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Spring 1995
   
Why Koreans Succeed
Heather Mac Donald
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Kyung T. Sohn was one of the first Korean greengrocers in New York City. A 1968 forestry graduate of the University of Maryland, he was unable to find a job in his profession. So in 1975, using $5,000 his brother had saved, he bought out a retiring Italian grocer in the northern Bronx. "I didn't know what romaine was," recalls the affable, pear-shaped Sohn. He asked the former owner to stay on as a wage worker for two months and teach him the business. Sohn bought a truck and learned the daily grind, rising at 2 AM to go to the Hunt's Point wholesale produce market in the Bronx, going to bed at 11 PM. His wife worked by his side.

Two years later he gave the store to his brother and bought one in Kew Gardens, Queens. A year after that, a friend asked him to take over a store in Jamaica, Queens, for $8,000. In 1981 and 1982, Sohn sold the two stores for nearly $200,000. By then he was operating the city's first Korean "cram school" for boosting test scores. 

Such unflagging enterprise, multiplied many times over, has powerfully boosted the economy of New York City. The Korean deli turned the traditional produce store—previously the province of Italian- and Greek-Americans—into an art form and put New York's shabby supermarkets to shame. Korean- Americans opened stores in inner-city neighborhoods that other retailers had long shunned. And when Wall Street boomed in the eighties, Koreans and other immigrant entrepreneurs worked around the clock providing services to the financial industry.

Korean-Americans have proved that the American Dream is still alive. "If ever I want to know where the American work ethic went, I know where to find it," says Stephen Solarsh, a business and real estate consultant who has advised dozens of Korean-American business owners. "The Koreans just keep moving in a wonderfully disciplined way. Anyone who sees them can think back to the time when our forefathers came to this country." 

The Koreans' success in New York and across the country provides a partial blueprint for how we can rebuild our cities. But of late New York's Koreans have experienced some economic and cultural jolts that make clear just how big the task of building the urban future will be.

Sitting on the balcony above their sparkling new deli on Third Avenue and 43rd Street while their two-year-old daughter scrambles up and down the stairs, Doug and Haesu Choi reflect on their life in New York. As for many Korean-Americans, that life has alternated between unstinting cooperation and cutthroat competition with other Koreans.

Haesu Choi, a statuesque woman with short straight hair framing an angular jaw, moved to New York with her family in 1975. Haesu's brother built a supermarket empire in Brooklyn that at its peak comprised five stores. Doug Choi, lanky and soft-spoken in a black leather jacket and black aviator glasses, spent 12 years in the U.S. Army as a field nurse.

A few years after their 1983 wedding, the Chois started a produce business in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Unable to get a bank loan and fed up with the red tape for a G.I. loan, Doug invested his $20,000 Army savings in two gaes, Korean communal savings pools. At each monthly meeting of a gae, members contribute whatever they can afford, usually $400 to $500. One person draws the pot, based on a list made up at the start of the gae and on how much the recipient has contributed. There is no interest on the loan, but whoever collects that night buys dinner for the 20 to 30 members. 

Stephen Solarsh says he has never seen Koreans use bank loans or other conventional financing. The gae has become less common today, however, since many immigrants now bring money with them from the sale of a house in Korea or from personal savings. The Chois raised much of the $75,000 they put into the produce store from the gae. Haesu's family contributed the rest. Haesu's brother helped Doug learn the business. Working an 18- to 20-hour day, they just covered the rent on their store and apartment. 

Having started their grocery business with help from other Koreans, the Chois soon encountered the second face of Korean business experience: ruthless Korean competition. A recent immigrant opened a produce store almost next door, igniting a brutal four-month price war. "We don't mind working hard," says Doug Choi, "but every day, we were selling 36 boxes of very good cantaloupe at a negative price margin." News spread quickly. "Everyone in Hunt's Point knew," he explains. "They said: 'Hey, there's a price war in Bay Ridge. We don't need to go to Hunt's Point; we'll just buy there!'" The Chois tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with their competitor. "Finally I burned out," says Doug. They sold in 1988.

The Chois next opened a stationery store on Second Avenue and 94th Street in Manhattan, but the business suffered from a dismal economy and the lack of a stable client base. In 1993 a friend asked them to take over his Lexington Avenue deli in trouble with the Health Department. They jumped at the opportunity and gave their stationery business—with no strings attached, they say—to Byong Lim, a friend from Maryland.

