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Presence of Koreans Reshaping the Region : Immigrants: A developing Koreatown in Gardena symbolizes changes a growing population is bringing to the area.

February 02, 1992|ANTHONY MILLICAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gardena baker Ik Soo Kim used to drive to Koreatown near downtown Los Angeles for the football-size Korean radish and cabbage needed to make kimchi, a spicy vegetable dish that has long been a staple of the Korean diet.

Now, all he has to do is walk across the street to a recently opened shopping center on Rosecrans and Van Ness avenues, where there is a supermarket, a video rental shop, clothing stores and businesses--all catering to the South Bay's growing Korean community.

"I don't have any reason to go to Koreatown these days," Kim said.

There is good reason why Kim and others no longer have to look outside the South Bay for items sought by Korean-Americans.

The Korean population in the South Bay more than doubled from 1980 to 1990, growing to 13,591 according to census figures, and with the increase came an influx of Korean businesses, schools and churches. There is a radio station broadcasting 14 hours of Korean-language programming from Redondo Beach, a one-inch-thick telephone directory exclusively devoted to the area's estimated 2,000 Korean businesses, and a local Korean-language newspaper and magazine that supplement two Korean daily newspapers in Los Angeles.

And as the South Bay's Korean community grows, its leaders are learning from various difficulties experienced by Koreans in Los Angeles, where conflicts between merchants and the African-American community caused rifts between leaders of the two groups. The South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce is helping Korean-speaking merchants to overcome the language barrier, and Inglewood's Korean store owners have participated in meetings with city officials aimed at preventing the sorts of conflicts that occurred in Los Angeles.

Torrance has the largest concentration of Koreans in the South Bay, with almost 6,000 residents. But it is Gardena, with its established Asian population, middle-class base and more affordable commercial land, that has become the area's business center.

"Nobody can forecast the future, but all the signs are there" for a Koreatown to take shape in Gardena, said Peter Kim, a real estate broker and secretary general of the South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce. Such a center would be the third major Korean business district in Los Angeles and Orange counties, complementing those in Los Angeles' Koreatown and Garden Grove.

Although 60% of the South Bay's Koreans live in Torrance and Gardena, wealthier Koreans are choosing to make their homes in upscale Palos Verdes Peninsula cities. Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes were among the five South Bay cities that showed the greatest percentage increase in Korean population from 1980 to 1990, census figures show.

Many of those settling in peninsula communities are business owners and, like their Anglo counterparts, are drawn to the area because of its school system and quality of life.

Elaine Lee, who with her husband owns a Gardena vitamin manufacturing company, lived in Cerritos and Gardena after coming to the United States. The Lees moved to Rancho Palos Verdes 12 years ago.

"It's quiet and schools are good," Lee said of the peninsula.

Korean leaders describe theirs as a tight-knit community of immigrants who came to the United States because of better business and educational opportunities, rather than to flee political or economic strife. Community issues are often the focus of discussion on KFOX-93.5 FM radio in Redondo Beach, which broadcasts Korean-language programs throughout Los Angeles.

Last April, the station, which also has programs aimed at other ethnic groups, started a Korean-language programming block from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

"It's been a very sound business decision," said Tom McCulloch, KFOX general manager, adding that the group's population growth and solid business ties account for much of the station's success.

Korean community leaders say their community is known for its work ethic and high standards.

"Most Koreans would rather be self-employed than work for someone else," Peter Kim said. "They're hard-working people, (with) high goals, and very competitive on the average."

Kim, the Gardena baker, was a veterinarian in South Korea and his wife was a high school teacher. They and their two children came to the United States 11 years ago so their children could receive a better education.

Two years ago, the Kims opened the bakery, their first business venture. The couple often arrive at 3 a.m. and work 14-hour days. On weekends, their son, an aerospace engineer, also dons an apron and pitches in at the small family bakery.

"This bakery business is a retirement plan for us," said Kyung Kim, Ik Soo's wife, who honed her baking skills in the pastry department of a hotel chain.

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