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THE KOREATOWN THAT NEVER WAS

Sam Quinones is a writer based in Mexico City. He is the author of "True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx" (University of New Mexico Press, 2001)

About Los Angeles, John Gregory Dunne once wrote: “There is no past. The absence of past and structure is basic to the allure of Los Angeles.” But to this city come immigrants laden with the past. They are escaping it while yearning for it. Or, at least they yearn for a version of the past that is fairer than the one they left.

Those desires are etched onto Los Angeles’ tabula rasa. So the city today has not one past. It has many. And they are being slapped on those wonderful architectural blank canvases: strip malls, shopping centers, redevelopment zones and boulevards--the very symbols of the city’s “absence of past and structure.”

One of these places is 3014 W. Olympic Blvd. Here, a quarter-century ago, Korean immigrant Hi Duk Lee saw potential to re-create his past by opening one of the city’s first Korean restaurants, known as Young Bin Kwan (the VIP Palace). Together with a shopping center next door known as the VIP Plaza, it was the first complex in L.A. built in the style of traditional Korean architecture. It was part of Lee’s dream to turn the heavily Korean neighborhood into a place that architecturally rivaled downtown’s Chinatown.

Lee came to the United States in 1968 with a degree in chemical engineering and worked in factories until, in 1971, he opened the Olympic Market--the second Korean-owned market in Los Angeles. In those days, Koreans in L.A. were just becoming aware of themselves as a community. Lee began to believe that Koreans needed their culture. “They didn’t have any good restaurants for entertainment or a meeting place,” he recalls. “I planned to make Koreatown. Chinese people have Chinatowns everywhere: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montebello. But there’s no Koreatown.”

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On paper recently, Lee scribbled the borders of the area he saw as Koreatown: 8th and 11th streets to the north and south, Western and Vermont avenues to the west and east, and bisected by Olympic Boulevard. He wanted two large Korean-style gates erected on Olympic, at Western and Vermont.

Over the years, he tried various strategies for achieving his dream. He lobbied city officials. He served as director of the Koreatown Development Assn., the Koreatown Chamber of Commerce and the Korean-American Friendship Assn.

Lee had begun his own Koreatown business expansion in the early 1970s by buying five blocks near Olympic and Normandie. It was a depressed area, prime for redevelopment. The buildings were single-story, making their demolition or redecoration relatively easy. He started with the Korean Village, which was to include a shopping center, restaurant and hotel. He imported blue Korean roof tiles. He painted the buildings in an ornate Korean style. Soon, some 40 businesses were operating there. Lee was featured in the Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek and interviewed on CBS, ABC, NBC and KTLA. The area became known as the heart of Second Seoul.

When the VIP Palace opened in 1975, it was exactly what the neighborhood needed, serving as a meeting place and social center. It hosted wedding banquets, end-of-school-year parties, political dinners, business meetings and family gatherings. L.A.'s Korean community grew to rely on the VIP Palace as the center of community life. Former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch attended a party there. As did Bob Dole and Korean dissident--now president--Kim Dae Jung. Lee’s restaurant and shopping center came to be regarded as the beginning of Koreatown, says Durk Man Park, a senior writer for the Korea Times in Los Angeles.

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Lee helped get a police substation in Koreatown and the city officially designated the area “Koreatown.” Mayor Tom Bradley, with Lee and other L.A. Korean leaders by his side, installed the Koreatown sign on the Santa Monica Freeway.

This, however, turned out to be the extent of it: an official designation, a freeway sign and a few Korean-style buildings. The Olympic gates were never built. Lee had even organized a party for Korean property owners. Forty came. He says they drank his booze and ate his food. When they left, no one backed his vision for a Koreatown. No one gave money for the gates.

By 1977, Lee was planning the VIP Hotel--a 230-room, five-story affair at 3000 W. Olympic Blvd. that would crown his Korean Village concept. He invested a half-million dollars in the blueprints and in demolishing an apartment building on the site. The way he explains it, he was preparing to build when, under Jimmy Carter, interest rates rose to 22%. At the same time, many of Lee’s tenants in VIP Plaza had fallen behind on rent payments, requiring him to shell out $30,000 a month of his own money. In 1979, he halted plans for the hotel. But it was too late. He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and by 1982 he had sold everything. One group of owners later painted over the ornate Korean decorations on the VIP Palace and Plaza.