Once the Chois stabilized the deli, however, the previous owner wanted it back, leaving the Chois unemployed for six months. Donations from friends and family poured in—$500 here, $2,000 there. Eventually the Chois borrowed $65, 000 from three "gaes " enabling them to open their deli on Third Avenue in September 1994. They also owe $50,000 on 15 credit cards for equipment. With weekly revenues of $15,000, "we are just standing still. Every penny, we put back in," says Doug. "But we have to succeed because of all the people who put their trust in us and tried to help," explains Haesu.

The Chois' business experience in New York is typical. Korean-American small business is fluid and dynamic: businesses often pass between friends and family; owners who take a loss at one location try again in another. This give-and-take reinforces the mutual obligations that knit the Korean community together. 

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 28 percent of Korean-American men and 20 percent of Korean-American women own their own business—the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the country. Census data put the rate of self-employment among Koreans in New York City at 14 percent. According to the Korean-American Small Business Service Center, Koreans own 85 percent of produce retailers, 70 percent of independent grocery retailers, 80 percent of nail salons, and 60 percent of dry cleaners in New York City. The Korean food business in the New York area has sales of $300 million annually, according to the Federation of Korean Food Businesses of Greater New York. 

The flowering of Korean enterprise in the United States defies most theories of immigrant entrepreneurship. Unlike what Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer calls the "great migrating nations" of Jews, Chinese, and Italians, the Koreans have no tradition of wandering the world as commercial middlemen. Indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while commerce and banking flourished in China and Japan, these Asian neighbors viewed Koreans as neither industrious nor intelligent. 

Korea's official support for Confucianism, which disdains commerce, did not end until 1972, when military dictator Chung-Hee Park declared it contrary to the goal of economic development. Yet Confucianism gave Koreans one trait that would both propel them to the New World and ensure their success here: a passion for education. "Our main concern?" asks Doug Choi. "Education—Number One quality. Most people, that's all they think about. Even if you mop floors or work as an auto mechanic, if you have an education, you will be better." 

In Korea this commitment to learning results in close to a 100 percent literacy rate and a nearly comparable high school graduation rate. Yet the government allows only 30 percent of high school graduates to enter a university. Competition is ferocious. The primary reason why Koreans emigrate to America is to ensure a place for their children in college, preferably Harvard or Yale—household words in Korea.

Many Korean immigrants have sacrificed white-collar or professional careers, difficult to pursue here because of language and licensing barriers. Often a grocery cashier or dry cleaner is a former engineer or nurse. Retailing requires little English: "There's no need to communicate," says Doug Choi. " If you have good products, the customers know."

Few Korean immigrants had any previous retailing experience. A 1983 survey of 40 New York greengrocers by Philip Young of Pace University found that only 20 percent had run a business in Korea, none in the produce area. Ninety- five percent had college degrees—a level of education that sets Korean immigrants sharply apart from traditional immigrant entrepreneurs. Koreans' advanced degrees make up in part for their lack of business experience. "Why have a master's in engineering to succeed in produce?" asks Young. "Because small businesses require a lot of thinking to plan and organize."

Abandoning white-collar professions imposes psychological costs: in Korea, as here, status differences between professionals and shopkeepers are sharp. Some Korean-Americans are bitter that after so much hard work in the United States, their social status isn't higher. Others hold tight to their former professional identity. Bokyung Kwon, a pharmacist in Korea, opened One Merchandise, a variety store on Broadway at 98th Street, when she got to the city. "I always felt I was a pharmacist," she says of her ten years selling handbags and mufflers.

The Koreans have followed the time-worn formula for immigrant success—grueling hours, a willingness to work for low wages or profits in hopes of success later, and the extensive use of family labor, essential in a highly competitive market. "If you use someone else's labor," explains Kyung T. Sohn, "your profit goes out as wages." Of the 40 greengrocers Philip Young surveyed, all but three employed family members.

Families work together for non-economic reasons too. For the past two years, Yo Chung, 24, has managed a produce store in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Though he graduated from Queens College in computer science, he didn't even look for a computer job: he wanted to work with his 61-year-old father, a former engineer, who sits outside, watching the store. "My father could not work alone," Yo explains. "People do not want to hire older people, and he does not speak English." 

Devotion to family is part of the "social capital" that Koreans have brought to America. Parents sacrifice for their children and expect them to reciprocate. "My sons are doing well," says Doug Choi with pride. "I may not be doing so well, but they go to a good school. That's all that matters." Jane Kim, a 28-year-old tax consultant at Price Waterhouse, came to Cleveland with her parents when she was six. "I like the idea of taking care of family and one's elders," she says. "I would never put my parents in a nursing home." 

