Young Ok Lee, right, hands candy to 1-year-old Adrian Lopez at her 8th Street… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
Perched behind a counter lined with candy jars and plastered with beer ads in her liquor store, Young Ok Lee has been an unlikely sentry of Koreatown for 24 years.
Up the street, there are signs of a new, hip Koreatown: A towering glass condominium selling million-dollar units. The sleek nightclub around the corner where bottle service easily runs close to $1,000. The numerous supermarkets, restaurants, bars and coffee shops constantly cropping up in an area not quite three square miles, drawing bustling, young crowds.
Lee's store serves a different clientele. Hers is the Koreatown of working-class families, mom and pop stores, and new immigrants mostly from Latin America struggling to find their footing.
Every morning at 7, the 71-year-old opens her liquor store at 8th Street and Western Avenue to greet a stream of hard-working customers whom the Koreatown boom has largely bypassed. Children poke their heads in on their way to school, knowing she will hand them pieces of candy. Neighborhood regulars and bus drivers at the end of their route hastily grab chips or pastries in lieu of a proper lunch. In the late afternoon, a rush of busboys, cashiers and nursing assistants stops on the way home for milk or soap, or cans of cold beer that she brown-bags along with marital advice.
"No mucho drink, OK? Your wife angry."
It's much like two decades ago when Western Avenue went up in flames all around her, when tears filled her eyes from the smoke and the streets were strewn with broken glass. Lee's store stayed open -- she passed out water and juice and sold everything else to neighborhood regulars at half-price. After closing, she slept curled up in the store's aisles because of the dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Her store remained untouched -- something she can't quite explain, except to say that the neighborhood looked out for her.
People said then that Koreatown, and the dreams riding on it, were over. Koreans were moving out in droves -- leaving Los Angeles behind for Garden Grove, for Denver, for Seoul.
For years, buildings remained scorched, storefronts stayed shuttered. A crime wave swept through after the riots, further rattling nerves.
Lee stayed. This was her home, her community; to leave was not an option. Where else would her neighborhood regulars get their wares?
No iron bars
When she first arrived in 1974, there were grassy, empty lots in the area Koreatown now occupies.
The large corporations that used to occupy high-rises along the Wilshire corridor began moving out in the early 1980s, and Korean businesses were trickling in, expanding Koreatown north from its historic center along Olympic Boulevard. Korean signage and billboards began lining the streets, demarcating the fast-growing community. Most of its inhabitants were like Lee, hard-working immigrants trying to make ends meet.
After first working as a seamstress, she ran a small Korean restaurant, then in 1988, opened up OK Liquor a block from her apartment.
There were robberies, shoplifting teenagers, customers who seemed hostile. But rather than erecting a plexiglass barrier or iron bars, she folded over and bowed. An-nyoung-ha-se-yo, gam-sa-hap-ni-da, she'd say, as you would in Korea. Hello, thank you. It caught on with the little kids, and soon, even the ones who viewed her with suspicion began reciprocating, bowing to her from halfway down the block.
The husband she immigrated with left her, and with no children, the neighborhood slowly became her family. She went from being called senora to mama. She picked up Spanish, her regulars picked up Korean. Photos of smiling neighborhood children and bills from around the world that customers gave her came to line the shelves behind the counter. People rushed over to help unload delivery trucks, and quietly took away the trash she left out front.
The 1992 riots that sparked in South L.A. quickly found their way to Koreatown. Still fresh was the memory of a Korean grocer in South L.A. who fatally shot a 15-year-old black girl in the back. Economic frustrations that fueled the riots found a ready target in about 2,200 Korean-run businesses in Koreatown, South L.A. and elsewhere, whose owners were criticized for their disconnection from surrounding communities. Store owners and even the consulate covered up Korean lettering on their signs, even as they struggled for an explanation, as they would for many years to come, why they had become objects of such resentment. Images of middle-aged Korean men holed up on rooftops with automatic rifles, spraying the streets with bullets, became iconic of the tensions that turned the city into a battleground.
A shoe store just down the street from Lee's store was looted, a noodle shop set on fire, a jewelry store ransacked. Whole buildings burned to the ground.