Presence of Koreans Reshaping the Region : Immigrants: A developing Koreatown in Gardena symbolizes changes a growing population is bringing to the area.


Gardena baker Ik Soo Kim used to drive to Koreatown near downtown Los Angeles for the football-size Korean radish and cabbage needed to make kimchi, a spicy vegetable dish that has long been a staple of the Korean diet.

Now, all he has to do is walk across the street to a recently opened shopping center on Rosecrans and Van Ness avenues, where there is a supermarket, a video rental shop, clothing stores and businesses--all catering to the South Bay’s growing Korean community.

“I don’t have any reason to go to Koreatown these days,” Kim said.


There is good reason why Kim and others no longer have to look outside the South Bay for items sought by Korean-Americans.

The Korean population in the South Bay more than doubled from 1980 to 1990, growing to 13,591 according to census figures, and with the increase came an influx of Korean businesses, schools and churches. There is a radio station broadcasting 14 hours of Korean-language programming from Redondo Beach, a one-inch-thick telephone directory exclusively devoted to the area’s estimated 2,000 Korean businesses, and a local Korean-language newspaper and magazine that supplement two Korean daily newspapers in Los Angeles.

And as the South Bay’s Korean community grows, its leaders are learning from various difficulties experienced by Koreans in Los Angeles, where conflicts between merchants and the African-American community caused rifts between leaders of the two groups. The South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce is helping Korean-speaking merchants to overcome the language barrier, and Inglewood’s Korean store owners have participated in meetings with city officials aimed at preventing the sorts of conflicts that occurred in Los Angeles.

Torrance has the largest concentration of Koreans in the South Bay, with almost 6,000 residents. But it is Gardena, with its established Asian population, middle-class base and more affordable commercial land, that has become the area’s business center.

“Nobody can forecast the future, but all the signs are there” for a Koreatown to take shape in Gardena, said Peter Kim, a real estate broker and secretary general of the South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce. Such a center would be the third major Korean business district in Los Angeles and Orange counties, complementing those in Los Angeles’ Koreatown and Garden Grove.

Although 60% of the South Bay’s Koreans live in Torrance and Gardena, wealthier Koreans are choosing to make their homes in upscale Palos Verdes Peninsula cities. Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes were among the five South Bay cities that showed the greatest percentage increase in Korean population from 1980 to 1990, census figures show.

Many of those settling in peninsula communities are business owners and, like their Anglo counterparts, are drawn to the area because of its school system and quality of life.

Elaine Lee, who with her husband owns a Gardena vitamin manufacturing company, lived in Cerritos and Gardena after coming to the United States. The Lees moved to Rancho Palos Verdes 12 years ago.

“It’s quiet and schools are good,” Lee said of the peninsula.

Korean leaders describe theirs as a tight-knit community of immigrants who came to the United States because of better business and educational opportunities, rather than to flee political or economic strife. Community issues are often the focus of discussion on KFOX-93.5 FM radio in Redondo Beach, which broadcasts Korean-language programs throughout Los Angeles.

Last April, the station, which also has programs aimed at other ethnic groups, started a Korean-language programming block from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

“It’s been a very sound business decision,” said Tom McCulloch, KFOX general manager, adding that the group’s population growth and solid business ties account for much of the station’s success.

Korean community leaders say their community is known for its work ethic and high standards.

“Most Koreans would rather be self-employed than work for someone else,” Peter Kim said. “They’re hard-working people, (with) high goals, and very competitive on the average.”

Kim, the Gardena baker, was a veterinarian in South Korea and his wife was a high school teacher. They and their two children came to the United States 11 years ago so their children could receive a better education.

Two years ago, the Kims opened the bakery, their first business venture. The couple often arrive at 3 a.m. and work 14-hour days. On weekends, their son, an aerospace engineer, also dons an apron and pitches in at the small family bakery.

“This bakery business is a retirement plan for us,” said Kyung Kim, Ik Soo’s wife, who honed her baking skills in the pastry department of a hotel chain.

Yet, as the Korean community has grown, so has the number of the Kims’ competitors. There are at least 2,000 Korean-owned businesses in the South Bay, more than double the number of such shops 10 years ago, according to Jung S. Ryu, publisher of the South Bay Korean Business Directory, which is considered by many to be the community’s “Yellow Pages.”

However, not all Koreans praise their community’s work ethic. Some say that their dedication to running a business, which often involves both parents putting in long hours, takes a toll on young children.

“It is a big problem in the Korean community,” said Pastor Jung Gil Hong of the Korean Baptist Church of Gardena, one of more than 50 churches in the South Bay area with primarily Korean church members. “It is real difficult for children” emotionally when parents are away at work for so long.

Parents also have high academic expectations for their children, and sometimes supplement public school instruction with a Korean language or math program. Such specialized private schools, which hold classes on weekday afternoons or Saturdays, have increased from a handful to more than a dozen in the last decade.

“Parents are not satisfied with the education system here,” said Han Kim, a manager of the Kumon Educational Institute, which teaches a Japanese system of math that is popular with Koreans.

The institute has 130 branches in Southern California, including Gardena, Lomita and Torrance. Although the Kumon schools are open to everyone, about two-thirds of the institute’s 5,000 students in Los Angeles and Orange counties are Japanese and Korean.

"(Parents) want something extra,” he said. “In Kumon, they see something very similar to what they learned in Korea. They emphasize this math very strongly for their children.”

Perhaps the issue that has most shaped perceptions of the Korean community is the relationship between Korean merchants and African-Americans. Shooting incidents and other confrontations at stores in South-Central Los Angeles are frequent topics of conversation among Koreans locally.

Peter Kim said the South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce has already laid a groundwork for communication with African-American leaders in the event similar tensions arise locally.

And in Inglewood, where there are more than 400 Korean merchants, city officials proudly note the success of a series of cultural sensitivity and informational meetings among merchants, city leaders and community members--meetings that took place long before shootings in other areas made headlines. There has yet to be a serious incident involving members of either ethnic group, Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent said.

“We’ve had some really hot exchanges, but it’s worked out,” Vincent said of the meetings, which offered insight into both cultures and the city’s business regulations.

It is because of such cultural and language barriers that the South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce formed last October, Kim said. Language problems have caused many merchants, who often know little English and are unfamiliar with a city’s bureaucracy, to run afoul of business regulations, he said.

Nevertheless, Kim said that same discomfort with speaking English, and the problems with native-English employers that arise, partly account for so many Koreans opting to open their own businesses.

“They find out they’re having a hard time getting a good job because of the language problem,” Kim said. “They have no other option than to open their own business, if they have some kind of savings.”

In the next few years, community leaders say, the potential for such cultural and language conflicts can only grow as the Korean population increases. As the group struggles for greater acceptance, it will also have to wrestle with the challenges posed by assimilation, they say.

But Kim and other businessmen are confident that Gardena has the makings of the next regional center for Koreans, without confrontation with other ethnic groups.

“There will be another Koreatown here, but one can only speculate when or how big,” Kim said.

Koreans in the South Bay

The South Bay Korean population grew 120% from 1980 to 1990, according to the U.S. Census. Torrance and Gardena have the largest Korean populations in the South Bay, while Palos Verdes Estates showed the greatest percentage gain over the last decade.



1990 1980 % Change PALOS VERDES ESTATES 320 84 281% TORRANCE 5,888 1,652 256% GARDENA 2,857 924 209% ROLLING HILLS ESTATES 200 77 160% RANCHO PALOS VERDES 1,419 583 143%

Source: U.S. Census