Koreatown, Los Angeles
Immigration, Race, and the "American Dream"
Shelley Lee



On Thursday, October 13, 1983, a warm and fair fall day in Los Angeles, the Southern California Korean Grocery and Liquor Retailers Association held its first annual awards banquet at the Ambassador Hotel. Formed the previous November with forty-two charter members, the association was growing rapidly and by 1986 had 1,089 members.1 In attendance at the banquet was a veritable who’s who of local officials and Korean American community leaders, including the city councilman David Cunningham, the state assemblyman Mike Roos, the association’s president Yang Il Kim (who went on to be the president of the National Korean American Grocers Association), and the Korean American Coalition (KAC) president Tong Soo Chung.

Among the meeting’s notable aspects was its setting. The Ambassador Hotel, located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, was a relic of the golden age of Hollywood, originally opening in 1921 and becoming a favorite spot for movie industry luminaries. Its association with glamour and celebrities, however, had faded by the 1950s, as the mid-Wilshire area entered a period of decline amid white and capital flight to the suburbs. Nonetheless, the Ambassador remained a recognized Los Angeles institution and event venue, though tragedy would attach to its legacy in 1968 when the Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the hotel's kitchen during a victory celebration for the California primary. Over the next few years, the Ambassador sat like a haunted behemoth, a reminder of the glory days of the 1920s and 1930s as well as the turbulent events of the late 1960s. While the public’s awareness of the hotel and concern for the struggles of central Los Angeles waned, the Ambassador became a locational anchor for the growing Korean immigrant community due to its location, which by the mid-1970s people were calling Koreatown.

The president of another recently formed group, the KAC, Tong Soo Chung, a young activist and student at UCLA law school, spoke at the banquet about the potential of Korean retailers to do good, not just for their own pocketbooks but also for the local communities they served. Estimating that Koreans controlled 30 to 40 percent of the retail market in groceries and liquor in Southern California, he said, “Your judicious exercise of control over purchasing power and shelf space can be directly translated into economic gains for you.” With this presence and power, Chung thought retailers could play a decisive role in the advancement of Korean Americans in Los Angeles’s social and civic life. “KAC and Korean retailers can set the pattern for the rest of the Korean community in creating unity and working together,” he said.2 Chung called on Korean retailers to think and act beyond their business ambitions, which he felt were overly fixated on climbing the ladder into wholesale, distribution, and manufacturing. They should also consider creating or participating in “fair share” programs—similar to those found in the Black community—in partnership with community members.

Chung also stressed the pivotal role that retailers could play in relations between Koreans and Blacks in Los Angeles. These communities, he said, “have a great deal to offer each other and [can] learn and benefit from each other.” With Korean-owned shops opening throughout Southern California, including in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods with disproportionate concentrations of Blacks, the Korean merchant and Black customer had become by 1983 figurative stand-ins for Korean-Black relations more generally. As non-whites and recent immigrants, Chung pointed out, Koreans had a debt to pay African Americans. He thanked “black Americans for their civil rights struggle in the last 30 years, which has made America a better place to live for all Americans, including Korean immigrants . . . Without their sacrifices and struggles, you and I, the Korean immigrants of today, could not possibly enjoy the civil rights and freedom of activity as we do.” The struggle was ongoing, however, so Chung expressed his wish that “Korean and black communities will join forces to make America a better place to live for all of us.”

The wistful and hopeful notes of Chung’s remarks contrasted with worrying local developments likely on the minds of some attendees. Koreans and Blacks might have shared a status as racial minorities in Los Angeles, but their encounters were also mediated by their distinct identities and structural positions that could fuel antagonism instead of affinity: merchant versus customer, foreigner versus American, non-Black versus Black. Stories of shoplifting, accusations of shoplifting, rude store owners, rude customers, robberies, assault by customers, and assault by store workers circulated and raised people’s guards. Korean merchants reported being frightened to go to work. Black residents complained Koreans were draining their already strapped and vulnerable communities. Chung aligned himself with other Korean and Black activists appealing for interracial solidarity and cooperation and hoped this outreach to retailers would prompt introspection and action to reduce the tensions and reframe Korean-Black relations around their shared struggles and concerns.

That Chung was delivering these comments at a retailers’ conference attended by local power players in what had become a gathering place for Korean America’s elites reflected the contradictory positions that Korean Americans held. As they pursued their personal fortunes, distinguished themselves as entrepreneurs, and built Koreatown, they were extolled for proving that the American dream was still in reach for anyone. Or as a 1985 headline in the Wall Street Journal stated, “The American Dream Is Alive and Well in Koreatown.”3 Their achievements were all the more notable at a time when the working poor—particularly the African American working poor—was losing ground economically. Relations between Korean merchants and Black customers, and between the Korean and Black communities more generally, might be pressing in the face of a concerning event or negative story, but they could otherwise be treated as incidental to the greater cause of generating profit and accumulating capital.

