Tag Archives: koreatown

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Escala Fuses Colombian, Korean Flavors

Above photo: A view of Escala, a Colombian Korean restaurant, from the DJ booth. (Photo by Jennifer “J-dub” Oh)

by JAMES S. KIM |@james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

Right smack in the middle of Escala, the Colombian-Korean gastropub that moved into L.A. Koreatown’s bustling Chapman Plaza a year ago, sits a DJ booth marked with a disco ball hanging overhead. Its presence is a clear nod to the proprietor’s 20-some years working in the hip-hop music industry.

“I thought about the DJ booth before I even thought about the food,” admits OG Chino, or Chino, as Escala’s owner likes to be called. “Escala started with no concept.”

Fortunately, the entrepreneur’s strong connection to his cultural roots—as a Korean native, raised for eight years in Colombia before moving to Los Angeles—helped him figure out the food and the rest of the conceptual details for the hip late-night spot. Since opening last spring, Escala, which took over the space formerly occupied by the well-known Bohemian lounge, has already made a number of “hottest local restaurants” lists, including mentions in the Los Angeles Times, LA Magazine and Eater LA.

“It just organically became Colombian-Korean fusion,” explains Chino over a glass of beer during the lunch hour on a very sunny March day. “[My business partners] gave me total trust and freedom in thinking up whatever crazy ideas I had. And I’m pretty passionate about my Korean and Colombian roots.”

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Escala head chef Chris Oh, left, and owner OG Chino. 

In many ways, Escala reflects Chino’s personal identity as a Korean Columbian immigrant who found his passion for music and art in Los Angeles. Beyond the food, the restaurant’s décor is an amalgamation of Colombian architecture and street art, some of which Chino did himself. Customers may even find Chino, who turns 48 this June, rocking his signature fedora while manning the DJ booth from time to time.

Born Kyu-min Lee in South Korea, he was 3 years old when his family immigrated to Bogota, Colombia’s capital, where his father ran a foundation fostering cultural exchanges between the South American country and Korea. The personal exchange wasn’t always easy for Chino, though.

“Being raised in Colombia … I didn’t have any Korean friends at all,” he recalled. “But at home we were raised very Korean. Our food was very Korean; my mom could not cook Colombian food for sh-t. As much as we asked her to, she couldn’t do it.”

When Chino was 11, his family moved once again—this time, to Los Angeles, and settled in what was a very young Koreatown. But with gang culture so prevalent at the time, growing up in L.A. wasn’t easy.

“If you wanted to be cool, you were either in a gang or you were a punk rocker, or something like that,” Chino said. “Because I only spoke Spanish, and I didn’t speak Korean well, I didn’t have any Korean friends. I ended up hanging out with the cholos, the Chicano gangsters. That’s where I got my name from.”

But when the hip-hop wave hit Los Angeles in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was a life-changing time for the teenage Chino. Rather than rolling with gang members, he immersed himself in hip-hop culture, including buying records, practicing street art and hanging out with the early b-boys.

“Getting out of the gang scene and into the hip-hop music scene in L.A. gave me a whole new passion and gave me guidance: This is what I wanted to do,” he said. “It sounds corny to say, ‘Hip-hop changed my life,’ but this happened at a time when hip-hop didn’t exist in L.A., and we saw it happen.”

Cul-Food-AM15-Escala2 Visitors to Escala can spot the owner, OG Chino, by his signature fedora hat. (Photo by Mark Wales)

In 1988, Chino opened B-boy Records, a record store in South Central Los Angeles. Even though the store failed after two years, Chino’s reputation in L.A.’s hip-hop circles led to a meeting with legendary music mogul Rick Rubin, who had left Def Jam Recordings to found Def American Recordings (now American Recordings) in Los Angeles. After an internship with the record label, he was eventually hired as its marketing director. In 1992, Chino promoted his first record: Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

In addition to marketing, he created album artwork for a number of Def American artists, including Kwest Tha Madd Lad, Chino XL and Art Of Origin. After leaving the label, Chino worked independently as a music promoter and artist, and moved to New York in 1996, because “every hip-hop lover wants to move there at some point,” he says.

Over the years, as part of his work as a music promoter, Chino would organize many late-night parties, and that planted the idea in the back of his mind that one day he might want to open his own bar. So, when his sister, Kay Jin, approached him in 2013 with an open space at Chapman Plaza, the wheels began turning.

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B-boy Records. Photo courtesy of OG Chino.

“The space was offered to me to come on board and do something with it—and it already had a bar,” Chino said. So, he left New York and returned to the city that gave him his name.

When it came to who would lead Escala’s kitchen, Chino had an ear to L.A.’s foodie culture, and he knew that people followed chefs like he followed DJs.

“It would have been very easy, and maybe a lot cheaper, getting an older Colombian lady and Korean ajumma in there to cook together, and they would have come up with the perfect fusion,” Chino said. “But instead, I’m investing in Chris [Oh], and so far it’s been great.”

Oh, whom TV viewers may recognize as one-third of the winning team Seoul Sausage, from Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race Season 3, did his own research on Colombian cuisine and took some notes from Chino, but the resulting menu is very much the chef’s take on Colombian food. “It’s still Chris Oh,” Chino said. “That’s what I like about it.”

And he’s apparently not the only satisfied diner. “We get a lot of Colombian people,” Chino said. “L.A. doesn’t have a Colombian community in one neighborhood—they’re all spread out. Escala has become a place for them to come and gather.”

Cul-Food-AM15-Escala3 Escala’s marinated 16 oz. bone-in rib eye steak. (Photo by Jennifer “J-dub” Oh)

CevicheEscala’s ceviche, which includes tilapia and shrimp, roasted corn, asian pear, avocado and aji. (Photo by Jennifer “J-dub” Oh)

logo_cocktail One of Escala’s signature cocktails, the “El Jefe.” (Photo by Jennifer “J-dub” Oh)

For Korean palates, they may find both familiarity and discovery in the kimchi and chorizo fried rice empanada, which comes with a side of kimchi aioli, as well as the K-town Rice Con Pollo, a fusion of kimchi fried rice and Colombian arroz con pollo. For pork belly lovers, the Chicarron & Guac dish offers a change of pace from your regular samgyupsal, as the thick cuts of pork are prepared Colombian-style, along with some freshly prepared house guacamole.

