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Aiming to Put O.C. 'Koreatown' on Map

Culture: Leaders dream of day when enclave can emerge from shadow of bigger L.A. counterpart.


GARDEN GROVE — After his wrongful arrest--and subsequent release--in connection with the shooting death of a California Highway Patrol officer in July, Young Ho Choi held a news conference in the heart of Koreatown in Los Angeles to discuss his ordeal.

To Korean American leaders in Orange County, there was definitely something wrong with this picture, and it wasn't just the mistaken arrest.

Even though the shooting occurred in Fullerton and Choi lived in Buena Park, he chose Los Angeles--not the "Koreatown" right in Garden Grove--to stage his public outcry.

"The Choi issue is just another thing that shows how we'll always be under the shadow of Koreatown in Los Angeles," said Raymond Choi, president of the Korean Chamber of Commerce in Orange County and not related to Young Ho Choi. Raymond Choi and others were appeased somewhat--but not much--when Young Ho Choi later explained he was all but hand-led to Los Angeles by a Korean-language newspaper reporter based there.

Korean Americans in Orange County acknowledge that it's understandable--even expected--that their Koreatown plays second fiddle to its bigger, older sister an hour's drive to the north. The county's Korean American population of 36,000 is only a quarter of Los Angeles County's.

But on the two-mile stretch on Garden Grove Boulevard between Brookhurst Street and Beach Boulevard, where Korean-owned retail businesses and restaurants abound, community leaders said Garden Grove's Korean business district is poised for change.

They have embarked on a campaign to boost the profile of the community, raising money to build a Korean community cultural center and participating in a trade mission to Korea last year to entice investors to the area.

"Koreans who visit this country . . . stop by L.A. to visit Koreatown," said Koo Oh, president of the Korean-American Assn. in Orange County, an umbrella group consisting of Korean civic, business and religious organizations in the area. "When they say Koreatown, they only think of L.A. We're trying to change that."

Ideally, Oh and others would like to see a vibrant tourist draw--complete with large new and renovated shopping centers, hotels and a cultural center--within five to 10 years. They dream of the day when national and international visitors would speak of an Orange County Koreatown in the same breath as the other Koreatown.

Until then, some are resigned to the local business district's status as neglected sibling--and with good reasons. The doyens of the Korean American community in Los Angeles generally treat them as such, albeit without malice.

"Because the Korean community in Southern California is the largest outside of Korea, we support them--[those in] Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and Orange County--morally, spiritually and in every way we can," said Tae Hee Park, consul general at the South Korean Consulate.

But when it comes to attending functions sponsored by each community and responding to the needs of community leaders, L.A.'s size gives it an edge, Park said.

"Because L.A. is so much bigger, to be frank, we do emphasize and show preference to the people there. . . . I don't mean we neglect Orange County, we just show more favor to L.A."

Young O. Kim, a field representative in community relations for the office of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who works extensively with Korean leaders in both Los Angeles and Orange counties, concluded less diplomatically: "Orange County Koreatown is perceived to be the stepchild."

In their effort to revitalize and promote their Koreatown, Orange County Korean American leaders are taking a delicate approach. In the past, residents who are not of Korean ancestry have opposed turning the district into an official tourist and business area.

In raucous city meetings over the years, many old-time area residents said such a district, with its clusters of Korean-language signs, would make them feel isolated in their own neighborhood.

"We have to tread very carefully and be sensitive to these concerns," said Euiwon Chough, an Anaheim businessman and member of the Korean chamber of commerce. "We want to harmonize, to unite. At this point, we don't want to disturb the harmony that we've tried to establish all these years."

Even now, the moniker Koreatown can invite protestations, so leaders and city officials are careful to qualify the area as the "Korean business district."

City Councilman Robert Dinsen, who has sided with those opposing further development of the district, said his office no longer receives as many calls and letters from people against the idea as it did in the late 1980s. It was around that time, Dinsen recalled, that Korean-owned businesses began cropping up, and residents were not comfortable with foreign-language signs that accompanied them.

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