Armed with strong family ties and an indefatigable work ethic, Koreans fanned out across New York. Looking for low rents, they penetrated inner-city markets that other retailers had abandoned or neglected. "A Korean will own a business anyplace in town," says Frank Vardy, a demographer with the City Planning Department. Adds consultant Stephen Solarsh: "The Koreans know how to buy property. I've seen them go to a site and eyeball it and know exactly what they want to do." Solarsh's clients have erected thriving supermarkets in East New York buildings that had become roach-infested drug-shooting galleries. In East Harlem, Korean enterprise revitalized entire blocks with a one-two punch of a produce store followed by a fish store. This cluster then attracted other businesses. 

Korean retailers closely tailor their businesses to local demands. Grocery stores in Flatbush and Crown Heights, with their open boxes of salt cod, their banana flour, yucca, and herbal aphrodisiacs, bear little resemblance to those on Manhattan's East Side or in Queens. The Koreans pioneered the 24- hour deli for fast-track Manhattan consumption—no such business form exists in Korea. They introduced the deli salad bar when grocery sales flattened. After the first Korean entered flower wholesaling, Korean delis blossomed with flowers. The ubiquitous nail salon is another Korean creation; by taking nail care out of the full-service beauty salon, Koreans made such pampering available to middle-class women.

Koreans' eye for opportunity led to the resurgence of Manhattan's West 32nd Street. Twenty years ago the long block between Broadway and Fifth Avenue was decaying fast. Tony Pecorella, owner of Santorellos, a 60-year-old leather repair store, says his women customers had stopped coming, fearful of crime. But spotting potential, Koreans started opening businesses to serve the export-import firms clustered nearby. Wholesalers lined up along Broadway between 27th and 32nd Streets, a stretch now known as the Korean Trading Avenue, and retailers on 32nd Street.

Now the block is ablaze with Korean signs advertising restaurants, bookstores, recording studios, cosmetic stores, and printing establishments. Two lavish Korean banks sit within a short walk of each other. The ornate Stanford Hotel keeps its lobby clock on Seoul time. "The Koreans really cleaned up the street," says Pecorella. The area is safe, its restaurants busy around the clock. 

West 32nd Street is the smaller of New York City's two Korean business centers. The other is Union Street in downtown Flushing, Queens, the heart of the Korean-American residential community. Like 32nd Street, Flushing's downtown had hit hard times in the seventies. Today it is densely packed with Korean as well as Chinese businesses. Signs in Korean advertise insurance agencies, driving schools, hair salons, bakeries, bridal salons, and law offices.

Many Korean-Americans who came to New York City in the early wave of Korean immigration—from the late sixties to the early eighties—have achieved that most tangible accoutrement of the American Dream: a house in the suburbs.  "All Koreans have the dream of moving out," says John Lee, a Flushing Realtor. "If they're making money in the city, they prefer living in the suburbs, where it is quiet, clean, safe, the schools are good, and [there are] no racial problems." The high earners—attorneys and doctors—go to Long Island; merchants with stores in Manhattan look for lower taxes in New Jersey. The Korean population of Bergen County, New Jersey, increased fivefold from 1980 to 1990; Palisades Park now has a Korean business district.  The Chois spent two years scouring the metropolitan region for the best schools before settling in affluent Mountain Lake, New Jersey.

Koreans have triumphed as well by the measure of success most important to them—educational achievement. Korean students dominate the city's best schools. Stuyvesant High School is over 50 percent Asian, the Bronx High School of Science 40 percent, and the Juilliard School of Music 33 percent. Koreans are the largest Asian group at all three. Members of the second generation and "1.5 generation"—Korean-Americans born in Korea but raised in the United States—are graduating from Ivy League and other top colleges and returning to the city as attorneys, doctors, computer analysts, and artists.

Behind the younger generation's achievements lies the keen—a few critics argue, overweening-interest that parents take in their children's schooling. Haesu Choi spends two or three hours each night tutoring her two sons, ages ten and eight. "They complain that their friends get to watch TV, but I tell them because we're Asian, they have to do better," she says. During the summer the family spends a month going over math and English. But the Chois don't regard their family simply as an academic factory. "My kids are having fun," says Doug Choi with great pleasure. "In the summer they ride their bikes all over. I like to let them grow like Americans." 

Most Korean parents have no time to tutor or even supervise their children due to grueling work schedules. Whereas few wives work in Korea, here most do. But the Koreans brought with them another institution for promoting academic success, the hagwon or prep school. (The popular term—"cram school"—is viewed as derogatory by the schools' principals.) Several dozen such schools have sprung up in the city.