Such creative touches expand beyond Oh’s work in the kitchen to Escala’s every nook and cranny. In figuring out the ambience for the restaurant, Chino went with what he knew and loved.

“I was really inspired by Bogota—its architecture is very beautiful, colonial, but at the same time, rustic, decayed—but decayed in a very organic, beautiful way, with a lot of street art on the walls,” he said.

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The phonograph centerpiece, designed by Steven Garcia and OG Chino. (Photo by Jennifer “J-dub” Oh)

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The Escala interior. (Photo by Jennifer “J-dub” Oh)

The terra cotta rooftops along the walls and the water fountain, along with the tall, wide windows that remain open with a full view of 6th Street and Kenmore Avenue lend themselves to that theme.

For the interior artwork on the walls, Chino reached out to local street artists, including an old friend who painted his record store back in 1988. Most of the furniture, from the benches and tables to the bar itself, came from reclaimed redwood from East Los Angeles and were built by hand. Escala was a creative space even before it was officially open, and Chino said he takes pride in that.

“I wanted it to be a very multicultural place, and it’s totally that and then some,” he said.

“My father was [behind] a lot of the inspiration for bringing Korean and Colombian cultures together,” he added. “We just talked about the possibility of starting an Escala in Bogota. If I do well here, I think that would be step No. 2.”

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This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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Sponsored Post: KYCC Rallies Against Illegal Pot Dispensary in K-Town

Above photo: KYCC Prevention Education community organizers protest an unauthorized marijuana retail store in Koreatown.

On Feb. 24, the Koreatown Youth + Community Center (KYCC)’s Prevention Education unit joined with local businesses and residents to protest the construction of an illegal marijuana dispensary in Koreatown.

The dispensary, The Dank Station, is being built near the intersection of 8th Street and Western Avenue, and is in the same building as several small businesses, including KYCC “Card under 35” Community Partner 8th St. Liquor. Despite much protest from the businesses to the building owner, the construction for the dispensary has continued unabated.

Approached by the local businesses for help, KYCC contacted the City Attorney’s office, which confirmed that The Dank Station was not listed as an authorized medical marijuana vendor. Confusing city legislation and zoning laws have enabled multiple unauthorized dispensaries to open; limited resources are available to enforce the law and close the shops.

KYCC joined to protest the dispensary due to its close proximity to Wilshire Park Elementary School, the Pio Pico branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and KYCC’s youth center.

“It is important to send messages that promote a healthy lifestyle to youth during their formative years,” says KYCC Community Organizer Carol J. Lee. She cites evidence that shows youth who walk by alcohol advertisements or marijuana dispensaries on a daily basis have increased chances of experimenting with controlled substances.

Koreatown is oversaturated with advertisements that promote alcohol and alcohol establishments. “KYCC wants to help our neighbors and local businesses create family-friendly spaces throughout Koreatown to promote community health, wellness and safety,” says Lee.

KYCC’s 2015 Summer Day Camp Enrollment Begins

 

Every year, KYCC’s Summer Day Camp (SDC) becomes home to nearly 100 kindergarten to fifth grade students who come from all over Los Angeles County to join teachers and volunteers for a summer filled with academic workshops, enrichment activities and field trips. KYCC partners with various organizations (like Cedars-Sinai’s Healthy Habits and Book Moms) and enrolls 80 to 100 high school volunteers to provide a high-quality summer program for all of our campers. We employ small group and play-based learning methodologies and strive to expose our campers to a wide variety of experiences. Enrollment for this year’s camp begins in April! For more information, please contact Vicky Chung at vchung@kyccla.org or call (213) 365-7400, ext. 5118.

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Take a Visit to Farmer’s Daughter Hotel

by JIMMY LEE

Like so many in Los Angeles, the Farmer’s Daughter is getting a facelift. And although this boutique hotel still has its sharp looks that attract a high-style clientele, the establishment is going under the saw, as well as sledgehammer and paintbrush, for the second time in less than 20 years.

The oversized pitchforks and pails that have hung on some of the exterior walls are coming down, as kitschiness is being replaced with a more understated interpretation of rustic farmland and Americana. Common areas are being opened up, like the lobby, with pop-up retail selling items from local artists and designers being thrown into the mix. Guestrooms are being redesigned to have open floor plans, with no walls between the bed and the glass-enclosed commode — you’ll have to close the curtain if you desire privacy.

Screen-Shot-2015-04-28-at-2.42.31-PMOne of the redesigned rooms at the Farmer’s Daughter. (Photo courtesy of Farmer’s Daughter Hotel)

For Ellen Picataggio (née Cho) and her husband Peter, who own the property, these new changes are just part of an ongoing evolution at Farmer’s Daughter, located in a prime location next to The Grove, the historic Farmer’s Market and CBS Television City, to better reflect the brand they want to project.

“We love the idea of country as being interpreted as traditional values and a deep-rooted salt of the earth-type thing. But it’s also trailblazing and not close-minded,” says Ellen, describing the brand’s image. “If you think of the early settlers, they are ‘tradition’ to us. But they were [also] visionaries and gamblers and dreamers.”

So now Ellen is injecting her own vision into these renovations. She’s commissioned artists to produce a different diorama with the theme “What does the farm mean to you” for each room. “The way I design is I start with a story,” says Ellen. And with the tagline of “The farmer’s daughter is all grown up,” the dioramas, along with the new decor and its nods to mid-century modern style, seem to suit the hotel’s story fittingly. But if not for a family tragedy, the story of how the Farmer’s Daughter came to be could have been much different.

