Tale of 2 Cultures : Murders Refocus Spotlight on Tensions Between Koreans, Blacks

Times Staff Writer

Christine Choe returned to work after burying her older brother to find that the family’s hamburger stand in South-Central Los Angeles, where the 25-year-old man was robbed and killed a few weeks earlier, had been broken into again.

“People don’t care! They think we got money from God or something,” spat out Choe, her angry words choked off by tears. “My mom worked hard as hell for this.”

Since immigrating from Korea eight years ago, Choe’s mother has routinely worked 18 hours a day without a day off, first as a cleaning woman, then a seamstress and cook, to buy the hamburger stand and support her three children, said Choe, 20.


“The people who do this don’t know how much it hurts,” she said, recalling the dreams that were shattered by her brother’s violent death.

Gazing out the large cafe windows at the passers-by, Choe’s tear-reddened eyes softened, however. She talked about how her regular customers have returned each day since the robbery to tell her they are “sorry” and “to cry with me.”

“That’s what keeps me holding on,” she said.

Like Choe and her family, many middle-class Korean immigrants come from their ethnically homogeneous, traditional society, eager to begin their economic ascent in the “land of opportunity.” But they are finding the adjustment to Los Angeles--particularly economically depressed, crime-ridden South-Central Los Angeles--more difficult than they imagined.

In the course of a month, four Korean merchants, including Choe’s brother, Tae Hwan Choe, have been murdered during robberies in the area.

Korean and black leaders, as well as police, have been quick to discount the racial element in the attacks on Koreans by blacks, explaining that the murders are primarily a reflection of Korean merchants’ growing presence in the city’s worst crime area. Hundreds of Koreans have set up shop in South-Central Los Angeles in recent years, drawn by the area’s cheaper commercial property.

Officials point out that blacks die violent deaths almost daily in South-Central Los Angeles without attracting much public attention.

The recent murders, however, have served to refocus attention on worrisome tension between Korean merchants and their black customers, a problem that leaders from both communities have been working to ease for several years.

Separated not only by language and culture, but also economics, the two groups have tended to view each other with suspicion. Korean shopkeepers are stereotypically perceived as rude, arrogant and out to make a quick buck off the black community, without giving anything in return, not even jobs; and blacks are viewed by many Koreans as dangerous and untrustworthy.

Relations between the two groups are so tenuous that a small misunderstanding between customer and shopkeeper can sometimes escalate into a threatening confrontation

“A Korean comes to this country and within three to six months, he’s opening a business,” said the Rev. Huey Rachal, pastor of Greater New Unity Baptist Church near Watts and a man who has been instrumental in organizing church activities to bring blacks and Koreans together.

“Their merchant associations are not spending enough time on orienting them on business behavior patterns or on the fact that this community is resentful and that there’s no quicker way to stir up trouble than the way you talk to a man,” he said.

Rachal said he recently helped mediate a dispute involving a Korean merchant, who allegedly pushed a young woman out of his store. The woman’s father, a junior high school teacher in the area, was so offended by the incident that he threatened to organize a neighborhood boycott against the store.

Nearly a decade ago, already noting Koreans’ propensity for buying small businesses in Los Angeles’ poorest minority areas, sociologists predicted that the new immigrants would become targets of hostility reserved for “middlemen minorities,” groups who serve as go-betweens or buffers between society’s dominant and poorest segments.

Noting that the buyer-seller relationship is inherently antagonistic, one team of researchers said in a 1977 study of Korean merchants in Los Angeles that “the conflict becomes exaggerated when the buyers are poor and the sellers are ‘foreign.’ ”

‘65 Riots Recalled

Contending that the Watts riots of 1965 were in part an expression of antagonism to outside ownership of ghetto stores, the authors also predicted that Koreans might become targets of growing frustration in an area beset by explosive economic pressures.

It is an alarming scenario that has not escaped the notice of Korean and black leaders.

Some Korean merchants, concerned that they are perceived as easy prey by the criminal element in the area, talk of arming themselves for protection.

One merchant, who asked that his name not be used, blamed the “dope people” for most of the crime in the area. “They think Oriental people don’t know about this country, that they are easy to rob. But now, everybody’s mad,” he said, referring to Korean merchants’ reaction to the recent murders. “And Oriental people, they are ready now.”

Most merchants, however, seem to agree with community and church leaders that the only long-term solution is to transcend racial and cultural differences in order to work together to attack crime, the common enemy.

Widespread Unemployment

And leaders point to the area’s deep-seated social and economic problems, including an estimated 40% unemployment rate among young people and widespread drug use, as the root of the problem.

At recent meetings, spurred by the murders of Korean merchants, black and Korean religious and community leaders have pledged to step up efforts to address the problem.

Meanwhile, at gas stations, small groceries and liquor stores, Korean merchants, most of them recently immigrated, continue their daily and sometimes difficult adjustment to the strange ways of their new homeland.

Some admit that racial bias sometimes gets in the way, but most seem convinced that their best security lies in “making friends” with their customers and neighbors.

Expressions of Concern

Some merchants pointed out that after the recent murders, their black customers expressed concern for their well-being. And at least one murder suspect, according to police, was caught with the help of information provided by local residents.

Koreans, who come from a mono-ethnic society, have not had the experience of living with other ethnic groups and are unaware of the black experience in the United States, Korean leaders explain.

Misunderstandings also evolve from language and cultural differences.

