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Koreatown Celebrates as It Seeks an Identity

September 20, 2003|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Today's Koreatown parade to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to the U.S. will pass by hundreds of Olympic Boulevard restaurants, health clubs, shops and banks that have helped the neighborhood bounce back from the 1992 riots.

The route will also show what's missing in the symbolic capital of the nation's 1 million Korean Americans.

New steps are being taken to attract visitors with tour maps, a soon-to-be revived Korean American Museum and a traditional-style pavilion designed to give visual identity to the area.

Still, many community activists and scholars say the central Los Angeles neighborhood has done too little to build lasting cultural and civic institutions that would put Koreatown on a par with Little Tokyo or Chinatown.

Just adding more signs in English, they say, would help crack some of the insularity that often keeps Koreatown an unknown territory for outsiders.

"It's an embarrassment," said Angela Lee, a Westside homemaker and mother who immigrated to Los Angeles from Seoul 30 years ago. "We have countless restaurants, fancy shopping centers and health clubs, but we can't even sustain a museum to show our history to our children."

Attorney Tong S. Suhr has similar ambivalent feelings about Koreatown, where he has lived or worked since 1955. "You can't help loving it; you can't help hating it," he said.

As a member of the national centennial committee, Suhr spent two years doggedly pursuing historic documents and photographs around the country for an exhibit that he hoped would be a centerpiece throughout the year.

He gathered a treasure trove of material depicting the Korean American experience, which began in 1903 with the arrival in Honolulu of 102 immigrants to work in sugar cane fields.

But there was no logical place to display it in Koreatown.

The Korean American Museum, which opened with fanfare in 1995, has been inactive for years because of internal rifts and financial and staffing problems.

The museum is to reopen in October, with a modest exhibit of works of Korean American artists from the Smithsonian, but too late for the centennial celebration -- and inside its third location, a 6th Street office tower, where it is difficult for casual visitors to spot the museum from the street.

Suhr is juggling a "traveling exhibit" on his own -- mostly in Korean American churches.

The centennial is a time for celebration and also a cause for soul-searching in Koreatown.

Today's parade, "Proud Past, Promising Future," scheduled for 3 to 5 p.m., is expected to feature 20 floats, 15 bands and 2,000 participants, including the grand marshal, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

The parade route -- Olympic Boulevard between Vermont and Western avenues -- will not show any trace of the devastating arson fires and looting that Koreatown suffered in riots.

One positive outcome of the 1992 riots was drawing younger and suburban Korean Americans to Koreatown, according to Eui-Young Yu, a professor of sociology at Cal State L.A.

He believes the riots created a psychological attachment, making the younger generation want to help the first-generation immigrants.

Koreatown has become more lively in the last few years, especially at night, with new sports bars, pool halls, cafes and song rooms.

Los Angeles-born Peter Choe, a 2001 UCLA graduate, who works and lives in Koreatown, said he wouldn't trade it for anything.

"I love the convenience," he said. "I like the diverse mix. Being characterized as a kind of Bohemia is so cool."

Hyepin Im, president of the Korean Churches for Community Development, a nonprofit group, said she welcomed the infusion of younger Korean Americans, but that the area still needed a lot more help to promote tourism.

Im is trying to line up investors and community support for a "pojang macha" district, a tented outdoor food court of stalls reminiscent of the ubiquitous sidewalk vendors in Seoul.

In another sign of such efforts, the Korean American Chamber of Commerce recently printed its first "Welcome to Koreatown" brochure and map in English, highlighting dining, shopping, entertainment and civic organizations.

"We want everybody to come to Koreatown and enjoy what it has to offer," said Tae-Hyen Kim, the chamber's executive director.

Progress is being made on the chamber's proposal to build the Korean-style pavilion and garden that many activists hope will become a signature focal point for Koreatown.

The project, planned for the corner of Olympic and Normandie, has $300,000 in city and private funds, Kim said, and more fund-raisers will be held in the fall.

Such steps have come relatively late in Koreatown, professor Yu said, because first-generation Korean Americans were focused on economic survival and educating their children, not civic improvements.

But Yu said there is no excuse for not posting bilingual signs and menus. "That's a minimum courtesy we should extend," he said.

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