Screen-Shot-2015-04-28-at-2.42.14-PMAn Art-O-Mat vending machine. (Photo courtesy of Farmer’s Daughter Hotel)

Ellen has a long background in hospitality. After emigrating from Korea, the Cho family bought Surftides, a seaside resort in Lincoln City, Oregon. Growing up, starting from the age of 10, Ellen worked every facet of the hotel, from the laundry room and housecleaning to managing the restaurant.

But Ellen craved creativity and, specifically, a career in fashion. “I wanted nothing of the family business,” she says. She eventually became an operations manager for a clothing manufacturer based in Berkeley, California, overseeing production overseas.

Her parents meanwhile had bought the Farmer’s Daughter after they had retired to Los Angeles, with the plan of having Ellen’s older sister run it. Her death in a car accident about one year after its purchase, however, changed everything.

“When [my sister] died, we just kind of fell in line,” says Ellen, who quit her job and moved to Southern California to take over the hotel. “It wasn’t a choice at that point.” She asked Peter, whom she was dating at the time and who worked for a software company in Silicon Valley, to help run what was a far different establishment in the mid-1990s.

“Hookers and drug addicts, that’s what it was,” says Peter, describing the clientele back then.

But soon enough, Ellen and Peter began making changes. “[Peter] really pushed my dad, and my parents were very reluctant,” says Ellen. “Can you imagine going to Korean parents — and we’re making money — saying, we need to borrow a million dollars because we’re going to renovate it. And they’re saying, ‘Why?’ That was a really hard thing.”

Screen-Shot-2015-04-28-at-2.42.53-PMTart (Photo courtesy of Ross Laurence)

After their first remodel in 1999, revenue doubled, so they were clearly onto something. They then took on the task of converting an adjacent storage shed into a restaurant and bar called Tart, which in turn would introduce them to a chef named Nick Erven. Erven clearly had larger ambitions, and the Picataggios decided to invest in Erven when it came time to open his own restaurant.

“The guy can cook his ass off,” says Peter. “I can’t [cook like] that, but I want to partner with someone who can.” So last summer, Saint Martha, named for the patron saint of cooks and servants, opened in a nondescript strip mall in Koreatown, with Erven’s modern cuisine earning stellar reviews.

Screen-Shot-2015-04-28-at-2.43.10-PMSaint Martha (Photo courtesy of Mike Kelley-Ryan Phillips)

What has also gained people’s attention is Ellen’s interior design for the space. There are no windows and mostly monochromatic, bare walls — “colors that you would imagine in an old convent or old church,” describes Ellen. But then there are decorative pieces like an oil painting of the saint, but with a tattoo down her neck, giving the space a sense of irreverence. “That is what Nick is to us: He’s that mixture of classic yet totally punk rock,” says Ellen.

So from designing restaurants to hotels, Ellen has become the creative force that she had always envisioned for herself. “I got to do the things I wanted to do in a very roundabout way,” she says. “But I’m not dead yet, and I’ve got that sewing machine [Peter gave me for Christmas]. And I would say the next part of my life is hopefully really focused on some fashion or retail world.”

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Originally published on Audrey Magazine

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Second Round with ‘Ktown Cowboys’

Pictured above: Ktown Cowboys’ director Daniel Park (left) and actor-writer Danny Cho. (Photo by Mike Lee)

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo
reera@iamkoream.com

If you need a crash course in navigating the mystifying nightlife of Los Angeles’ Koreatown, then look no further than bromantic indie dramedy, Ktown Cowboys.

Directed by Daniel “DPD” Park, who created the web series of the same name, the Entourage-like film unravels like a cinematic guide to a night out in one of L.A.’s trendiest neighborhoods, complete with karaoke hostesses, “booking” clubs, after-hours soju bars and a secret Korean Uber service that drives intoxicated customers home.

In addition to its visual pageantry of excess, Ktown Cowboys (partly influenced by the Hollywood dramedy, Swingers ), is an adult-coming-of-age story that follows around five Korean American male besties in their late 20s who struggle with transitioning into adulthood and sort out life issues over rounds of Hite and soju in K-town’s late-night spots.

Although the film made its world premiere March 15 at South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., the film will be coming full circle on April 25, when it opens to a Los Angeles crowd at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Park says his film, which plays out like a sleek music video with gorgeous lens flares and a hypnotic soundtrack.

“There’s a certain mystery about K-town when you expose people to it for the first time. It’s exciting,” Park says, during an interview with KoreAm at Tom ‘N Toms café, shortly before SXSW.

Unapologetically raunchy with melodramatic beats, Ktown Cowboys puts its characters in slapstick predicaments, mostly involving awkward or sexual situations. But each is pursuing an American Dream that’s hindered by the cultural obstacles of growing up as a Korean American.

KTCB_ProductionStill_5656 copy(Photo courtesy of Ktown Cowboys)

The film stars Shane Yoon (“Jason”), who plays the reluctant heir to his family-run company, which is on the brink of collapse thanks to an embezzlement scheme perpetrated by the CFO; Sunn Wee (“Sunny”), an aspiring entrepreneur who dutifully runs his ailing father’s liquor store; Danny Cho (“Danny”), a business consultant who quits his job to pursue comedy; Peter Jae (“Peter”), a studying fashion design; and Bobby Choy (“Robby”), also known as Big Phony, plays an adoptee stuck in a dead-end job who struggles to connect with his Korean roots.

As the original web series centered on the camaraderie of hard-partying Korean American buddies, Park thought it was fitting to cast his friends—even though most of them were not professional actors (the film features the same principal cast).

“All I wanted to do was find a group of friends that were genuinely friends and capture [that] energy,” he says. “I knew the guys. I thought they all had different personalities that balanced each other out, [and] that was really fun to watch.”

Five years ago, Ktown Cowboys was merely a web series shot on a shoestring budget. Park and Danny Cho, the series’ writer and co-star, were inspired to create the series based on Cho’s stand-up comedy sketch on YouTube, in which he dresses in drag and mimics a “K-town girl” accent, a combination of Valley Girl and Korean.

