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Counter Culture : In Los Angeles, Korean-American stores Are Sometimes the Flashpoint of Racial Animosity--but They Are Also the Proving Ground for Tolerance

October 17, 1993|John H. Lee | Chang W. Lee, a photographer for Pacific News Service, was born in Pusan, Korea, and moved to the New York area when he was 18. John H. Lee (no relation) writes regularly for the L.A. Weekly

Inside the bulletproof, plexiglass box, the merchant paces. Peering through smudged plastic, he scans the aisles that radiate from the register. Every corner of the liquor and grocery store is visible from the box--if not directly, then with the aid of a sentry line of obliquely angled mirrors mounted on the ceiling. Although cluttered with stacks of beverage cases, boxes of toilet paper and candy-bar cartons, the store has a stripped-down, utilitarian look. Under the counter is a new 9-millimeter Luger with hammer cocked, resting like a paperweight atop brown bags the size of a single beer can. The gun butt is inches from the cashier's knees every time he rings up a sale. The owner of this store is Korean-American, the shoppers are African-American and Latino. And in the minds of many, places such as these are the hothouses that helped hatch a riot.

But an essential aspect of this picture is missing. It doesn't capture the give-and-take familiarity, the casual humanity between buyer and seller. There is a shared understanding that passes through the reinforced partitions and even the color barriers here. If these stores are sometimes a target of crime or a battleground for racial disputes, they are more often a meeting ground, where fifth-generation African-Americans find themselves joking and cursing (often at the same time) with first-generation Korean immigrants. To be in South-Central or Compton is to see, every day, shopkeepers, their customers and their workers finding ways to get around the distorting plexiglass and the oblique mirror images, finding ways to connect.

For three months, Chang W. Lee, a 25-year-old New York-based photojournalist, visited more than 100 liquor stores in primarily African-American, low-income neighborhoods of the city. He spent an average of 10 hours a day going from shop to shop, talking with store owners, their employees and their customers, gauging the tenor of the neighborhoods and quietly catching this world on film. He first became interested in the project after seeing blacks and Korean-Americans portrayed in overwhelmingly negative reports in the national media. They were accounts that, from his experience, seemed somehow skewed. He wondered if Los Angeles really was breeding a different, harsher attitude toward race relations, one without the human qualities he knew. What he found was a series of small stories that had not been widely covered.

The existence of immigrant-owned stores--Korean-American shops number about 500 in South-Central and Compton (an additional 200 were destroyed in the riots) and 3,000 in Los Angeles County--is a constant reminder that the system in America doesn't work for African-Americans the way it has for a succession of groups new to this nation. Some see the immigrant businesses as modern-day plantation stores, taking money and giving little in return. The merchants cash checks, sell grocery staples, take food stamps. They also charge high prices and transaction fees on welfare checks, and they distribute the alcohol used to anesthetize pain that can be so apparent. At closing time, they rarely head for a home in the neighborhood.

From the merchants' point of view, their stores are mom-and-pop outposts filling the void in high-crime, redlined neighborhoods, where mainstream banks and corporate-owned supermarkets are almost nonexistent. As difficult as it is for a business to muster the wherewithal to survive in urban America, merchants say, at least Korean-Americans are there, trying.

The photographs on these pages tell the survival story, from both sides. They come from a scrapbook of life in Los Angeles, 1993. They are the stuff of everyday life rather than the extremes, lacking the adrenaline spike of mayhem and fear that fuel so many black-Korean images. These photographs have a bittersweet quality--there is tension and hostility here, but more often there are smiles, simple one-on-one exchanges and the hope, however faint, that different groups of people can learn to deal with each other, and with the conditions that have succeeded in bringing out the worst in a city.

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