Kyung T. Sohn founded the first—C.C.B. Prep School in Woodside, Queens—in 1980. The school is in a small, brick building on Woodside Avenue, plastered with placards in Korean and Chinese, as well as large pictures of Sohn. Inside, every available wall is covered with snapshots of students in class and accepting awards—and more pictures of Sohn advertising his English language program on the Korean cable station. The classrooms, mostly in the basement, are unheated in the winter. 

C.C.B.'s main purpose is to ensure that younger students get into the city's competitive high schools and, once there, ace their college admissions exams. In 1994, 95 percent of C.C.B.'s junior high students were admitted to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, or Brooklyn Tech. Tuition is $595 for eight weeks of Saturday instruction, $695 for eight weeks of Tuesday and Thursday instruction. Half the Saturday students come from the suburbs, dropped off at the school, upon occasion, in Rolls-Royces and BMWs. Most weekday students are Queens residents whose parents are shopkeepers. Parents keep their children in the school for years. Fifty percent of the pupils are Korean; 40 percent are Chinese; and 10 percent Caucasian.

The school teaches math, English vocabulary and grammar, and some literature and writing. Students review the same material over and over. "By the time these kids walk into a placement exam," says one teacher, "they have no anxiety, because they've been doing it for five years." But some of the teachers—most of whom are from city schools—complain of too little emphasis on creative thinking. "This is not real teaching; it's just rote," says one. "It's too cramped and too cold to learn." Though the teachers all express admiration for the Korean parents' involvement, some feel such involvement can backfire. "The graduates of this school are neurotic," one teacher told me. "The culture is not rosy."

The students I met at C.C.B., though, seemed neither unhappy nor anxious. Unlike hagwons in Korea, the class atmosphere is informal—students banter incessantly with the teacher and each other. When the bell rings, students dash upstairs, returning to their classes with hot dogs, candy bars, and soup.

Soo Young Kang, a striking 14-year-old with a flapper haircut, has been at C.C.B. for eight months. At first Soo resisted an interview mightily, claiming poor English. In fact, she speaks fluently, though she has been in America only three years and speaks only Korean at home. Soo's father is an " international trader," she says, but also helps in her uncle's grocery store near the Kangs' home on Manhattan's East Side.

Soo has absorbed her culture's passion for education: "I wanted to come to America because of college; I heard they had high standards." Which college does she want to attend? An explosion of energy follows. "Harvard," she laughs, a little embarrassed. Her first goal, however, is to get into a competitive high school. "In a regular high school," she explains, "it's harder to get good SATs for Harvard and Yale."

Soo keeps a demanding schedule. After the three-hour session at C.C.B., she studies another two hours when she goes home. On Friday she has a piano lesson; on Saturdays, a flute lesson. Sunday she practices the piano: "It's the only whole day I have for it," she explains regretfully.

Soo says her parents never pressure her to study. But her habits belie this perception, if one assumes that studiousness is not a natural trait in children. High parental expectations are apparently so integral a part of Korean culture that children don't regard them as noteworthy.

Despite her rigorous schedule, Soo says she studied harder in Korea. "The competition and expectations are higher there," she explains. Her American classmates called her a "math nerd" when she arrived in the seventh grade, because her scores were so high. "Some kids say: 'Why do you work so hard?' If I try to explain, they don't listen. So I say to them: 'I do my stuff, you do your stuff.'" The hardest part of American school, she says, is the group projects: "They're fun, but you waste a lot of time in groups. In Korea there's more emphasis on the individual." 

Schools such as C.C.B. have quietly taken on a second function: keeping young people off the streets. That highlights a paradox of Korean immigration: though parents came to the United States for their children's sake, heavy work schedules don't leave them enough time to supervise their kids. Community leaders speak with alarm of the appearance of teen delinquency. Though an infinitesimal problem compared with other teens in the city, it terrifies parents and teachers nonetheless."

For parents who can't afford private prep schools, or students who can't pass the entrance exams, churches have stepped into the breach. The 12-year- old Chodae Church in Corona, Queens, has 85 students in day care and after- school programs. Located in a single-story box under the Grand Central Parkway, the church charges $180 a month tuition. The school helps students do their homework and meet citywide standards in reading and math. "We are also reluctantly functioning as baby-sitting," laments the Reverend John Paik, a diminutive, ebullient 72-year-old.

Several of the students I spoke with at Chodae share the enthusiasm for learning that Soo Young Kang exhibited at C.C.B. When Paik asked a class of third-graders for a volunteer to be interviewed, the room erupted. The students pounded their feet, waved their hands in the air, and cried, "Me! Me!" After a whispered consultation with the teacher, Paik chose eight-year- old Christina. Asked if she liked the church school, Christina clasps her hands together in delight. "I enjoy it very much," she says. "I get bored at public school. Here we learn math and English and have workbooks for when we finish our homework. Teachers at public schools just say 'Quiet?' or 'Sit down!' They're not very demanding. The teachers at after-school really care about us."