The longtime friends decided it would be worthwhile to make a more in-depth series based on their high school and college experiences, despite having no prior experience in narrative filmmaking. Back then, Cho was hustling as an up-and-coming comedian after quitting his day job as a business consultant, while Park created online content for recording artists.

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DPD (left) and Danny Cho. (Photo by Mike Lee)

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Park admits. “We had never done any video stuff before, so we just wanted to try it. It was the first time we had ever [attempted to portray] K-town in a narrative format.”

The Ktown Cowboys web series quickly earned a cult following for its light-hearted cultural tips, such as how to use the honorifics hyung and oppa (“older brother,” depending on the gender using it), and which songs not to sing at karaoke (beware of ‘80s Korean ballads). The series grabbed the attention of Korean American Hollywood veterans, including Ken Jeong (the film’s executive producer) and actors Daniel Dae Kim and Steve Byrne, all of whom make cameos in the feature film.

Yet, despite the enthusiasm over the web series, Park was initially reluctant to create additional narrative content, due to some major life changes shortly after the web series’ release. In early 2010, he had broken up with his girlfriend, who edited the web series, quit the multimedia company he was previously working for and started a video production company with the band, Far East Movement. Park toured with the band for a full year during their “Like a G6” promotional campaign, just as Ktown Cowboys webisodes began airing on YouTube.

It was only after Cho found financiers interested in funding a Ktown Cowboys movie for about a million dollars that Park had a change of heart. But, by this time, four years had passed since the web series’ peak, and Park, having reached his early 30s, felt like he had outgrown the partying scene.

“When I made the web series, it was already based on memories of when I was younger. So, by the time I was shooting, I was already 31, maybe 32?” the director says. “And I was starting to feel silly about making a movie about just partying and f—ing around.”

That’s when Park decided to try giving his characters more depth. “Everyone else liked the idea of also bringing in another side to who these [characters] are,” he says. “What do these people who party in K-town do during the day?”

The question led Park and the screenwriters to base the characters’ narrative arcs on the actors’ real-life experiences, the bulk of which focus on the harsh realities of turning 30 and meeting the expectations of their Korean immigrant families.

Park’s own family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea with “$700 in their pockets and a minimal understanding of English,” the director writes in a statement. “Although we eventually moved out of K-town, my grandparents, my friends and my heart remained there.”

“I think when you see the characters with their jobs and their family situations, [the film] is very, very relatable to Korean Americans,” Park tells KoreAm. “Sunn, the guy who plays Sunny, for example, that’s his liquor store in the movie. That’s his family liquor store that he’s running with his dad, but he hates it. He hates working at a liquor store.”

“Being a Korean American kid, you are your family’s retirement plan,” Park continues. “You kind of have that [thought] at the back of your mind: ‘I need to be able to support my parents and my family eventually.’ There’s that pressure. Some of that is kind of what you see happening to the characters subconsciously.”

There will undoubtedly be people who criticize the film for portraying Asians in a certain, hard-partying light, Park says. But regardless of whether the film is well-received or panned, the director believes that simply creating the film was the most important part for him.

“I’m just really thankful and happy that we had the chance to make this. It really was a community effort,” he says. “I came from a total non-film background. I picked up a 5D with a couple of friends one day and said, ‘F—k it, let’s make this thing about K-town.”

Watch the theatrical trailer for Ktown Cowboys below:

KoreAm Journal is giving away 5 tickets for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival screening of Ktown Cowboys on Saturday, April 25. Learn how to enter the giveaway here

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Recommended Reading: 

“The Boys of Ktown” – KoreAm Journal’s July 2010 feature story

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Sponsored Post: KYCC Supports Women Entrepreneurs

Above: KYCC Business Counselor Young-Gi Harabedian (right) leads small business workshops and consultations in Spanish, Korean and English.

KYCC Program to Promote Women-Owned Businesses

This spring, the Small Business Development Program at the Koreatown Youth & Community Center (KYCC) is promoting our Women’s Business Center (WBC) to encourage and support women entrepreneurs in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. KYCC, as part of the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program (APISBP), received a federal grant in 2003 to operate a WBC from the Small Business Administration’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership to foster, recruit, and assist women entrepreneurs.

Our four APISBP partner agencies are Chinatown Service Center, Little Tokyo Service Center, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, and Thai Community Development Center.

“Since there is a tendency for the business climate to be male-dominated, it is crucial to provide networking opportunities, resources and tools to women business owners,” says KYCC Business Counselor Young-Gi Harabedian. “We are looking to create an environment where women entrepreneurs—particularly those who are economically or socially disadvantaged–can exchange their ideas, concerns and best practices to help each other thrive.”

In 1988 the SBA established the Women’s Business Center (WBC) Program to better help women overcome continuing barriers to success. Today there are WBCs in almost every state. KYCC’s WBC offers comprehensive training and counseling for women entrepreneurs to help them start and grow their own businesses.

The return on investment of the program is high, as businesses that receive assistance from WBCs have significantly better survival rates than those that don’t receive similar support. These successful businesses directly affect the communities in which they are located by bolstering the local economies.

Currently, the majority of KYCC’s Small Business Development Programs clients are male (51 percent), but Harabedian hopes that by building up recruitment and marketing efforts for women entrepreneurs the percentage of women’s involvement will increase.

She adds that though these efforts are underway, the SBDP, a program of KYCC’s Community Economic Development unit, is not segregated by gender. The SBP, which has offered workshops and one-on-one counseling for Korean American and Koreatown businesses since 1992, is open to any first-time or current business owners who are in need of assistance.

As the new KYCC Business Counselor, Harabedian is particularly adept at this role, given her professional background in local government, private sector agencies and media organizations. She is also fluent in Korean, Spanish and English, which enables her to provide trilingual business counseling.

Clients spend hours in one-on-one business counseling sessions, monthly workshops and an eight-week Entrepreneurial Training Program (ETP) concentrating on industry-specific topics that provide key resources and tools.

One of the strongest components of the program is brainstorming, receiving feedback and accessing resources to create a sound business plan, which can be a daunting first step for many small business owners.

