O.C.’s Koreatown: Buena Park draws residents and businesses from L.A.
CGV Cinemas at The Source entertainment complex in Buena Park officially opened in January. The theater, which plays subtitled Korean films, is one of many businesses that have expanded to Buena Park from Koreatown in Los Angeles.(Alex Chan / Daily Pilot)
CGV Cinemas at The Source entertainment complex in Buena Park shows subtitled Korean films.(Alex Chan / Daily Pilot)
CGV Cinemas at The Source entertainment complex in Buena Park is one of many businesses that have expanded to Buena Park from Koreatown in Los Angeles.(Alex Chan / Daily Pilot)
Los Angeles has Koreatown, but in the last two decades north Orange County has made its mark as a hotbed of Korean business activity that stands to rival the 2.70-square-mile neighborhood to the north.
And the growth is still occurring, as evidenced by the January opening of CGV Cinemas at The Source entertainment complex in Buena Park.
CGV is a subsidiary of the CJ Group, a South Korean conglomerate with a presence in food, pharmaceuticals, entertainment and shopping, according to a news release.
The theater, which plays subtitled Korean films along with a few Hollywood titles, is one of the latest businesses to expand from Los Angeles’ Koreatown to Buena Park. CGV follows a growing trend of Korean-originated food, beauty, retail and entertainment ventures opening in the north Orange County city.
“The reality is most Koreans live in northern Orange County, in Buena Park, Fullerton, Anaheim, La Palma,” said Ellen Ahn, executive director of Korean Community Services, a nonprofit that offers health and social services to Korean Americans and the larger community, according to the organization’s website.
At 93,710, Orange County had the second-largest Korean population among U.S. counties, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Los Angeles topped the list with 230,876 Koreans.
The number of Korean Americans living in Buena Park increased by 57% from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. The percentage increase was the greatest among Asian populations.
A wave of Korean Americans moved into northern Orange County in the 1980s, because “Orange County has a reputation as a nice place to live with good school districts,” said Ahn, who was born in Korea and moved to the U.S. when she was 1. She has lived in Fullerton for 20 years.
Ahn said the L.A. riots in 1992, which followed the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the March 1991 beating of Rodney King, spurred another migration after looters targeted many Korean small-business owners during the melee.
Less than two weeks after the King beating, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head by Korean storekeeper Soon Ja Du after a dispute over a bottle of orange juice in her market at 91st and Figueroa streets.
Security camera footage showed Du grabbing Latasha by her sweater and Latasha then punching Du in the face at least three times.
In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that Korean American merchants argued that they were often the only people willing to do business in depressed, high-crime areas and that Latasha’s shooting had been blamed for inflaming the existing animosities between Korean shopkeepers and black customers.
Korean Americans increasingly saw northern Orange County, just a few miles to the south, as the place to go.
“When you look at anyone, not just Koreans, when you move into a neighborhood, you look at schools and shopping areas,” Ahn said. “As businesses develop and it becomes a nicer area to be in, it will continue to draw people into the community.”
The intersection of Beach Boulevard and Malvern Avenue in Buena Park has become a hub of Korean businesses, with multiple markets and restaurants, including BCD Tofu House and Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, which serves Korean barbecue.
“Beach Boulevard is a main artery [for motorists traveling in and out of the area]” said Ja-Hon Suh, a licensed real estate agent who has leased commercial properties in Buena Park.
Mark Shaw, chief executive of Los Angeles-based CJ CGV America, a U.S. affiliate of the conglomerate, said in January that the theater at The Source — which is less than 21/2 miles from Beach and Malvern — is in a prime location, between the 91 and the 5 freeways.
The Source is about a quarter mile from the nearest exit of the 91, an artery connecting the entertainment complex to Fullerton.
The shopping center is also less than half a mile from an exit of the 5 Freeway, a convenient link for people traveling from Anaheim.
In addition, the area’s nearness to greater Los Angeles has drawn Korean Americans who still do business in the county to the north, Ahn said.
Location was a driving force behind Ham Ji Park coming to Buena Park. The restaurant, which has roots in Koreatown and is known for its pork spare ribs and pork neck stew, is opening in May at 5350 Beach Blvd., co-owner Adam Cho said.
Cho said the proximity to shopping malls, and three Asian markets on three separate corners of the Beach-Malvern intersection, made the location a desirable spot.
“I liked the space because it was already established,” Cho said. “That corner draws a lot of people to the area.