Christina might offer some hope to Korean elders worried about the lack of supervision. Her parents don't get home to Whitestone until nearly 9 PM from their grocery store in Yonkers, and her father leaves the house between 2 and 4 AM. But their message gets across: "They're always saying, 'Christina, you better learn something instead of watching TV.'" Her mother worries about her grades, though the worst she's gotten is a B. What if she got a D or F? A shiver of horror runs through her. "They would spank me," she whispers. Tellingly, she adds: "My parents are not very strict." Like Soo Young Kang, Christina does not perceive her parents' pressure to succeed as a burden but as a sign of concern.

Korean-Americans' worry about what happens to children when parents work such long hours is part of a larger debate about the preservation of Korean culture. The eternal immigrant tension between assimilation and cultural preservation is particularly wrenching for Koreans, whose values seem so alien to contemporary American culture. Although by American standards Korean children are paragons of self-discipline and courtesy, many Koreans find the attitudes of the young alarming. 

They're most worried about the erosion of parental authority, difficult to preserve in a nation mesmerized by youthful rebellion. Many parents have gone back to Korea because they could no longer control their children. In Korea corporal punishment is an accepted part of child rearing. But students in America learn in school that if a parent hits them once, they are victims of child abuse and must report it. Numerous Korean parents have been dragged before family court judges, to their utter humiliation.

Joseph Min, 35 and a member of the 1.5 generation, grew up in the crossfire between Korean and American culture. Now the director of the Korean Y, part of the Flushing YMCA, he came to the Bronx with his family when he was nine. At first the habits he learned in Korea stayed with him. There, he went to school at 7:30 AM; after school he went straight to a tutor for additional work; then he did his school homework. He did not watch TV. "I was so disciplined," he says. "And for the first two or three years in the Bronx, I was too." But his parents worked all the time, and they couldn't afford an after-school program. In school he "observed people loosening up and not getting as much homework." Eventually he started watching a lot of TV. 

He also learned a completely different attitude toward authority. "The thing that shocked me was the [lack of] respect of the students," he says. " In Korea the teacher is god; students don't talk back. Here, in junior high, when the teacher is writing on the blackboard, the kids just laugh and are allowed to hit each other. It took me ten years to get over my respect and joke about teachers." Says Judy Yoon, who works in her cousin's dry cleaning store in Manhattan: "My kids tell me about their friends at school, who don't respect their teachers and use very bad language. They "hate " it, just hate it. I have to keep telling them that is not the good way."

The Korean church plays a key role in cultural transmission. Many non- Christians converted in America, when they saw how central the church was in the community. Whereas in Korea only about a quarter of the population is Christian, nearly three-quarters of Korean-Americans attend church. The New York area has nearly 500 Korean churches; some have 2,000 congregants. 

The Korean Methodist Church and Institute on West 115th Street is the oldest Korean church in New York. Founded in 1921, it occupies a small townhouse on the hill down to Riverside Drive. It holds its Korean-language service in an auditorium across the street. The chapel, where the smaller English-language service is held, is a long, plain white room; quilted banners and a wooden cross hang over its simple altar. 

The church is divided by generations. Attending large Korean-language services are mainly first-generation immigrants who joined the church while studying at Columbia other local colleges. Now successful professionals, they drive in on Sundays from the suburbs. Since some are the only Koreans in their suburban communities, the church provides an essential link to other Koreans. The 1.5 and second generation make up the smaller English-language congregation. Most are in their twenties, living in the city. The young congregants, casually but neatly dressed in corduroys, khakis, and bulky sweaters, seem wonderfully self-confident; their English is fluent. All speak of a desire to hold on to their culture.

Hyung Park, 27, started coming to the church, he says, "because after college I needed an outlet to meet Koreans. Then I became more religious." A graduate of Pratt School of Architecture whose center-parted hair gives him a rakish Edwardian air, Hyung came to New York when he was six. He lives with his parents in Brooklyn and helps in their hardware store. Hyung wants to marry a Korean woman. "I would teach my children Korean. A lot of Koreans tend to lose their heritage, but I don't want to." 

Hyung's desire to marry a Korean woman is not accidental. According to Chun Soo Pyun, chairman of Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, daily conversation between parent and child consists of: "(1) study, study, study; (2) eat well, eat well, eat well; (3) best school, best school, best school; and (4) marry Korean, marry Korean, marry Korean." "My parents would have disowned me if I had married a non-Korean," says 28-year-old Jane Kim, whose husband, David, is a violinist. "I dated an American boy seriously for two or three years. My parents liked him, but they were really getting worried." 