In March 2015, KYCC’s SBP workshop reviewed licenses and permits to start a business in the City of Los Angeles, and detailed the local government agency’s process. A second workshop discussed target audiences, multicultural marketing, and public relations. Wells Fargo Bank delivered a third “Access to Capital” workshop, which outlined step-by-step procedures to qualify for small business loans.

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Free Trees for L.A. Residents!

Lower your electric bill, reduce air pollution, provide habitat for birds, raise your property value, and beautify your neighborhood this spring by planting a tree! KYCC can plant a tree for FREE for Los Angeles City residents. Through our partnership with Los Angeles CityPlants, residents can adopt up to seven free trees for their property. For more information, contact KYCC Environmental Services Manager Ryan Allen at rallen@kyccla.org.

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Link Attack: Roy Choi in Watts; Dogs Rescued From Meat Farm; Custom Emoji Keyboard

Video: Roy Choi Wants the Next Food Revolution to Start in Watts

The first location will be in Watts at a site that used to be smoke shop and a barbershop. Choi says that his team wanted to open a location somewhere in South Los Angeles, and they ended up focusing on Watts because of the sense of community they found there. (LAist)

Dogs Rescued from South Korean Meat Farm Brought to San Francisco

Thirteen frightened young dogs and puppies arrived in San Francisco in a van Thursday, some trembling, tails between their legs, others with sad but hopeful eyes, and all of them unaware of how close they came to an agonizing, gruesome death. (SF Gate)

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Memoji Keyboard Allows You To Emojify Yourself

Johnny Lin, an ex-Apple engineer, created a way for users to upload their own faces as emoji. Angry Asian Man Phil Yu tries it out.

‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ is Doing Shockingly Well in South Korea

Why is the movie such a huge hit in the South Korean film market? Cinema Blend speculates the reasons, from the visuals to the high fashion costume design to director Matthew Vaughn’s popularity in South Korea.

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23 Most Anticipated Korean Films of 2015

Modern Korean Cinema lists the Korean films they’re most looking forward to this year.

Homebrew and House Parties: How North Koreans Have Fun

“Despite restrictions on money and free time, partying is integral to North Korean culture. But how does it compare to cutting loose in the South?” writes The Guardian.

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Korean Star Jung Ho Kang May Be Much Better Than Advertised

“In so many words, clubs just didn’t see many reasons to be optimistic about Kang,” writes Bleacher Report. “But as early as it is, one wonders how many are thinking differently these days.”

Searing Complaint Against Korean Church

The Contra Costa Korean Presbyterian Church is being sued for negligence in their hiring of a youth pastor, who the plaintiff claims repeatedly sexually molester her and her sister.

Shinhan Bank President Cho Yong-byoung Pledges to Solidify Status as Leading Bank

In his inauguration speech on March 18, Shinhan Bank President Cho Yong-byoung emphasized, “I will solidify our status as a leading bank.”

Cho said, “Through ceaseless innovation, we must create new opportunities and values and maintain the highest level of profitability and soundness.”

GM Canada Gets New General Counsel and Assistant GC, Peter Cho

It won’t be Cho’s first time behind the wheel of an automotive law department. He was most recently general counsel, corporate secretary and head of government relations at Volkswagen Group Canada, and has also has worked with Volkswagen Group China and Kia Canada.

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K-Town Landmarks Hope to Begin Summer Construction

The Olympic Gateway, a long-projected landmark for Los Angeles’ Koreatown, as well as the Madang project at Da Wool Jung, are expected to begin construction as soon as mid-May.

Korean Calligraphy Exhibition Open at Chicago Korean Cultural Center

On display are about 70 works by students of Kit-beol Village Calligrapher Lee Chul-woo. (Korea Times)

Four Korean American Officers Join Fairfax County Police Department After Graduating Academy

Arthur Cho, John Hong, Seung Meang and Shane Oh were among the 60 new police officers and deputies who graduated from the academy. This is the first time in the history of the department that an academy class had this many Korean-American graduates. (Centreville Independent)

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Beers and cheers

Protecting Youth from ‘Culture of Drinking’

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han
steve@iamkoream.com

Our living room wasn’t very big. It was just spacious enough for a 16-inch analog television and a couch, but in that small space, my father also kept a pair of wooden display cases to house some of his most prized possessions: a collection of imported spirits. Even as he maintained an after-work ritual of drinking inexpensive soju on a nightly basis, he saved those bottles behind the glass for very special occasions, such as holiday gatherings or when guests visited our home.

When my father offered me a sip of his whisky for the first time when I was 10, I felt like it was a rite of passage, as if he were ushering me into manhood. Years later, when I was a high school student and my father was visiting me in L.A. (by that time, he was living and working in Korea), I remember him inviting me to do shots of soju with him after dinner. By that point, I think he assumed that I regularly drank with my friends, even though I was just a teenager.

My early exposure to drinking alcohol is probably familiar to many Korean Americans, who, starting at a young age, often witness how much alcohol is valued, celebrated and considered a key part of socializing and enjoyment with friends and family—or even bonding with one’s dad. For an ethnic community known to stigmatize issues ranging from mental health to cancer, there seems to be a remarkably casual attitude and permissiveness toward exposing young people to this culture of drinking, even excessive drinking.

Throughout his childhood, Sam Joo, a second-generation Korean American who grew up in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, remembers attending family parties where “there was always a lot of drinking going on,” even though there were children ranging from ages 9 to 11 present. The kids weren’t drinking the liquor, but still, Joo said, “You observe this, and you [as a child] equate that as normal, acceptable behavior.”

Unfortunately, Joo is well aware of the impact this kind of permissive, often encouraging, attitude toward alcohol consumption can have on young people, its harmful effects lasting well beyond their adolescent years. A former residential counselor and prevention specialist at the Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP), he now oversees efforts to stem underage drinking at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC), where he serves as the director of Children and Family Services. At the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, he and his colleagues are trying to send a far different message about alcohol consumption than what many Korean Americans may have learned in their youth: this celebrated culture of drinking isn’t “normal, acceptable behavior,” and neither is underage drinking.