“Orientals come from a 5,000-year-old traditional culture. They are a conservative people. They respect their elders,” said Kyu Chang Lee, a former English teacher in his native Korea who operates a grocery store on Central Avenue. “We’ve been brought up in an organized society, then we come over here and sometimes we’re ridiculed, we’re not respected and things are disorderly.

Trying to Understand

“We’re trying to understand this society, but it takes at least three or four years to become Americanized,” he added. “Before that, we have a problem.”

Other merchants also complain about what they perceive as disrespect from young people in the neighborhood and other difficult adjustments, like learning to deal with shoplifting.

“This country funny. Here shoplifters, they get mad at you if you ask to look in their purse. I don’t understand,” said another merchant, who asked that his name not be used. “In my country, they would be scared.”

Koreans also complain that they have been stereotyped as being rich, giving nothing back to the community and that they have been unjustly criticized for not hiring blacks.

Struggle to Survive

Although they admittedly come to the area to make money, some contend that they are also providing a valuable service to the community simply by operating local stores that might otherwise sit vacant. And they insist that to survive in business, they must work long hours and count on the labor of other family members.

About a third of Korean households in the Los Angeles area are involved in a small business, according to sociology professor Eui-Young Yu, director of the Korean-American and Korean Studies Center at Cal State Los Angeles. Most are professionals, but since they are unable to work in their field because of language and cultural barriers, they go into business for themselves. There are an estimated 230,000 Koreans in Los Angeles County.

They live elsewhere but set up shop in minority areas, like South-Central and East Los Angeles, because that is all they can afford, Yu said.

Merchants say that while the risks are greater because of the high crime rate, so are the profits. Jin Lee, 21, who waits on a steady stream of customers at his small drive-through dairy on South Avalon Boulevard, said he makes a greater profit than relatives who operate stores in low-crime, white areas in the South Bay.

Although Lee’s mother and another Korean clerk at the store must often communicate in sign language with customers, Jin Lee, who speaks English, has gotten to know his customers by name, as well as their tastes in cigarettes and groceries.

He said it is something that he learned from his father, who has been in business in the area for a dozen years.

A Father’s Advice

“He told me never try to be a businessman first. Be a friend first, then you make better business,” said Lee, who immigrated to the United States three years ago. He said he considers himself more “Americanized” than most Koreans. “I think Koreans have to try harder,” he said.

Jobs have become a major point of contention in the ongoing debate between the two groups, with blacks demanding that Korean merchants hire blacks from the neighborhood and Koreans contending that they cannot afford to.

The NAACP announced recently that it planned to launch a “selective buying” campaign later this year, aimed at encouraging blacks to patronize stores that hire blacks and show respect for their customers while boycotting those that do not.

Even Koreans who can afford to hire outside the family often complain that they have a hard time finding employees they can trust. Others, however, have found it advantageous to employ local residents.

“I realize this is a black area and we have to hire some people from the neighborhood,” said Eric Bae, 30, who has one black employee and plans to hire a Latino in light of the neighborhood’s growing Spanish-speaking population. “It’s good for them and for me and for relations.”

The Real Problem

Some shopkeepers have discounted efforts by churches in both communities as helpful to participants but not addressing the real problem: how to control drugs in the area.

Rachal, who heads a local coalition of black ministers and Korean merchants, admitted frustration that there sometimes appears to be more talk than action on the part of various groups working to ease tension between the two communities.

Despite exchanges among about 20 churches in each of the the two communities--including joint religious and social events, athletic activities and scholarships for black youngsters, and a visit to South Korea by a delegation of black ministers--"the problem is that we’re not reaching the total population,” Rachal said.

“We have thousands of young men and middle-aged men walking the street,” he said. “They’re tired, they’re bored, they’re disgusted. . . . How can the churches keep the lid on that?

‘It Is Fermenting’

“Everything is in one jug, and it is fermenting. Any day someone is going to shake that bottle and that top is going to fly off. They thought they had a lid on it in ’65. They didn’t.”

Korean and black leaders, aware of the complexity of the problem, say they need the help of government agencies and private corporations to improve the area’s blighted social and economic conditions.

“The seeds for increased tension and violence are there,” said Larry Aubry of the county Human Relations Commission, which for the last two years has helped to organize educational and cultural exchanges.

“Our impact on the problem so far has been minuscule,” he added. “All we’ve been able to do is try to improve dialogue and communication.”

Few Want to Leave

And, although Korean merchants are concerned about the area’s high crime rate, few talk about leaving. Christine Choe and her family do not.

Choe and her sister reopened the family hamburger stand about two weeks after their brother’s murder. There was rent to pay and the added cost of spoiled food to replace.

Without her brother’s help, Choe and her sister probably will not be able to repay their mother’s self-sacrifice with an early retirement as they had planned. And Choe’s 22-year-old sister, an A-student attending USC on student loans, has had to quit school to fill in her brother’s 18-hour shift at the cafe.

Choe, who also works long hours at the stand, looked forward to going back to college after her sister’s graduation. Those plans have also been put on hold.

Long Hours

The two young women were taking care of business until their mother, who “can’t stand to even look at the store,” returned to work. They have had to work such long hours that they were unable to visit their brother’s grave three days after the funeral “to talk to him one more time,” as prescribed by Korean custom, Choe lamented.

Choe’s eyes filled with tears again as she thought of her mother--the “poor Korean lady who lost her only son, her first son, the one who is supposed to grow up to take care of Mom someday.”

“But we’re going to make it. I know that,” said Choe, drying her tears as she excused herself to return to work.