When Kang Young Oh first came to America from South Korea in the early '80s, he put to work the one asset he had his family.
First there was the fish restaurant, where his nephew prepared the sushi, his wife managed the finances, and he and his three school-age children waited on customers.
Now Kang and his wife, together with their grown son, operate Jack's Liquor on Olympic Boulevard. Do the Kangs work as a family simply because they enjoy each other's company? Well, not really.
"It's a matter of survival," Kang says. "If business was better we'd probably separate and go into different fields."
It is a scenario played out across L.A.'s Asian and Latino communities, where family-owned and operated small businesses are the norm.
"In Koreatown, if the company is not a branch of a larger Korean company it is almost certainly a family business," said Harrison Kim, executive director of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles.
While the close-knit nature of Asian and Latino families is the most obvious explanation for the high proportion of family businesses in these neighborhoods, there is at least one more compelling reason economic necessity.
Asian and Latino communities are dominated by so-called "micro" businesses. Of the roughly 300,000 Latino-owned businesses in L.A. County, as many as 90 percent employ fewer than 10 people, according to various sources. Up to 75 percent of the 140,000 or so Asian-owned businesses in L.A. have 10 or fewer employees.
For owners of many micro businesses such as liquor stores, groceries, launderettes and tailor shops the margins are slim and the hours long, particularly for those in low-income neighborhoods.
As a result, bringing a family member on board, who usually will work longer and harder and forego a salary in lieu of a stake in the business, can be a key to survival.
"It has allowed us to succeed without a lot of start-up capital," said Nadine Trujillo, who together with her two daughters runs a Mexican restaurant called Alegria in Silver Lake. "Otherwise we might have had to close our doors."
That pressure is felt the greatest by immigrants, especially those from Asia and Latin America, who typically have limited money and language skills. As a result, their options often boil down to either earning minimum wage doing manual labor or opening a small business. The latter is often seen as the more attractive alternative, especially if family members can be put to work for little or no cash.
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