Yet, as the Korean community has grown, so has the number of the Kims' competitors. There are at least 2,000 Korean-owned businesses in the South Bay, more than double the number of such shops 10 years ago, according to Jung S. Ryu, publisher of the South Bay Korean Business Directory, which is considered by many to be the community's "Yellow Pages."
However, not all Koreans praise their community's work ethic. Some say that their dedication to running a business, which often involves both parents putting in long hours, takes a toll on young children.
"It is a big problem in the Korean community," said Pastor Jung Gil Hong of the Korean Baptist Church of Gardena, one of more than 50 churches in the South Bay area with primarily Korean church members. "It is real difficult for children" emotionally when parents are away at work for so long.
Parents also have high academic expectations for their children, and sometimes supplement public school instruction with a Korean language or math program. Such specialized private schools, which hold classes on weekday afternoons or Saturdays, have increased from a handful to more than a dozen in the last decade.
"Parents are not satisfied with the education system here," said Han Kim, a manager of the Kumon Educational Institute, which teaches a Japanese system of math that is popular with Koreans.
The institute has 130 branches in Southern California, including Gardena, Lomita and Torrance. Although the Kumon schools are open to everyone, about two-thirds of the institute's 5,000 students in Los Angeles and Orange counties are Japanese and Korean.
"(Parents) want something extra," he said. "In Kumon, they see something very similar to what they learned in Korea. They emphasize this math very strongly for their children."
Perhaps the issue that has most shaped perceptions of the Korean community is the relationship between Korean merchants and African-Americans. Shooting incidents and other confrontations at stores in South-Central Los Angeles are frequent topics of conversation among Koreans locally.
Peter Kim said the South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce has already laid a groundwork for communication with African-American leaders in the event similar tensions arise locally.
And in Inglewood, where there are more than 400 Korean merchants, city officials proudly note the success of a series of cultural sensitivity and informational meetings among merchants, city leaders and community members--meetings that took place long before shootings in other areas made headlines. There has yet to be a serious incident involving members of either ethnic group, Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent said.
"We've had some really hot exchanges, but it's worked out," Vincent said of the meetings, which offered insight into both cultures and the city's business regulations.
It is because of such cultural and language barriers that the South Bay Korean Chamber of Commerce formed last October, Kim said. Language problems have caused many merchants, who often know little English and are unfamiliar with a city's bureaucracy, to run afoul of business regulations, he said.
Nevertheless, Kim said that same discomfort with speaking English, and the problems with native-English employers that arise, partly account for so many Koreans opting to open their own businesses.
"They find out they're having a hard time getting a good job because of the language problem," Kim said. "They have no other option than to open their own business, if they have some kind of savings."
In the next few years, community leaders say, the potential for such cultural and language conflicts can only grow as the Korean population increases. As the group struggles for greater acceptance, it will also have to wrestle with the challenges posed by assimilation, they say.
But Kim and other businessmen are confident that Gardena has the makings of the next regional center for Koreans, without confrontation with other ethnic groups.
"There will be another Koreatown here, but one can only speculate when or how big," Kim said.
Koreans in the South Bay
The South Bay Korean population grew 120% from 1980 to 1990, according to the U.S. Census. Torrance and Gardena have the largest Korean populations in the South Bay, while Palos Verdes Estates showed the greatest percentage gain over the last decade.
WHERE KOREANS LIVE 1990 TORRANCE: 5,888 GARDENA: 2,857 RANCHO PALOS VERDES: 1,419 CARSON: 907 HAWTHORNE: 754 SOUTH BAY: 13,591
GROWTH IN THE KOREAN COMMUNITY
1990 1980 % Change PALOS VERDES ESTATES 320 84 281% TORRANCE 5,888 1,652 256% GARDENA 2,857 924 209% ROLLING HILLS ESTATES 200 77 160% RANCHO PALOS VERDES 1,419 583 143%
Source: U.S. Census