Bitter and poorer, his pride wounded, Lee extracted himself from the area for good. Yet he could not forget his vision or his past. He created a bit of Korea at his home in the hills above Los Feliz. His living room holds a crown from the Shilla dynasty. On his walls are Korean paintings. He has sliding Korean doors and a set of books detailing the history of the Lee Dynasty, which ruled Korea for five centuries and from which he is descended. There also are enormous wall-sized photographs of Lee and his family at various lakes and mountains in South Korea.

“I tell my children that my house is a Lee family immigrant museum,” he says. In his front yard, Lee has built a pond in the shape of Korea. “This side is North Korea. This is South Korea,” he says. Then pointing down to a small green bridge that straddles the pond and leads from the sidewalk to his doorstep, he says: “I built the bridge myself. It’s the DMZ.”

Back in Koreatown, Olympic Boulevard remained the community’s center for many years. But only a handful of buildings adopted the Korean architectural style. Instead, the community became a version of America, with nondescript strip malls, fast-food outlets, hotels and medical centers. Korean business signs were the only clue to its population.

“Koreans are so keen on becoming Americanized and forgetting their Korean roots, especially the young folks,” says David Hyun, a Korean developer who built the Japanese Village Plaza that marked the growth of Little Tokyo in downtown L.A. “The architecture represents pretty much the hectic pace of the common Korean to become American. Furthermore, the Koreans in L.A. have devoted much of their attention to commercial ventures. The actual tradition in Korea is culture, not money. So you might say they’ve adopted the American way.”

Unbound by architectural limits, Koreatown did what businesses do in the United States: It sprawled. In recent years, the center of Koreatown has shifted north and west, from Olympic and Normandie to Wilshire and Western. That is where the big Korean money goes these days. The old center of Koreatown is looking a tad threadbare.

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One place that suffered more than most was 3014 W. Olympic, which later owners neglected. Then the restaurant that kindled Lee’s dream ripened for another entrepreneur.

Oaxacan businessman Fernando Lopez converted the VIP Palace into the new home of his Oaxacan restaurant, La Guelaguetza. Outside, the architecture remains Korean. Inside, the colors are pure Oaxaca: bright yellows and reds, greens and blues. The menu offers not Korean barbecue, but barbacoa, mole, tamales and tall glasses of pink horchata.

Oaxacans, primarily Indians from the Sierra Juarez, have moved into the original Koreatown in large numbers since the 1990s. “It’s no longer Koreatown,” Lopez says. “It’s Oaxacatown.”

That’s an exaggeration, of course. Surrounding La Guelaguetza are strip mall mosaics of Korean lettering. The area still holds the largest concentration of Korean businesses outside Korea. Still, the transformation at 3014 W. Olympic announced a demographic change that had been happening for some time. Estimates for L.A.'s Oaxacan population run between 60,000 and 200,000. Most are Zapotecos, the largest and most urban of Oaxaca’s 16 Indian groups. Whatever the actual figure, their numbers and buying power have congealed to create a market in Koreatown that is a boon to Oaxacan entrepreneurs.

Lopez got his start in 1994 with the help of a sister’s $8,000 loan. He opened the original La Guelaguetza on 8th Street. The tiny place had lines out the door almost immediately. By 1999, Lopez had decided a Oaxacan newspaper could also work. He started El Oaxaqueno, a free biweekly. It is written on both sides of the border, designed in Oaxaca and printed in Los Angeles. Its 25,000 copies circulate in Koreatown and just about anywhere large numbers of Oaxacans can be found--Santa Ana, Venice, Culver City, Seattle, Columbus, Ohio, and the Mexican states of Baja California and, of course, Oaxaca.

“We Oaxacans are very rooted in our land,” Lopez says. “We might have left 20 or 30 years ago but we’ve still got its taste in our mouth, the colors in our heart. When we’re away and we go for a while without tasting a chile verde, a mole , we almost die. That’s not a lie.”

The Korea Times did a story when La Guelaguetza opened in the former VIP Palace. So did the Korean magazine New Life, bemoaning the change. “Some of the old-timers are pretty sad, but most people don’t care,” says Duk Man Park of the Korea Times.

The growing population of Oaxacans in Koreatown is a testament to their standing among Mexicans. To Americans--and to the Korea Times, which called La Guelaguetza “Mexican"--Oaxacan Indians may look Mexican. But Mexicans often view them as ignorant and unassimilated, and they insult them for speaking Spanish with an Indian accent. Oaxacans, for their part, tend to avoid other Mexicans. Hence they have settled mostly in places outside of East L.A.

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Oaxacans “miss their place,” says Lopez, sitting at a table in his new restaurant. “It’s like believing in God. It’s a necessity to believe in God. It’s a necessity that we have our culture near us.”

Hi Duk Lee would certainly agree.


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