Driving around Koreatown in the passenger seat of his daughter’s car, Hi Duk Lee peered out the window, in awe of how much the neighborhood had changed in half a century.
Physically worn down from cancer, he asked his daughter to show him the town’s businesses and restaurants — many of them long gone — and he commented on what he noticed along the way.
He would say something like: This area is cleaner than before, or that business used to be something else, his youngest daughter, Helen Lee, reflected.
It was one of the last rides around the neighborhood her father helped build, his daughter said. The idealistic immigrant who paved the way for Koreatown to be the vibrant Los Angeles community it is today died in his Silver Lake home on March 7 after a six-month battle with colon cancer, according to family. He was 79.
“Whether he failed or succeeded, he was always trying something new and making change,” his daughter said. “He wanted a certain community, people helping each other. He’s proud to know he took part in creating whatever is there.”
Lee arrived in Los Angeles in 1968 after escaping South Korea’s military dictatorship and working briefly as a miner in Germany. But when he looked around, he deeply missed his country’s charm and felt there was a hole in his new community.
“They didn’t have any good restaurants for entertainment or a meeting place,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “I planned to make Koreatown. Chinese people have Chinatowns everywhere: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montebello. But there’s no Koreatown.”
Lee’s first success came in 1971, when he opened the Olympic Market at Olympic and Normandie, one of the first Korean-owned groceries in Los Angeles. He purchased five blocks in the area, where he would go on to build the Korean Village, with some 40 shops and restaurants in an area that became known as the heart of Second Seoul.
In 1975, he opened the VIP Palace restaurant, built using traditional Korean architecture, with imported blue Korean tiles. Later, the shopping center VIP Plaza would accompany the restaurant. Lee’s market and restaurant became places of community for many Koreans in the area, where they could socialize and hold meetings in a way they couldn’t before.
“At the time, that was the place where Korean immigrants got together,” said Ricky Im, an employee at Han Kook Mortuary, where Lee’s memorial service was held last week. “Of course, they got groceries, but that was the meeting place,” he said of the Olympic Market and VIP Palace.
Lee lobbied city officials and negotiated with property owners, hoping to further develop the Koreatown he envisioned, complete with gates to the “city” on Olympic Boulevard. He invested half a million dollars in the late 1970s to build the VIP Hotel, a 230-room, five-story building at 3000 W. Olympic Blvd. But with increasing interest rates, Lee began falling behind on rent.
Although no one would help fund his vision of the Koreatown gates, Lee began pushing then-Mayor Tom Bradley and other city leaders to install a Koreatown sign in the area. In 1982, one went up on the 10 Freeway near the Normandie Avenue exit.
That same year, Lee filed for bankruptcy and sold everything he had built. VIP Palace was converted into a Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza. Its inside has Mexican decorations, with bright blues, reds and yellows, but the exterior is still Korean in style.
Later, Lee would even sell his Los Feliz home, which he had made into a tribute to his home country. He built a pond in the shape of North and South Korea, with a small green bridge leading to his doorstep — the “DMZ,” he said.
“I tell my children that my house is a Lee family immigrant museum,” he said about the home in an interview with The Times.
Lee later traveled to South Africa, pursuing the tea business and other ventures, according to L.A. Magazine. He would return to Los Angeles for his last project, Echo Garden, a nursery in Highland Park where he spent his final years tending plants with his wife, Kil Ja Lee, his daughter said.
In his personal and professional life, her father was sharp and straightforward, Helen Lee said. Rather than complain about something, he would simply fix it.
“I’m sure he’s in heaven, cleaning there, making changes and bossing people around,” she said. “Definitely, he was always the boss.”
Lee’s entrepreneurialism meant sacrifices for the family. Helen Lee said she learned about her father’s history and his many accomplishments by reading articles.
“We weren’t going to Sunday picnics together,” she said. “He lived to work.”
But it was never about the money for him, she said in explaining his decision to sell his properties and move on. He lived only in the present and reinvested every penny into his next venture, she said.
“I’ve lost much money, but I don’t regret what I’ve done since it all happened in Koreatown,” Lee said in an interview with Korea Daily U.S. in 2016. “My failures became fertilizer to bloom flowers.”
Son Roger Lee declined to be interviewed by The Times, but shared the eulogy from his father’s memorial service: “It rained hard the night my father passed. The skies were weeping the loss of a great man. These were tears of joy, celebrating life and the legacy of my father,” the eulogy read.
The eulogy recalled a family trip abroad to the Baekdu Mountains, bordering China and North Korea. When father and son came across a river that fed a tall waterfall, a tour guide warned them of the rapids and advised them to keep moving upstream to cross. The elder Lee refused, and together, the two leaped on rocks and crossed the rapids together.
“This was my father,” Roger Lee said. “He took the risks, without knowing what was ahead. This is the man who founded Koreatown.”
Helen Lee said her father was aware of his failures and regretted little. About modern-day Koreatown, Lee noticed the good and the bad, she said. He’d lament that a younger generation of Korean Americans seemed to care more about success and less about the romanticized vision of the community he had.
Still, many recognize that it was Lee who gave Koreans in Los Angeles their own community.
“Forty years later, from the dirt to now,” Im said of today’s Koreatown. “Pioneers, they have a vision. He had a vision to give us a place we could grow together.”