The Korean language itself is a source of both division and unity within the Korean-American community. Korean parents show a range of responses to the eternal immigrant dilemma of how much to preserve the native language. Ann Song, a 27-year-old freelance graphic designer, speaks no Korean. She grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey, attending bar mitzvahs rather than Korean language school. When she and her parents go to dinner, her parents' friends greet her in Korean and stare disapprovingly when she is unable to respond.

The Chois spoke Korean with their boys until they were five years old. But when the boys' teacher wanted to put them into an English as a Second Language program, Haesu begged her to wait. "After that we spoke only English, " she says. Doug Choi adds: "Speaking Korean is important, but the primary thing is, they have to do well in school." By contrast, Judy Yoo, the dry cleaner, kept her children in Korea with their grandmother until they were ten so they could master Korean."

In some families, parents speak Korean while their children respond in English. For such children, Saturday Korean language school is an important means of maintaining or improving their rudimentary skills. Since Korean is inflected according to the status of the addressee, losing the language means losing a way of marking the culture's gradations of social respect. Some English-speaking children find themselves estranged from Korean-speaking parents.

Outside church, the other certain place to meet Koreans is on the golf course. "Even in the middle of the winter, you'll see a lot of Koreans playing," says Peter Choi, owner of Golf Town on West 32nd Street. Choi, a former managing editor at Korea Times, competes with six other big Korean-owned golf stores in the area. In Korea a shortage of courses makes golf very expensive. Here golf cuts across social classes. Early-rising greengrocers are on the course by 5 AM; Korean doctors hold their annual conferences at golf resorts; the few who don't play find themselves shut out of discussions. Women are learning fast, and fathers teach their children. 

For all their energy, Koreans aren't exempt from the economic cycle. While early arrivals have prospered, recent immigrants face a more uncertain future. Battered by New York's punishing taxes and regulations, more and more Korean businesses are succumbing to a stagnant economy. Between 1991 and 1994, Korean leaders estimate, at least 1,600 Korean-owned stores in the city went bankrupt. "Koreans don't announce their bankruptcy, because they feel shame and want to disappear," says Bong Jin Sa, executive director of the Korean Produce Association. "But we see the doors closed." Sales at Korean grocers have declined 30 percent in the past three years. Because three out of four Koreans depend on small business, the slowdown touches nearly every family. 

The story of Byong Lim, who took over Doug Choi's troubled stationery business on the Upper East Side, is typical. "I feel really trapped," he says. Lim and his American wife would like to close the store on Sundays, but they can't afford to forgo the $250 to $300 the day brings in. He pays $4,500 in rent and $500 in taxes each month; the city's 8.25 percent sales tax drives many would-be customers to illegal street vendors. Lim looks enviously upon the late seventies and early eighties, when Korean-American business was booming.

In good times and bad, all Korean retailers worry about crime. "I've never been to a place like this," Lim says. "You can't let your hand down for an instant." He and his wife have been threatened several times, and children are always trying to steal merchandise. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Koreans stores are disproportionately victimized because of their location in poor neighborhoods.

According to Bong Jin Sa of the Korean Produce Association, Koreans feel ashamed if they are attacked and will report only the most serious incidents. Store owners fear revenge if they call the police. If they report a crime, they rarely get satisfaction, Sa says, so they have stopped bothering. The Produce Association has launched a campaign to persuade shop owners to report all crimes and not to resist or chase criminals, who may be armed. 

But however dangerous, shop-owners feel they must fight back against criminals. Doug Choi experiences constant shoplifting. "People ask, 'Why go after someone for 60 cents?' But if I let him go, he comes again. By the time I'm leaving him alone, my store is empty." Choi has paid a price for his vigilance. In late 1994 someone filled up a tray from the salad bar and walked out of the store. Choi followed him outside and asked him what he was doing. The shoplifter knocked him unconscious. Choi's face was swollen for two weeks, and he still has a scar. 

Though Koreans don't report most crimes, news of them spreads like wildfire. In a six-month period in 1993, three store owners were killed by robbers. Koreans are still angry over the city's lack of response to the destruction of Chong Sook Kim's variety store in Washington Heights during rioting in 1992. And they remember as well the torching of Tong Kwang Kim's store and the bludgeoning of his wife in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1991. The press covers such events thinly, if at all. 

While crime is worst in the outer boroughs, the city's punishing business tax and regulatory structure hits everywhere. Small businesses in New York pay 14 different taxes. Merchants especially loathe the city's 6 percent commercial rent tax, unique in the nation. A typical grocery requires four to eight licenses—each of which requires a visit to a different agency.