Koreatown, Los Angeles seeks to tell a story of Korean Americans against larger stories of Los Angeles and the United States during the late twentieth century. Korean Americans, until after the 1960s a very small group even within the Asian American population, have grown their numbers markedly in recent decades with new immigration. Though often equated with socioeconomic achievement and assimilation, their experiences as racial minorities and immigrant outsiders illuminate key economic and cultural developments in the United States since 1965. Koreatown, Los Angeles examines the social and cultural history of Korean Americans in the city and includes the perspectives of US-born Koreans and non-Koreans, government officials, local activists, other minorities, and the media. It argues that building Koreatown was an urgent objective for Korean immigrants and US-born Koreans eager to carve out a spatial niche within Los Angeles to serve as an economic and social anchor for their growing community. More than a dot on a map, Koreatown was also an idea and a set of aspirations, and for Koreans all over the United States, it held profound emotional significance as a symbol of their shared bonds and place in US society. At the same time, Korean Americans’ lives were constrained and shaped by external factors such as the global aspirations of Los Angeles, patterns of racial segregation and urban poverty, and legacies of anti-Asian racism and orientalism. Koreatown, as with all communities, was an inward and outward facing entity, formed by what it meant for others as well as notes the needs it served for Korean people.

Koreatown, Los Angeles explores well-trodden themes in Asian American history, such as migration, belonging, citizenship, and racism. Its chronological focus sets it apart from the existing scholarship in that it deals with immigrants arriving after 1965. This focus allows it to highlight Korean American figures that have received scant scholarly attention, from the journalist K. W. Lee to real estate investor Sonia Suk. The book also contextualizes its subjects against a broader national backdrop of cultural malaise, urban turmoil, liberal multiculturalism, and economic transition. These contextual considerations shape the book’s interests in intraethnic relations; Korean Americans’ pursuit of economic and political power in a post–civil-rights-movement, postindustrial society; Koreatown’s meanings as a spatial community and emotional home for diasporic Koreans; and the strategic and fraught position of Koreans in a city coming into its own as a global metropolis.

The book consists of six chapters that are topically and chronologically organized. The first provides an overview of Korean immigration to Los Angeles, situating the phenomenon against a larger surge of post-1965 immigration in the wake of legislative reform and growing social and economic malaise in the United States. The second chapter examines the birth and development of Koreatown in the 1970s and 1980s with respect to the leadership of immigrant place entrepreneurs and their ambitions for ethnic and commercial dominance in the area. The third chapter considers Korean immigration from the point of view of the “BK” (before Koreatown) or Americanized Koreans who felt distanced from the newcomers but were otherwise profoundly transformed by their presence. The fourth chapter discusses how Los Angeles’s bid for economic growth and urban renown as a global city created opportunities and dilemmas for Korean Americans. The fifth chapter examines Korean-Black relations in South Central LA, the escalating of anti-Korean sentiment, and the destruction of Koreatown and Korean-owned businesses in the Los Angeles uprising of 1992. The final chapter traces how Korean Americans resolutely “moved on” by rebuilding Koreatown and leaving South Central.

Throughout its chapters, the book underscores and examines the ironies and extremes of experience that have characterized Korean American history since 1965. In a time of growing wealth inequality and diminishing opportunities, the example of Korean small business entrepreneurs purportedly showed that the American dream still worked, but the destruction of their businesses in the 1992 uprising showed how those dreams were intertwined with larger questions of racial conflict, uneven development, and political power. Koreatown has been a neighborhood development initiative, a rallying symbol for people desiring a sense of community, a marker of recognition, a concentration of unwelcome foreign intruders, a phoenix rising from the ashes, and a reminder of political voicelessness despite neighborhood visibility. The book follows Korean Americans through these trials and tribulations and reveals how their story reflects the promises and pitfalls of the immigrant narrative and valorization of the American dream.

With its chronological focus from the late 1960s to early 2000s the book joins the growing works of historical scholarship on the recent past. Moreover, its attention to Korean Americans sheds light on the experiences of a group in the Asian American population that has been understudied compared to Chinese and Japanese. Further, Koreatown, Los Angeles takes a historical approach to understanding the emergence of “global” cities and the importance of Pacific connections and Asian immigration in their rise and transformations, interests that also informed my first monograph on Japanese in Seattle. Explaining connections between local experience and global connections has been a salient concern in the social sciences and has animated much of the research about Asian migrants. Concepts like the Pacific world or global city for understanding conditions in the twentieth century have been important in the study of political economies and international diplomacy but have been less central in domestic histories of US migration and race relations, particularly for the mid-twentieth century onward.

This book illustrates some distinct joys and challenges of researching and writing about the recent past. While many of the historical events recounted in Koreatown, Los Angeles have been and continue to be preserved and cataloged in institutional archives—particularly as they concern the 1992 uprising and the mayorship of Tom Bradley—I have also gone “outside the archive” and relied on interviews, obscure memoirs, and online sources. Moreover, for the historian trying to make sense of the 1970s to 1990s, contemporaneous social science research—of which a great deal exists about Korean immigrants—comprises remarkably rich primary material. As far as the content and analysis in the chapters that follow, I have chosen to prioritize narratives and to present a multifaceted story of Korean Americans told from different points of view. Invariably because of those choices and the fact that the book is not an exhaustive history of Korean Americans, some perspectives, organizations, and histories will not be reflected. Hopefully, however, the reader will find a cogent yet complex story that sheds light on the recent history of US immigration, the unique aspects of Korean American experience, and the troubled times of the late twentieth century.


1. Ivan Light and Edna Bonacich, Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965–1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 200.

2. Sophia Kyung Kim, “Purchasing Power to Win Economic Gains, Urges Southland Grocers,” Korea Times Los Angeles, October 16, 1983.

3. Earl C. Gottschalk Jr., “The American Dream Is Alive and Well in Koreatown,” Wall Street Journal, May 20, 1985.