele.
He likes to wears a golf glove on his left hand while he works, but admits that he doesn't spend much time on the driving range. "I wear it because it helps me count money," he said.
While the Los Angeles economy overall has improved in recent years, Kang has seen no evidence of that in his neighborhood. Business remains slim, he said, particularly since the 1992 riots which hit especially hard in the southern sector of Koreatown, where Kang's store is located.
To widen his profit margin, Kang keeps his shop open as long as possible.
"We are open 14 hours a day, every day, all year," he said.
Korean entrepreneurs are accustomed to such a work ethic, experts say, because the social net in Korea for those who are not lucky enough to land jobs with major corporations was almost non-existent until recently.
Thomas O'Malia, director of USC's Entrepreneur Program, contrasted the modern Korean business culture with Germany, where a well-developed social system offered cradle-to-grave benefits for citizens.
"In Germany, as long as you show up at work at 9 and leave at 5, you are cared for," O'Malia said. "In Korea it is completely different. It is not a case of who is going to take care of me, it is a question of what am I going to do for myself."
In fact, Korean immigrants have proved so self-sufficient that they have created their own, underground banking system, known as "Kye." The system is based largely on trust and was introduced from Korea, where the banking system traditionally has been unsound.
A group of individuals invests money into a pool on a monthly basis. If a member of the group needs cash in order to start a business, he will receive the pool money up front, and slowly pay it back with interest. If, on the other hand, an investor wants to save money, he will add to the pool each month, and receive a lump sum payment at the end of the cycle.
Henry Kim, vice president and loan officer at Korean-owned Hanmi Bank, said the Kye system has proven successful in most cases. In fact, some businessmen use money raised through a Kye to meet the 50 percent down payment Hanmi demands when making a business startup loan.
Despite problems following the riots when business conditions deteriorated and people weren't able to pay their loans Kye remains popular among first-generation Korean business people, as well as among families and social groups.
Among American-born Koreans, however, the tradition may not persist.
"I haven't seen the second generation organizing Kye," said Charles Kim, executive director of the Korean American Coalition. "They know how to apply for loans, they are becoming part of the American mainstream. The first generation didn't have a choice."
The fiscal responsibility that makes Kye successful also applies to more traditional bank loans, Kim at Hanmi said. The delinquency rate of commercial loans made by Hanmi is 2 percent, compared with a statewide average of 2.5 percent.
"They work so hard that they don't have time to spend their money," he joked.
But while most small-business loans in the '80s were for liquor stores and restaurants, today's Koreatown businesses tend to be apparel shops and nightclubs, he said.
Besides owning a home, Korean merchants say a desire to send their children to the best schools is a prime incentive to succeed.
The demand for educational services is so strong that it has led to the creation of dozens of private institutions across the city in recent years. Such schools offer services ranging from primary education for toddlers to Korean-language classes and cram courses for examinations.
The hope among Korean small-business owners is that their children will not have to struggle to make a living the way they have.
Kang, for example, doubts that any of his children will want to take over the family liquor store business.
"I don't think so," he said with a laugh. "My son is studying to be a CPA and my daughter wants to be a fashion designer."
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