“Alcohol is almost a gateway,” said Joo. “Even though drug addicts are addicted to cocaine and heroin, consuming alcohol from an earlier age is a very big part of their addictions.”

During his days working at AADAP, which provides treatment and rehabilitation for individuals struggling with substance abuse, Joo recalled meeting an 18-year-old Korean American client who was addicted to cocaine and crack. “He began ditching classes in junior high, and he would go over to his friend’s house [to drink],” described Joo. “He told me that it all started with drinking beer. Then he moved on to hard liquor, and it eventually led to drug use. Later on, he even had a brand new car, but he ended up selling it for $500 for drugs.”

With real-life examples like these, it’s no wonder the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies underage drinking as a major public health problem. More so than tobacco and illicit drugs, alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States. Studies show that people between the ages of 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States, but that 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinking, according to the CDC.

A 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, based on statistics collected by the CDC, state and local agencies, found that 35 percent of high school students drank alcohol in the past 30 days, 21 percent binge drank (five or more drinks in one sitting), 22 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol, and 10 percent drove after drinking. Again, the effects can be long-lasting, as with the case Joo mentioned. Youth who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21, says the CDC. It is well-documented that underage drinking also increases the risk of physical and sexual assault, and is also associated with overall risky sexual behavior, academic failure and smoking.

In addition, because there are so many physical and developmental changes occurring during adolescence, underage drinking can lead to brain shrinkage, stagnant formation of connections between nerve cells and even a prominent loss of existing connections in the brain, according to researcher Linda Patia Spear, who specializes in alcohol’s effects on adolescents at Binghamton University.

The consequences can also be deadly. Every year, an estimated 5,000 people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning and other injuries, including falls, burns and drowning, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Yet, despite all of these dangers, Korean American community advocates say that, unfortunately, parents, who should be the messengers and disciplinarians on this issue, are often part of the problem.

“I have families come in for counseling services, and if a situation involves the child drinking alcohol, a lot of the parents didn’t seem as upset, compared to times when the situation involved their kids doing poorly at school,” said Joo.

“I think the perception of smoking has slightly changed [in the Korean American community]. I think there’s a recognition that ‘I don’t want my kids to smoke,’” he added. “But I don’t think drinking has caught up to that yet. I think that it’s still much more acceptable.”

Edith Bedolla, who counsels mostly Korean and Latino parents and teens about underage drinking at KYCC, said she’s encountered many parents who didn’t even know the legal age for drinking in the U.S. is 21. “Parents often think, ‘Well, where I come from, whether it’s Korea or Mexico, the legal age for drinking is 18, so here, I let my child drink because they’re under my supervision,’” said Bedolla.

One of her roles is to teach youth skills to better communicate with their parents, so they can talk about issues like pressures to drink with friends. But she said it’s difficult when the parents don’t find underage drinking a  problem—or tend to drink quite a bit themselves.

“So we give them information about alcohol, we teach them how to communicate with their parents, and we model the behavior so that they’re comfortable talking to them,” Bedolla explained. “[But] if their parents drink, it’s going to stop them from approaching them. It’s confusing to them. They’re not sure what to do.”

While it’s almost common knowledge that a number of Korean American adults—not unlike their counterparts in South Korea—have a problem with drinking excessive amounts of alcohol (the binge drinking rate for Korean Americans is 25.9 percent, while it’s only 16.2 percent for the general U.S. population, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health and Services Administrations, or SAMHSA), various studies also indicate that an alarmingly high number of Korean American youth are drinking before their legal age.

In a recent survey of 1,043 college students under age 21, conducted by AADAP, nearly a quarter of Asian Americans said that they had considered themselves “drunk” more than three times in the past month, compared with only 12 percent of all surveyed California students. Among those Asian American students, Korean Americans represented the largest ethnic majority in the pool, with 35 percent of them consuming six or more drinks in one sitting. Filipinos, at 24 percent, were second.

In another study, the California-based Alcohol Research Group, an international organization that examines alcohol-related behaviors, more than a quarter of the 202 Korean American adolescents surveyed in Southern California in 2009 said that up to 10 of their friends drank alcohol in various settings, including at home with friends and family or at parties. Only 8 percent said that none of their friends drank. Most of the respondents were aged 13 to 17.

Kyeyoung Park, an anthropology and Asian American studies professor at UCLA, said that she’s noticed the exposure of Korean American children to alcohol is quite “blatant,” not only in the home, but in many public venues—from Koreatown parades, featuring multiple alcohol sponsor logos, to the neighborhood Korean grocery store.

“When you go to a Korean supermarket in Koreatown, alcohol is prominently displayed in the middle [aisle],” said Park. “I don’t think that’s the case in other supermarkets.”

And, in fact, it’s hard to believe it’s a mere coincidence that the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, the densest neighborhood in L.A. County with a population per square mile of 42,611, is home to many after-hours drinking establishments that often stay clandestinely open past California’s 2 a.m. curfew on alcohol sales. The central area of Koreatown, represented by zip code 90005, has 104 active on- and off-sale retailers (including restaurants, bars, grocery stores and liquor stores) with liquor licenses, according to data on the Alcohol and Beverage Control’s website. That’s more than any other district in L.A. County represented by one zip code, according to the regulatory body.

“Koreatown is known as the destination to go drink,” said KYCC’s Joo.

Kids know this, too. They also know which Koreatown liquor stores sell alcoholic beverages to underage drinkers.

“Kids have told me directly, ‘Yes, it is very easy to get alcohol in Koreatown,’” said Carol Lee, a community organizer at KYCC. She has conducted several focus groups about alcohol use among Korean American youth between ages 16 and 18. “They knew all the liquor stores that sell to minors. They knew it all by word of mouth,” she continued. “I even learned that some liquor stores charge more, like an extra five or 10 dollars, when minors come in to buy alcohol.”

