Koreatown Immigrants Blending In

Times Staff Writer

As immigrant rights marchers gathered in downtown Los Angeles on Monday morning, garment manufacturer Mike Lee said many of his fellow Korean American merchants closed early, fearing a repeat of the 1992 riots.

Lee closed his Poison Ivy shop as well, but did something more. He joined the march.

“I am also an immigrant,” Lee said as the throngs on Wilshire Boulevard crossed Western Avenue.


Just as the 1992 disturbances were a defining event for L.A.’s Korean American community, the recent immigrant rights marches may be a defining event for the community today -- highlighting the growing economic interdependence between Koreans and Latinos, and budding efforts by Koreans to cross the cultural divide.

Latinos constitute the largest workforce for many Korean businesses in the city and are an increasingly important customer base. Although Koreans and Latinos struggle to overcome cultural and language barriers, there have been strides, by design and by economic necessity.

Latinos increasingly shop in Korean grocery stores, served by Latino cashiers who speak Spanish and a smattering of Korean. Some Korean restaurants now offer menus in Spanish. And Monday, two days after the 14th anniversary of the riots, Lee and some other business owners joined their Latino workers in demonstrations.

It is a far cry from 1992, when Korean-owned businesses took the brunt of looting and burning after the acquittal of four white Los Angeles policemen in the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.

Some 2,200 Korean-owned businesses had about $400 million in damage. One of the riots’ most indelible images was a picture of Korean men, armed with rifles, standing on the roofs of their businesses after police had left.

After the riots, Korean businesses were criticized for being too insular and uncaring about the communities they served, mainly black neighborhoods in South Los Angeles.


“After the riots, Korean [businesses] simply moved out of black neighborhoods,” said Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at UCLA. “That can’t be done in relation to Latinos.”

Latinos, not Koreans, constitute the single biggest group of residents in Koreatown -- now a booming business and residential district that has prospered in recent years thanks in part to investments from South Korea. In downtown’s garment district, Korean-owned businesses depend on Latino labor to keep the sewing machines whirring.

From downtown to Koreatown, Korean-owned businesses were shuttered Monday, for a lack of workers or lack of customers -- or both.

Many were also closed for fear that the crowds might get out of hand.

In Hannam Supermarket at Vermont Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, Korean language news filled the store instead of the usual ambience music, with constant updates about the crowd’s movements.

A few miles west, Galleria Market manager Simon Ahn said his staff was monitoring the news as well. The store was prepared to close at the first sign of disturbance, he said. It never happened.

But as businesses braced for the worst, Monday’s events provided a glimpse of the evolving relationship between Koreans and Latinos in the city.

A week before the planned marches, many business owners said they had talked to their Latino workers to handle expected absences and assure them that their jobs would be safe.

At Galleria Market, many Korean employees offered to cover the shifts of their Latino counterparts who wished to attend the marches, Ahn said. “It was our way of showing support,” he said.

Galleria Market employee Eduardo Hernandez was working alongside Ahn on Monday, bagging groceries.

The Mexican native said he didn’t see his Korean employer’s decision to stay open as a lack of solidarity with demonstrators.

“We are all here because we need to work to survive,” said Hernandez, 40, who added that his wife took the day off from her housecleaning job to march with their 9-year-old son. “We all demonstrate in our own ways.”

The market is a prime example of the evolving ties between the two communities. It saw a nearly 40% decrease in business Monday morning, Ahn said. Korean customers scared away by the demonstrations accounted for part of that, he said. But “we also have a lot of Latino customers who come in the mornings for the fresh produce.”

Many restaurants in Koreatown have begun carrying menus in Spanish as well as English and Korean, said Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, a community advocacy organization in Los Angeles.

“Over the years, there have been growing numbers of employees in Korean businesses who are Latinos,” she said. “When the staff is Latino, it makes it more comfortable for Latinos to come into the business as well.”

Yoo cautioned that the increasing interaction between Koreans and Latinos is not to be taken as an effort by Koreans to make amends for the criticisms leveled at them after the 1992 riots. Many Koreans view those criticisms as unfair and unfounded. The interaction instead is a natural development as both communities grow and interact in Los Angeles’ multiethnic setting.

“The Korean community is not looking to do things for publicity,” Yoo said.

Still, a little good publicity can’t hurt.

That’s why garment manufacturer Lee joined the march Monday, he said.

“We want to show that we are not only takers,” said Lee, 47, president of the Korean Apparel Manufacturers Assn. This year, the association donated 60,000 pieces of clothing to needy families in African American and Latino neighborhoods.

“We have to show we are in the community,” Lee said.

As he spoke during the march, organizers with the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance chanted slogans in Spanish, Korean and English. The group, which represents Korean and Latino workers, has been at odds with Korean-owned businesses over wages and benefits, illustrating that labor-related tensions exist.

Regardless of what divides the ethnic groups, the only way to bridge the gap is to engage the other side, restaurant owner David Lee said.

“I see a lot of Hispanic workers being promoted by Korean business owners,” said David Lee, who Monday closed his So Na Mu Restaurant and joined the march. “This morning, I joked with my Latino workers that I only saw two of them marching.”

He employs 16 immigrants from Latin America and eight from South Korea. Every month or two, all the workers gather over food.

“There is a language barrier,” said David Lee, 53, a former banker. “My Korean workers do not speak Spanish or English. My Latino workers do not speak English or Korean.”

But the Latino workers have picked up one phrase in Korean they repeat often when they eat Korean food.

“They say mashisoh,” said Lee. Meaning, “it’s delicious.”