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Pinatas and Poinsettias : Ethnic Stores, Restaurants See Holiday Business Surge

December 20, 1987|KEITH BRADSHER and MARIA L. LA GANGA and JESUS SANCHEZ | Times staff writers

At the Hanil restaurant in Koreatown, employees strung twinkling lights through the bamboo stalks near the front doors and removed a booth to make way for the Christmas tree.

Jin Young Pack, owner of the Korean barbecue restaurant near Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, flipped through his reservations book to reveal the more than 50 Korean college alumni groups that had booked banquet rooms for traditional holiday reunions. "It's the busiest time of the year," Pack said.

Christmas--no matter what language you say it in--means business for the many immigrant merchants of Southern California. Besides Christmas shoppers, many merchants rely on customers who start preparing for such holidays as Chinese New Year or Tet--the three-day Vietnamese New Year's celebration.

"I think it's just as critical for them during the Christmas holiday season as it is for any retail operation," said Wilfred Marshall, director of the mayor's small business assistance office. The immigrant merchants may not be located in major malls, Marshall said, but "they speak the right language and their customers feel comfortable."

Without Christmas sales, "we would just survive--that's about all," said Stanley Fujihara, an employee at Mikawaya, a Little Tokyo sweets shop where holiday shoppers take home nearly 1,000 boxes of assorted Japanese rice cookies and crackers.

At Fragrance King, a Monterey Park cosmetic and perfume shop catering to Chinese customers, Christmas shopping overshadows business for Chinese New Year. "Our Christmas business is definitely important," said store manager Frank Ma, who estimated that December accounts for 60% of his annual sales.

The merchants, whether they be along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles or in the "Little Saigon" area of Orange County, operate in or near the neighborhoods that often serve as the first stop for recent Latin American and Asian immigrants.

As these immigrants and their families find their way to new neighborhoods and new life styles throughout Southern California, they are more likely to patronize nearby shopping centers and eat at local restaurants. Moon Hong, who co-owns Bobbie's housewares shop in Koreatown, has noticed how children often adopt different shopping patterns from their parents. "They tend to shop less in Koreatown--they go to Westwood. They become more independent," he said. "It's the melting pot effect."

But during the holidays, many immigrants who have moved to new communities often return to their old neighborhoods for special foods and gifts they cannot find elsewhere. "The people are going to be doing traditional feasts, and they are going to have to make a special trip to stores not in their neighborhood," said Michael E. Robinson, an associate history professor at USC.

Immigrant merchants approach the holidays like most other retailers: Extra help is hired; store hours are extended, before and after Christmas sales are held. But as merchants meld American holiday traditions with native customs, products and language, the results are sights and sounds not found in your run-of-the-mill mall:

- At Maynila, a Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles, a Christmas tree and yards of green garland have been added to the rattan decor in preparation for holiday parties. Between 150 and 200 customers will pay $18 to attend the A Pasko Sa Amerika (Christmas in America) party featuring live entertainment and a meal of roast pork and rice cakes.

- In Echo Park, the local chamber of commerce and merchants have paid for street banners that read "Merry Christmas" and "Feliz Navidad." But English and Spanish may not suffice: "One of our board members was upset because we didn't have one in Chinese," said Jackie Reed, president of the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce.

- At Little Tokyo Village Plaza, a Shogun Santa Claus--complete with flowing white beard and Japanese warrior helmet--listens to children read their Christmas wish lists.

Amid platters of Mexican pan dulce, green and red Christmas tree-shaped cookies occupy a prime spot next to the cash register at the Tijuana Bakery in Lynwood. The Mexican bakery sells about 600 of the cookies a day at 20 cents each.

- At the Yeo Wang Bong coffee shop, customers listened to a recording of "Angels We Have Heard on High"--sung in Korean. "I just started playing it this morning," said Young Choi, owner of the Koreatown restaurant. "It gets them smiling."

As has been the case with previous waves of immigrants, Americans have adopted some of the newcomers' customs. For example, Latinos have seen pinatas --mannequins made of wire, paper and glue and stuffed with candy--adopted by Anglos and others.

Another Latin American holiday import is the poinsettia plant. Indigenous to an area south of Mexico City, the poinsettia was prized by the Aztecs and later used in Nativity processions by Franciscan missionaries. The poinsettia is named after the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, who introduced the plant to the United States in 1825.

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