“Buying alcohol is really easy,” affirmed Jeff Joo (no relation to KYCC’s Sam Joo), a 20-year-old Korean American student at Santa Monica College, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was 9. He agreed to be interviewed alongside his father, James Joo. “Even when I was in high school, I either had friends who had beer or even hard liquor at home because their parents don’t really mind them drinking, or we would just buy the drinks at stores that don’t check IDs.”

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Though there’s been a greater crackdown in recent years on liquor stores that sell alcohol to minors, a number of studies show that many Korean American youth are still accessing it mostly at stores and bars, in addition to their homes. A 2010 survey conducted by UCLA’s Department of Statistics showed that 52 percent of the 233 Korean American participants between the ages 12 and 20 said that they got their alcohol by directly purchasing it from stores. That figure is significantly higher than the same survey’s Latino participants, 30.9 percent of whom answered that they buy alcohol from stores.

In an effort to curtail alcohol sales to underage drinkers, KYCC began a program called Card Under 35 in 2012. The staff came up with the name because they suspected many liquor stores in Koreatown are guilty of not checking IDs before selling to minors. The program’s aim is to encourage businesses to card anyone who looks younger than 35.

“Many teens nowadays actually look older than their age, so we thought 35 was the reasonable age to make sure that the person isn’t under 21,” Lee said.

Funded by the Department of Public Health, Card Under 35 sends out teams of KYCC’s organizers, including Lee, to pay weekly visits to liquor stores in Koreatown, about 60 percent of which are owned by Korean immigrants. Once the business owners agree to become a part of the program, KYCC organizers then spend six weeks training them and providing various signage, such as “right to refuse” signs.

“We felt that if liquor stores can card effectively, they would be able to identify underage drinkers at the forefront,” said Sam Joo, who oversees the program. “Then, the chances of alcohol getting into the hands of minors will be limited.”

Lee said that only about 20 percent of the 100 liquor stores she has visited this year have been receptive and are actively taking part in Card Under 35. Still, volunteers aren’t giving up, and they have plans to expand the program to include bars and restaurants in Koreatown.

To be fair, even well-intentioned business owners say that it’s difficult for them to ensure that what they sell stays out of the hands of underage drinkers.

“We do what we can,” said Connie Kong, who has been running Saki Liquor on South L.A.’s Jefferson Boulevard for more than two decades. “Obviously, we check their IDs and make sure people who buy alcohol are over 21, but there’s not much businesses can do besides that. There’s always a chance that a customer is using a fake ID or maybe they’re even buying alcohol for their younger friends. There’s not much I can do once those alcoholic beverages leave my store.”

And that’s why, community advocates say, efforts like Card Under 35 also need to be matched by education for both youth and their parents, who simply may not recognize the long-term dangers of underage drinking. James Joo said that, as a parent, he wants to trust his child as much as possible.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if my son is having a few drinks with his friends, unless he overdoes it,” said the elder Joo in Korean. “As long as it’s not to a point where he’s hurting himself or people around him, it wouldn’t be a huge concern to me. It’s not as serious as doing drugs, in my opinion.”

His 20-year-old son Jeff noted that adults tend to think young people drink because of peer pressure. “But I think young people drink for the same reason grown-ups drink,” he said. “People drink to enjoy being with their friends. Even when kids in high school or college drink, I think most of them probably drink mainly to have fun, and not so much because they’re being pressured to drink.”

The Joos’ statements seemed to underscore the strong social and entertainment aspect of drinking for many in the community—and that’s why advocates say there really needs to be a fundamental, community-wide cultural shift in how alcohol consumption is viewed.

“Somehow, we’ve got to be able to take group camaraderie away from this drinking culture [among Koreans]. I think that is the biggest thing,” said John Park (no relation to Kyeyoung Park), a public health analyst at SAMHSA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that has been doing a great deal of prevention and education work about underage drinking under the campaign, “Talk. They Hear You.”

“Koreans have to come to grips with this very serious problem and deal with it [as a] community,” Park said. “In the U.S., there’s justified bias against drinking,” noted UCLA scholar Kyeyoung Park. “Heavy drinkers or underage drinkers are perceived as near-criminals in the American culture. It goes against American sensibilities. We should acknowledge that drinking isn’t [stigmatized] enough in the Korean culture.”

She added, however, that “just depriving people of drinking won’t work. We need to develop alternative ways, a cultural movement to help people to understand how fun it is to have hobbies. You don’t need to drink to have fun.”

In addition to KYCC’s efforts on the issue, some Korean American churches are promoting abstinence from drinking, while such L.A. nonprofits as Korean American Family Services are organizing forums like the one held August titled “Keep Calm and Stop Underage Drinking.” Sam Joo points out that there have also been community efforts to reframe the role of parents through such initiatives as Father School, which provides training retreats to help Korean American men become better dads—more available, reliable and compassionate. He thinks this kind of education also goes hand in hand with efforts to prevent underage drinking.

Joo compares the community’s anti-underage drinking efforts to the anti-smoking campaigns from two decades earlier. “No one thought, ever, that anyone could challenge the tobacco industry. About 20 to 25 years ago, if you told smokers, ‘You won’t be able to smoke anywhere else but your home,’ they would’ve said you’re crazy,” he said. “It took that long for that public health initiative to take hold.”

He added, “I think similar efforts need to happen with alcohol. Understanding and talking about alcohol as a detriment to achieving success has to be somehow incorporated. It has to be mentioned in the articles in the local media, it has to be talked about in talk shows.”

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This article was produced as a project of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, an initiative of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

This story was published in the February/March 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February/March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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Ruling Knocks Down Challenge to 2012 L.A. Redistricting

by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee
suevon@iamkoream.com

Just one week before the Los Angeles City Council primary races this coming Tuesday, a federal judge in California ruled against a group of Koreatown residents who challenged the city’s redrawn boundaries of electoral maps in 2012 that sliced up the neighborhood into multiple districts.

In her Feb. 24 ruling, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said she found no evidence that the city was “predominantly motivated by race” when it created the new boundaries, which the plaintiffs alleged diluted and negatively impacted the voting power of Koreatown residents.