Support from the city
Buena Park Mayor Pro Tem Virginia Vaughn calls the development of Korean-originated businesses in the city a “well-received growth.”
Officials say the city has on record 4,890 active business licenses — covering retail, industrial, apartments and other types of operations.
Meanwhile, the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Orange County estimates that a good portion of these, 1,000 to 1,200, are Korean-owned.
And the city is there to keep the financial engine going.
Vaughn, who frequents many of these Korean establishments as a customer, said the main concern that owners bring to her as a city official is how to advertise to a diverse public.
“When you have 84,000 residents and you’ve built a Korean restaurant and customers don’t know how to pronounce the food, how do you promote that?” Vaughn said. “Then when you, for instance, put out the menu in English and Korean, it helps.”
Last year, Vaughn initiated several meetings so Korean business owners, the Buena Park police chief, city staff and translators could meet to bridge the gaps that language barriers create.
Together, the groups discussed different topics such as how to stay up to date on health department papers, who to report crimes to, and what permits to fill out when hanging banners.
“We didn’t get quite the turnout we hoped for,” Vaughn said, adding that four or five business owners would typically show up. “But I’m planning to put out some fliers in the [85C Bakery Cafe area on Beach] so we can all just talk informally and ask, ‘How can we help you?’ We don’t want Korean owners or anybody in the city to feel like they don’t have a voice.”
Ahn’s Korean Community Services also helps where it can.
The organization provides primary care and mental health services to local Koreans, who often don’t have medical insurance, said Ahn.
She said another problem in the community is the number of undocumented Korean immigrants, whose basic needs may go unfilled because they tend to stay in the shadows.
Koreans have the highest undocumented rate among Asian American populations in Orange County, said Sylvia Kim, Orange County’s regional director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. The organization provides legal and civil rights services for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, according to its website.
Kim said the number is so high in part because their temporary permits, such as student or work visas, expire.
“Some people have a false sense of security with visas,” Kim said, adding that the current political climate has led some holders of expired visas to “stay underground.”
Something for everyone
Who would have guessed that the city known internationally for Knott’s Berry Farm, the theme park on the site of Walter and Cordelia Knott’s one-time berry farm — and formerly home of the Movieland Wax Museum and other touristy spots — would become a player on the world stage for other reasons.
Buena Park is the second location in the U.S. for CGV Cinemas, a product of the largest multiplex cinema chain in South Korea — the first being more than two dozen miles north in L.A.'s Koreatown.
With the opening of CGV Buena Park, the company is sharing its “Cultureplex” concept — making a movie theater an immersive cultural experience.
“It’ll be a place for all generations to enjoy, like if you’re taking your parents to see a film,” Shaw said of the theater, which has eight screens, one of which is a 4DX screen with motion seats and effects like fog.
K-pop, a music genre that originated in South Korea, has also moved to town. Ernest Cho manages the KPOP Academy for dance and aerobics classes, which is directly across the street from The Source.
On nights when patrons arrive to learn the dance moves of South Korean pop groups like BIGBANG and 2NE1, Cho sees a diverse collection of faces in his studio.
“There’s people of all different races…. I’m so happy to watch that,” Cho said, noting that activities involving music and food can be enjoyed by “people all over the board.”
Cho opened a K-Pop-focused aerobics studio in Fullerton over 10 years ago. After seven years there, he moved the business to Beach Boulevard and Malvern Avenue and began to offer dance classes.
He relocated the studio to its new site in September 2015, after Beach and Malvern grew too crowded and parking became a problem.
The Source plans to round up other businesses imported from Koreatown like Sugar Nail salon and business attire retailer Madame Polla.
But the complex will also be a destination that combines international brands, restaurants and merchants, according to The Source’s Facebook page.
The shopping center already has a Great Khan’s Mongolian BBQ and Yoshiharu Ramen. It expects to roll in Taiwanese, Mexican and other businesses to inhabit the almost 100 retail spaces.
Some Korean business owners don’t want the area to become insular.
Mayor Pro Tem Vaughn pointed out that while there’s a high percentage of Korean-owned businesses in Buena Park, the city is also home to Rock & Brews, an American food and craft beer chain created by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS, and Porto’s Bakery and Café, which serves Cuban treats. Both are located on Beach Boulevard.
“We have a very diverse culture here,” Vaughn said.
Cho said that in the past few years of operating in Buena Park, he has seen his Korean American audience bring their non-Korean friends to his classes.
“Business shouldn’t focus on one generation or one language,” Cho said. “We have to expand to all people. That will make us prosperous.”