Korean-American Leader Trying to Give Fellow Immigrants a Hand


The annoying back pains that businessman Mitchel Bang endures are constant reminders of the 14-hour days that he spent selling, repairing and delivering furniture when he opened his furniture store in Los Angeles about 20 years ago.

Last July, all that backbreaking labor prompted him to put his business on the back burner for a while and do something to help his fellow Korean-Americans. He decided to take time away from his Western Avenue furniture store to devote more time to duties as president of the Korean Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles. His goal is to educate others in the Southland about the Korean-American community, which has grown to 350,000 from 60,000 in 1980.

Half of that community's population owns small businesses, often working incredibly long hours to keep food on the table, Bang said.

This month, he hopes to distribute a 45-minute, bilingual videotape titled "Welcome to Koreatown, Los Angeles," to governments, libraries and elsewhere. The idea is to introduce outsiders to Koreatown, a business center for Korean-Americans--bounded by Olympic and Crenshaw boulevards and Eighth and Hoover streets.

Pacific Bell and Korean Airlines together donated $35,000 to the $60,000 project, Bang said from his second-floor office in Koreatown. It overlooks his first apartment in America, on Western Avenue and Venice Boulevard.

In the past, first-generation Korean-Americans have mostly kept to themselves because of cultural and language differences. But, Bang said, "we've got to mix things up. We cannot live separately."

Demographics experts say that by 2000 the Korean-American community could top 1 million in Southern California, which already has the largest concentration of Koreans outside Korea.

Before his term with the chamber ends June 30, Bang said, he wants to provide information to Korean-Americans on how to create new businesses and to participate in the 1990 Census.

In many ways, the leader of the chamber's 700 business members typifies the first-generation Korean immigrant. Now 55, Bang came to the United States in 1964 to study business at USC. His plan was to return to his family in Seoul after graduation. But he soon found himself having to put USC aside and work as a machinist to earn money. He later attended a business college and found a computer programming job.

His wife, Helen, joined him three years later. She opened a wig shop in Hollywood with part of the money they received from selling their home in Korea. "The Korean government wouldn't let us take all $100,000," Bang said.

Unlike many immigrants, Bang had learned some English in Korea. But the new language was still difficult.

He opened his furniture store in the early 1970s. His wife had become pregnant and found it difficult to operate the wig shop. He used profits from her shop and a $40,000 bank loan to finance the opening.

"I found that there could be a future in the furniture business because people coming from Korea . . . naturally were trying to buy furniture from the people who can make the communication easier," Bang said. Eighty percent of his customers were Korean.

Bang bought and sold furniture during the day and made deliveries at night. "We're not taking time off. That's the secret," he said.

Bang also is chairman of United Citizens National Bank in Koreatown.

Many Korean immigrants work 80 to 90 hours a week in low-paying jobs after they arrive here, partly because of language difficulties. So they often try to launch their own businesses in Koreatown.

After working assiduously for several years, some manage to save enough to open businesses. Others bring capital with them from Korea, and some obtain money by participating in a kye --a rotating credit system built on trust. Kye participants contribute $100 to $20,000 monthly, and the pooled capital is loaned to different members each month.

There are 2,700 Korean grocery and liquor store owners in the Southland. They account for 18%, or $1.5 billion, of the total grocery and liquor-market sales in Southern California, according to the Korean-American Grocers Assn. of Southern California.

Bang has earned praise from his community since his early days here, community leaders say.

John Cho, general manager of the 450-member Korean American Garment Industry Assn. of California, said Bang often participates in community church and youth activities.

Benjamin B. Hong, president of Hanmi Bank in Koreatown, welcomes Bang's plans to desegregate the Korean-American community, calling them "futuristic."

Hong said Bang is an aggressive leader. He noted that Bang spearheaded Gov. George Deukmejian's first visit to Koreatown last year and has arranged meetings between Korean-American business people and politicians.

"He (Bang) is doing a good job to bridge the gap between the Korean community and mainstream society," said Hong, whose bank's assets top $130 million.

Recently Bang organized a dinner that 100 African-American and Korean-American business people attended to discuss ways to smooth relations between blacks and Koreans.

Korean merchants sometimes clash with non-Korean customers and neighborhood residents. They say language differences are a major contributor to these problems.

In South-Central Los Angeles, for example, some residents complain that Korean merchants are abrupt and rude and that they locate businesses there simply to exploit the area. The merchants contend that they are simply misunderstood and that they locate there because costs are less than elsewhere.

"They can't explain themselves," Bang said of the merchants. "Even I sometimes can barely make myself understood." But language problems are no excuse for rudeness, he added.

Nick Ussery, co-chairman of the Black-Korean Alliance, said networking with each might allow both groups to find "million-dollar projects" that they can launch jointly.

The alliance was formed in 1986 after three Korean merchants were killed in South-Central Los Angeles.

After the dinner, a cautious John W. Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, said: "It will take more than lip service by both Korean business leaders and blacks (for results). There will have to be rolling up of the shirt-sleeves and work."

Bang gave the alliance a $1,500 check for scholarships. Later, he said, relations will be eased as the second generation, which is more assimilated, replaces the older generation.

"It's all a matter of time," he said.

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