Tuesday’s primary race for Council District 10, which spreads across L.A.’s city center and includes most of Koreatown, features two key players from 2012’s contentious redistricting process, in which L.A.’s Korean American community rallied in large numbers to protest the proposed divisions, voicing their dissent in heated public hearings.

Grace Yoo, an attorney, a leader against the 2012 redistricting and the former executive director of the Korean American Coalition, is seeking to oust District 10 incumbent Herb Wesson in this year’s election. As the City Council president, Wesson oversaw the map-making process in 2012 and is accused in the lawsuit of redrawing the lines so as to boost the percentage of African American registered voters in his district—and in so doing, splitting off parts of Koreatown’s electorate.

While L.A.’s sprawling Koreatown has never previously been incorporated into a single district, neighborhood advocates, citing historically absent Korean and Asian American representation on the 15-member City Council, urged 2012 to be the year to change that. The redistricting process occurs only once every 10 years to account for population and demographic shifts.

The rancor over the redrawn districts also stems from Koreatown residents’ frustrations with the slow pace of neighborhood improvement under Wesson’s leadership, even as the veteran councilmember has drawn campaign contributions from a sizable portion of Koreatown businesses and merchants requiring city alcohol permits.

“To this day, Koreatown has no park or recreation center, no athletic facilities, no community center, no performing arts center, no senior citizen housing, and a shortage of affordable housing,” the redistricting lawsuit filed in July 2012 stated.

Advocates, to no avail, pushed for the commercially thriving neighborhood—which the Wilshire-Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council estimates as having a population of 95,324 that is 52.4 percent Latino and 35.4 percent Asian—to be folded into a single district: Council District 13, which includes the areas of Historic Filipinotown and Thai Town, to create a more concentrated Asian American voter base.

Yet the city’s redrawn boundaries in the end reflected a new Council District 10 in the shape of a “fat turkey,” as LA Weekly put it. The new boundaries claimed most of Koreatown’s commercial corridors, preserving an important source of campaign funding for Wesson, while it folded in historically African American neighborhoods from District 9.

The redrawn ordinance was approved by the council, by a 13-2 vote, in June 2012.

Spearheaded by Yoo’s efforts, angry Koreatown residents turned to the federal court system to challenge a process they claimed was secretive, lacking transparency and blind to the community’s concerns. A redistricting commission comprised of individuals appointed by city council members, the mayor and other city officials was tasked with seeking public input throughout the process and advising the council on the new boundaries.

Named plaintiffs Peter Lee, Miri Park, Ho Sam Park, Yonah Hong and former KoreAm staffer Geney Kim—all identified as registered voters in District 10—alleged that the city’s redistricting scheme constituted racial gerrymandering by “packing” African American voters into the district and excluding Koreatown voters from a single district apportionment, preventing these residents from “obtaining a City Council resident who best represents the shared socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, public health and other common interests of the Koreatown community,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit asserted that the City of Los Angeles used race as the overriding consideration in redrawing district lines, in violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. It referenced emails exchanged between council members and statements uttered by Wesson in other settings as evidence.

Indeed, the political veteran was recorded in a ministers’ gathering after the redistricting vote as saying that, when it came to the redrawn maps, he “did the very best I could with what I had”—continuing, “I was able to protect the most important asset that we as black people have, and that’s to make sure that a minimum of two of the council people will be black for the next 30 years,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

In her 24-page ruling last Tuesday, Judge Marshall sided against the plaintiffs. She said she saw no evidence that race was the predominant factor in drawing up the new boundaries and that every change to District 10 “satisfied a traditional, non-racial, redistricting purpose.”

She also said that District 10 was “a multiracial district where no one racial group constitutes a majority” and that 2012’s redistricting only increased the district’s African American voting population from 36.8 percent to 40.5 percent, or by a 3.7 percent change.

Nevertheless, the judge made note of the fact that the evidence demonstrated that “some individuals involved in the redistricting process (namely Commissioner [Christopher] Ellison and Council President Wesson) may have been motivated by racial considerations.” (Ellison, it should be noted, was one of Wesson’s appointees to the redistricting commission.)

But, she added, “that one commissioner expressed racial concerns and one councilmember praised the redistrict ordinance after it was passed cannot be imputed to prove the city’s motivation.”

Although race can be used as a factor in the redistricting process, it cannot be the primary consideration, and it was the plaintiff’s burden to show otherwise to the court in this case.

The parties in this three-year legal battle had been awaiting a ruling from Marshall ever since last summer, when both sides moved for a judgment in the case based on facts presented in court papers.

The lawsuit consolidated a separate complaint filed by registered voters in Council Districts 8, 9 and 10 who also alleged an equal protection clause violation over the city’s inclusion of the two historically African American neighborhoods into District 10 and the formation of a majority Latino district in the 9th District. The judge also ruled against those sets of plaintiffs.

Hyongsoon Kim, senior counsel at law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and an attorney to the Koreatown plaintiffs, told KoreAm that his clients are considering a possible appeal of the ruling.

“We respect Judge Marshall’s decision but do not agree with it, given the uniquely strong evidence in this case that the city redrew city council district lines based predominantly on race,” he said. “Given that evidence, we believe Judge Marshall should have allowed plaintiffs an opportunity to present their case at trial and required the city to explain its actions at trial.”

Through a spokesman, Wesson said about the ruling, “The city attorney’s office did an excellent job advising the city throughout the process, along with our outside counsel Remcho, Johanson & Purcell. It’s now time to move on with the city’s business.”

Yoo did not respond to a request from KoreAm regarding the ruling. In an interview with USC Annenberg’s political news blog, Neon Tommy, she said, “I think it’s very important that we have another woman at the table. I think it’s important to have an Asian voice at the table. The lines are drawn so that this was not supposed to be done. I’m really one of those people that if you keep pushing me, I’m going to stand up.”

Yoo and David Ryu, who is running in Tuesday’s District 4 primary race, are the only Korean American candidates in the field for City Council this year.

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