Korean business associations have long sought an easing of the tax and regulatory burden on store owners. Korean leaders charge that the city views its business regulations as a revenue source, noting that a recent Giuliani administration budget earmarked $150 million in additional fines without any mention of increased offenses. Owners particularly object to the laws subjecting them to fines for dirty sidewalks.

Dispirited by all these problems, between 4 and 5 percent of the Korean population is returning each year to Korea, where word of Korean-Americans' long hours and decreasing returns has begun to spread. Those who return are in for a surprise: Koreans who stayed are doing better than those who left, thanks to Korea's booming economy. As a result, immigration has slowed to a trickle: the City Planning Department estimates that only 1,500 Koreans have been entering the city annually in the nineties. 

One final problem that is leading would-be or actual immigrants to rethink the U.S. is racial tension. Koreans who do business in the inner city have been the target of racial extortion—thinly veiled threats to "give back to the community" or face boycotts and even violence. "Koreans are the most successful business group in the black community, which is why they target us, " says Kee Young Lee, a vice president of the "Korean News.

"Though business concerns have galvanized Korean-Americans over the years, racial hostility has most sparked their political coming-of-age. "Flatbush was the first time we realized we needed political power," says Chun Soo Pyun of the Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, referring to the nine-month racial boycott in 1990 that drove two Korean produce stores in Brooklyn out of business. Black activists, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, charged that employees of the Red Apple market had beaten up a Haitian woman without provocation; the manager denied the charge. The Dinkins administration refused to enforce a court order banning protests within 50 feet of Red Apple and a neighboring store that had been drawn into the dispute. When Pyun organized a City Hall rally to demand that Mayor Dinkins enforce the order, between 7,000 and 10,000 protesters showed up; voter registration was brisk. 

But nothing has had as profound an impact on Koreans' ideas about America as the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Six hundred Korean-American businesses in South Central Los Angeles and 200 in Koreatown were damaged or destroyed; Koreans sustained 45 percent of all riot damage. In New York an armed gang vandalized a Korean dry cleaner in the South Bronx in sympathy with the Los Angeles rioters, and vandals shattered the windows of a Korean grocer in Bedford-Stuyvesant as they taunted him with a racist rap song.

Though deeply shaken, the Korean business community has turned the other cheek. In February 1993, Al Sharpton gave the invocation at the annual awards dinner of the Korean-American Grocers Association of New York. Last year the Korean Association of Greater New York sent three students selected by the Amsterdam News to Kyung Hee University in Seoul. For four years Korean grocers have distributed "love turkeys" at Thanksgiving through 3,000 churches in minority neighborhoods; they also sponsor spots on black radio stations honoring black heroes.

No other group of small-business owners is subject to such pressure to redistribute its resources, and no other has responded with such a variety of initiatives. Yet these efforts provide no more certain a guarantee against racial animosity than did similar efforts in Los Angeles before the riots. When Mayor Giuliani ousted more than 1,000 illegal street vendors on 125th Street in Harlem in October 1994, a local Nation of Islam mosque organized a short-lived "Buy Black" boycott of non-black merchants on the street. Won Duck Kim, owner of Guy and Gal clothing store, was one of the targets of that boycott. A short man with basset-hound eyes and a quick smile, Kim is hardly insensitive to black concerns: he proudly displays pictures of himself with former Mayor Dinkins, Congressman Charles Rangel, and other black leaders. Awards from black organizations line the top of one 40-foot wall. "Malcolm Lives" and Martin Luther King posters cover his cashier stand. He supports the Harlem Boys Choir. In 1990 he helped organize a nine-day trip to Korea by 37 black preachers. He advertises in the Amsterdam News, though his ads there, he says, bring him no business. Asked his opinion of the demand to "give back to the community," he merely says that "new immigrants can't jump over buildings." Tony, one of his two black employees, is more outspoken: "My boss is supporting the community by being here. He has done more than his share—he gives 300 percent. Even in Buy Black stores, the owners don't support the community." 

Many Koreans feel that their political power lags far behind their economic status. Korean culture does not emphasize democratic participation; Koreans have little expectation that government institutions can help them. Many Koreans are afraid to fill out the census or register to vote. If they do register, their grueling hours make it hard to get to the polls. Little wonder the two major centers of Korean-American population, the cities of New York and Los Angeles, have no Koreans in public office.

But that is starting to change. The Flatbush boycott and Los Angeles riots showed that hard work and discipline alone do not guarantee permanent success. After the riots, Diamond Bar, California, sent the first Korean-American, Republican Jay Kim, to Congress. Across the country 11 Korean-Americans, nearly all Republicans, hold government office.

