When Edward Kim and his family purchased the Han Solh Health Land gym last year, the first thing they did was change the facility’s name to the Century Sports Club.
The name change is just one component of the club’s new strategy to reach out to non-Korean consumers an approach that also includes advertising in English-language publications in an effort to attract commuters who travel through Koreatown each day on their way to and from downtown Los Angeles.
“You can’t rely on Korean business all the time,” says Kim, the U.S-born, 29-year-old son of Korean immigrant grocers. “After the riots, I think everyone realized that you had to diversify as much as possible. I think we’re a lot more sophisticated than we were five years ago.”
Kim’s approach represents a significant shift for Koreatown business people, who for three decades have been content to cater almost exclusively to Korean American customers.
Indeed, for most of its existence, Koreatown has been something of an island in L.A.: a place where the busiest shopping center is called Seoul Plaza; where grocers, beauticians, dry cleaners and travel agents have been able to prosper with only the shakiest grasp of English; and where restaurateurs and retailers have gotten by without bothering to translate their menus or store signs into English or Spanish.
These days, however, that is no longer an option, according to a growing chorus of Korean American entrepreneurs and community leaders.
“One of the main complaints we get from people who are not Korean is that they do not feel welcome here,” says Bobbie Cheng, spokeswoman for the Koreatown Association of Los Angeles.
The association recently hung banners on streetlamps inviting passersby to “Experience Koreatown” and is urging local merchants to translate their signs into English.
“We need to open our arms to the rest of the community,” Cheng says.
That need, according to Cheng and others, became painfully apparent after the 1992 L.A. riots. In the aftermath of that crisis as well the 1991 shooting of African American teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean store-owner Korean merchants were criticized as taciturn and rude, with little apparent concern for other communities.
Those perceptions, according to Korean American leaders, spring from a deep cultural misunderstanding. Korean culture, steeped in Confucianism, is famously rigid and hierarchical. People greet one another with deep bows and averted eyes and public displays of emotion are frowned upon a cultural trait often misinterpreted as rudeness, says Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at U.C. Riverside.
The country itself, a rugged, mountainous peninsula with few natural resources, has been attacked by foreign armies throughout its history.
“Koreans have developed a strong sense of identity and nationalism. They have had to be inward-looking and insulated to survive the colonization and invasion,” says Chang. “They have been ill-prepared to live in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic environment.”
But such differences are expected to lessen over time.
Erin Kim, project manager for Archeon International, an architecture and marketing firm, notes that most of L.A.’s Korean immigrants have been here less than 30 years a far cry from the century-old roots of Japanese and Chinese Americans.
“Among the Asians, we have one of the shortest immigrant histories,” she says. “People have to be a little more patient with us.”
Kim’s company recently won a $100,000 contract from the Community Redevelopment Agency to help Koreatown businesses reach out to non-Korean consumers by helping them translate signs, menus and other promotional materials.
She and others believe the riots which caused an estimated $350 million in property damage to Korean American merchants pushed Korean Americans to play a larger role in the affairs of mainstream Los Angeles.
“What happened in the riots was a blessing in disguise,” says Sabrina Kay, executive director of California Design College, a 6-year-old Wilshire Boulevard fashion technical school. “We are a very segregated culture. We did not realize how important it was to bridge into the mainstream.”
An immigrant who came to California at the age of 18, Kay is active in a number of business groups, ranging from the National Association of Woman Business Owners to the Korean American Chamber of Commerce. And she is proud of the fact that her school’s 300 students are drawn from all of L.A.’s ethnic groups.
“We market to Koreatown, to Chinatown, to Hispanics and to white America,” says Kay.
As Kay’s experience demonstrates, reaching out to the rest of L.A. can make good business sense. But the impulse also reflects a growing sense that L.A.’s Korean community is not as isolated as once believed.
Consider Koreatown itself.
With its dizzying jumble of Korean-language store signs, the neighborhood often seems like a foreign land, a small slice of Korea right here in Los Angeles. But a look at the neighborhood’s residential pockets reveals that much of Koreatown is not so Korean after all.
According to 1990 U.S. Census figures, most census tracts in traditional Koreatown roughly defined as Vermont Avenue on the east, Olympic Boulevard on the south, Wilton Avenue on the west and 3rd Street on the north have a Korean population of about 20 percent.
Census tracts in the sprawling “new” Koreatown an area that extends to La Brea Avenue, Hoover Street, Washington and Santa Monica boulevards have Korean populations of up to 20 percent, although the concentration drops off sharply along the edges.
Old and new, Koreatown has the heaviest concentration of Koreans in L.A. County about 26 percent of the estimated 350,000 Korean Americans in the county, according to Kay Kyung-Sook Song of USC, an expert on L.A.’s Korean American community.
The other three-quarters of the population is widely dispersed, with large numbers in Porter Ranch, Van Nuys, Torrance, Cerritos, Downey, Glendale, La Crescenta and other outlying areas.
“Koreatown is symbolic; we don’t have a ‘town’ per se,” says Charles J. Kim, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, one of the community’s leading civic organizations. “People come here to work. All the organizations are here; the media is here. This is where the action is. But the difference between day and night is significant.”
In the past, merchants have been able to get by catering to the thousands of Korean Americans who have flocked to the area each day to work, shop, eat and socialize.
But those days are fast drawing to a close a victim, ironically, of the Korean community’s success at entrepreneurship.
“It’s a saturated market,” says Erin Kim. “There is an increasing number of businesses coming in, but everyone is competing for the same pool of customers.”
That growing competition spurred the Koreatown Plaza Shopping Center to begin marketing itself to non-Korean consumers, translating store signs into English and, for the first time in its nine-plus years on Western Avenue, buying advertisements in English-language publications.
“You can survive just catering to Koreans,” said Young Chae, general manager of the 90-store shopping center. “But you can’t grow. In the long run, you have to reach non-Koreans, too.”
By most accounts, L.A.’s Koreatown was born in the early 1970s, when an immigrant named Hee Deok Lee opened a small market on the corner of Olympic and Harvard boulevards and began importing products from Korea.
Lee’s timing, it turned out, was impeccable.
The liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965 sparked a mass influx of Korean newcomers. In 1970, only about 9,000 Koreans resided in Southern California. But by the mid-1970s, Koreans were pouring into the country at a rate of 30,000 a year and the majority of them opted to settle in Southern California.
Hungry for products from the old country, L.A.’s new Koreans began flocking to Lee’s market. Sensing an opportunity, he opened the city’s first Korean shopping center, VIP Plaza. Then, Lee opened a Korean restaurant next door.
Others followed suit and over time Olympic Boulevard west of downtown became L.A.’s de facto Koreatown the community’s social, cultural and commercial center.
But the area has less appeal as a residential center. Koreatown has been a a place where recent immigrants can find a job, connect with social service organizations and slowly assimilate to life in their new country. As soon as possible, the newcomers tend to leave for L.A. County suburbs, largely to capitalize on the superior schools there.
Does that mean Koreatown will fade away? Not likely, community leaders say.
“People will always come here to shop and socialize,” says Harrison Kim, executive director of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a perfect location for people in L.A., the Valley and Orange County to meet. This is our center.”