Ryu's victory resonates in Koreatown and beyond

Ryu's victory resonates in Koreatown and beyond
David Ryu's election to the L.A. City Council is being celebrated by Korean Americans who felt shut out of local government. (Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times)

The Rodeo Galleria strip mall on Western Avenue is right at the edge of newly elected Councilman David Ryu's district. Half of it — a hair salon, a gift shop and a bank — falls in Council District 4, and the other half, with a noodle house and a bakery, is just outside its borders.

That distinction seemed to matter little to the Korean Americans bustling about their day on either side of the district border this week. To them, Ryu's election as Los Angeles' first Korean American councilman was their victory, their moment.


"It feels like someone from my family was elected," said cosmetics shop owner Young Sook Song, 54, clinking her coffee cup with a colleague in honor of his victory. "Finally, a Korean person has a foot in the door."

Ryu's win was particularly poignant for the older, first-generation immigrants who help found Koreatown, watched their community burn during the 1992 riots, then slowly built it back up to the economic and cultural hub it is today. Koreatown is booming and relevant, but many Korean Americans still acutely remember how for years they felt neglected and underrepresented by city leaders.

"David's election to City Council is the culmination of this process that's been unfolding since the civil unrest of 1992," said Edward J.W. Park, professor of Asian Pacific American studies at Loyola Marymount University. "He really represents the hopes and dreams of Korean Americans who felt the acute powerlessness that came with lack of official representation."

Ryu's new district barely grazes Koreatown before curving around to Miracle Mile. Despite the Korean signage and businesses dominating Koreatown, residents of the area, bounded by Beverly and Olympic boulevards and Wilton Place and Virgil Avenue, are predominantly Latino, with Koreans making up just over a fifth of the population. The city's estimated 100,000 or so Korean Americans, 2.8% of the population, are spread out across the region.

Park said Ryu's victory was all the more significant because it was in a district that is just 7.4% Asian American and his campaign was centered less on his race or heritage and more on district issues such as excessive development and crumbling infrastructure.

Si Yang Kim, 76, was selling grains, chives and other produce out of the back of a van on the District 4 side of the strip mall. He and his wife live nowhere near the district, or the city — the couple drive to Los Angeles once a week from their farm in Riverside to sell produce. Nonetheless, Kim said he followed Ryu's election closely and said he felt Wednesday that he could puff up his chest and feel a little more proud to be Korean.

"It gives us power," said Kim, who said he and his wife arrived in Los Angeles penniless in 1986. "It will be a little easier for the next generation."

Kim recounted how he and his wife started by peddling socks on the streets of South Los Angeles, and how helpless they felt when a man tried to steal their wares and knocked his wife to the ground. A police officer, seeing that she was conscious, moved right along. A dollar store they opened on 103rd Street went up in flames during the riots.

Ryu's election, he said, signified to him that times had changed.

"I have sons and daughters, and they have sons and daughters. It'll be better for them," he said.

The excitement and expectations riding on Ryu were apparent in the sheer number of articles in Korean-language media leading up to the election, said Johng Ho Song, executive director of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center. One Korean-language paper proclaimed across the top of the front page Wednesday: "David Ryu Did It." Another simply stated: "It's a Miracle."

Song said Ryu appeared to reach the long-apathetic Korean community and get them interested and involved in the election.

"It really has become a Korean American story," Song said. "It's a sign of our civic community maturing over the years, from the first generation to now."

Among those moved to support Ryu was Jeong Hee Kim, 60, who runs a modest shoe stand in the center of the strip mall with her husband. She called the city to find out whether they would be able to cast a vote for Ryu, but they were disappointed to be told their Koreatown apartment fell outside the district.


"I hope there's a long, wide path ahead of him," she said, brushing glue onto soles. "He could go on to become a U.S. senator, a congressman. He's young."

Park, the Loyola Marymount professor, said Ryu will have to strike a delicate balance between the collective expectations of the Korean community and the pressing needs of the district that elected him to work on district quality-of-life matters.

"The Korean American community is going to have to learn that David Ryu doesn't represent the Korean American community," he said. "He's going to have to do this juggling act, of doing right by Korean American aspirations... but he must do right first and foremost by his district."

Alex Ko, 55, a onetime Taekwondo instructor who runs a luggage store in the Rodeo Galleria mall, said he understood that and said he hoped Ryu would become a hardworking councilman who is respected and recognized inside and outside the Korean community.

"That way there will be a second, then a third, Korean councilman," he said.

Even so, Ko said he believed Ryu's election would change the stature of the Korean community. He said small-business owners like him long felt that they didn't have anyone to turn to in city government when they had problems.

"We were neglected without a voice, without an outlet," said Ko, who said he stood guard at the Koreatown Plaza mall with a gun during the 1992 riots.

Retired political science professor Harry A. Lee said he hoped Ryu would become the political pivot that the Korean community had been lacking, and that with his election and leadership, more political talent would develop and shine on statewide or national levels.

"Maybe in 10 years there will be someone running for president," he said.

But for real estate appraiser and developer Ted Park, who immigrated to the U.S. as a boy in the 1970s, Ryu's victory was a monumental achievement that was decades in the making.

"There's been small city mayors, small City Council members," he said. "This is Los Angeles, man."