On the local level, commercial worries have spurred some New York Koreans to get involved in politics. The Korean-American Small Business Service Center, joined by 22 other organizations, presented Mayor Dinkins and candidate Giuliani with a Korean Bill of Rights in September 1993. It demanded, among other things, an end to the commercial rent tax, stricter regulation of vendors, and protection from ethnic boycotts and violence. The Korean-American Small Business Center has been one of the most forceful voices for all small business in the city; its president, Sung Soo Kim, organized the Small Business Congress of New York.

Though Korean leaders donated over $1 million to the Giuliani campaign, many have been disappointed that so far Mayor Giuliani has taken no action on his promise to roll back the commercial rent tax, a $600 million revenue source for the city. Also galling to Koreans is city hall's promotion of mega- stores. Says Sung Soo Kim of the Small Business Service Center: "The big supermarkets abandoned the city in the 1970s, leaving a vacuum that immigrant business filled. Now they want to come back, but only with a host of unfair subsidies" such as tax abatements and energy rebates.

Despite these setbacks, some Korean-American leaders are optimistic about their community's political future. "Five years ago our political involvement was invisible," says Chun Soo Pyun. "Now it's totally different." Round-faced and balding, with a quick sense of humor, Pyun points proudly to the fact that he helped raise nearly $100,000 for Giuliani and $30,000 each for George Bush, Dan Quayle, and George Pataki.

Pyun is buoyed by the results of the 1994 elections. When he ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 1990, Koreans hadn't heard of the GOP, because it is so minor a party in Queens. "People laughed at me. 'You in wrong line,' they said." But in the two most recent elections, he estimates that Koreans voted 70 percent for Giuliani and Pataki.

Pyun is as optimistic about Korean-Americans' business prospects as he is about their political future. Asked to show a visitor the Korean community in Flushing, his first stop is Korea Town Plaza, a giant, controversial wholesale and retail outlet for Asian food and hardware. Owned by Rhee Brothers, a Korean-American corporation based in Maryland, the 100,000-square- foot, $10 million complex deeply divided the Korean community long before it opened in December 1994.

Korean leaders accuse the store of violating both the city's zoning laws and its certificate of occupancy as a wholesaler by operating a huge retail operation. In January 1995, the city Buildings Department issued Rhee Brothers two criminal summonses for zoning violations. Certainly, all the shoppers I questioned were buying for home use, and the gleaming white shelves were lined with individual portions of yogurt, pickled cabbage, and noodles. Korean grocers have formed a federation to lobby the city against the store. As Sung Soo Kim puts it, the Rhee Brothers are "carnivores trying to take away our business."

But Pyun brushes off such squabbles. Bounding through the aisles, he is clearly relishing the Darwinian struggle unfolding in Queens. "Within the entire world, the free enterprise system is springing up," he says. After Korea Town Plaza, he took me to Flushing's two chains of midsize Korean supermarkets. These stores had themselves put many thriving small owners out of business; now, to the grim satisfaction of the smaller owners, they, too, fear competition from the mega-store. But again Pyun is sanguine: "Mega- stores may destroy some businesses temporarily, but then the situation will stabilize." Besides, "Rhee is small business compared with Home Depot."

Pyun's belief in the compatibility of big and small retailers is a minority view within the Korean community. But though he understates the pain and dislocation that giants such as Rhee Brothers will cause, the evolution of Korean entrepreneurship seems, as he says, inevitable. Many Koreans are going into the wholesale business; they also set up computer systems for big stores and service their equipment. 

Despite America's racial conflicts and Korea's increased economic strength, Pyun believes the United States will continue to attract Koreans. South Koreans still fear conflict with the North, and Korea's economy is volatile. " America remains the land of opportunity," Pyun says. "It's harder to make money here, but it's steady."

Doug and Haesu Choi are more cautiously optimistic. Asked why they don't move their business out of New York closer to their home, Haesu exclaims: "I love this city. In the whole world, you can't find another like it." But she rues its decline: "It's changed so much since 1975. It's really a shame. People used to pay more attention to each other and their surroundings." Can the Koreans contribute to the city's revival? "The Koreans are still a small percentage compared to other immigrants," Haesu says. "But we hope that as the second generation grows up, they will do something to make it better." 

Stephen Solarsh agrees: "Hopefully we will get our quality of life back, and the Koreans are all part of it."

 

 

 
Does the American Dream still exist? These New York immigrants say yes. To achieve it, they found, takes the familiar American virtues.
City Journal Spring 1995.
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