Tag Archives: koreatown


Sisters Open Korean-Style Study Room in Manhattan


Anyone who’s ever needed a place to study for several hours at a time and been frustrated by the noise at coffee shops or libraries with lax security and no food or drinks allowed may find NY Study Room in Manhattan quite the sweet spot.

The website Ozy and NBC News recently featured the business, which also goes by the name NY Dokseosil, started by sisters YoungJin and Obi Lee, who were accustomed to the plethora of study rooms available in their native South Korea.

When YoungJin first came to the U.S. several years ago, she was always searching for a quiet, safe place to study, but couldn’t find anything close to the dedicated study spaces she enjoyed in Korea.


YoungJin and Obi Lee, left to right. (Photo via NBC News)

So, she and Obi decided to bring a convention from their mother country to their adopted homeland. They rented out a space on the fifth floor of a building in Manhattan’s Koreatown and began transforming it. The resulting NY Dokseosil, which opened in October of 2013, boasts plenty of individual desk spaces and meeting rooms with special, comfortable chairs that allow students to pore over their textbooks or laptops for hours without putting strain on their backs, according to Ozy.

The study room has attracted a steady flow of patrons, mostly by word of mouth, and it’s no wonder when you find out about the hourly rate. At $3 an hour, or $10 for six hours, you can study at your own pace. The majority of customers are adults studying for CPA exams or citizenship tests, and according to Ozy, one customer just passed the bar exam. Like a delighted mother, Obi told Ozy, “We’re so proud of him.”

And that’s kind of what these two ladies are to their patrons: mother figures who provide a homey spot to study with free cups of coffee. And it’s not all work; with board games, a dance studio and beds at the ready, there’s also the opportunity for some post-studying playtime—or naptime. In addition, the space offers meet-ups and can quickly transform into a cultural hub where Koreans, who make up a majority of the patrons, as well as non-Koreans can socialize and engage in a type of informal cultural exchange.


“They want a sing-a-long and watch drama together. They know a lot about Korea, but they want to know more,” Obi told NBC News, of the non-Korean patrons.

The cafe also tries to play a helpful role to Koreans who are new to the city, as evident on the NY Dokseosil’s website, which provides information, mainly in Korean, about colleges, language centers and other useful links for the newcomers.

The study room is generally open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., with extended hours available in some cases, and according to the NBC News article, can now also be rented out for gallery showings and business events.

Photos via NBC News.


Korean Fitness Trainers Take Home Top Prizes At Muscle Beach Competition


Look at dem washboard abz. 

Over two hundred strapping bodies entered the 15th annual Mr. & Mrs. Muscle Beach competition, and when the smoke cleared, two Korean trainers were among the winners as they took home  the top prizes.

Joon Ko and Jung-Seok Kim, both fitness trainers at Fitness M, a premier gym located in L.A.’s Koreatown, took first Place in Men’s Physique Tall Class category and second place in the Men’s Physique Short Class, 5’7 and under division, respectively.

“I’m so grateful I overcame the hardships that came from preparing for the competition,” Ko told the Korea Daily. “I thank those at Fitness M who helped me overcome them.”

Kim added: “As Korean Americans, being able to compete in a sport that aren’t dominated by Asians is an incredible opportunity for myself and for the Korean community.”

Aside from their glossy silver and gold medals, their resumes are quite impressive as well. Kim has a fifth degree black belt in taekwondo while Koh is a Red Cross lifeguard and certified First Aid instructor.

Mr. & Mrs. Muscle Beach started in 1999 by Joe Wheatley, a long time producer of bodybuilding shows, and has been held every year in Venice Beach.

Image via Korea Times


Link Attack: Kim Jong-un Upset at Weather Guys; Korean Spa In Dallas; SKorean Prime Minister Nominee, Take Two

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un gets angry at the weather guys
Washington Post

Another week, another bit of absurdity from the world’s most isolated state. A report in the Rodong Sinmun, a state-run newspaper, shows North Korea’s porky despot giving “field guidance” to the national hydro-meteorological service. Although it’s written in awkward communist jargon, the report makes clear that Kim Jong Un was not pleased.

He said that there are many incorrect forecasts as the meteorological observation has not been put on a modern and scientific basis…


North Korea Threatens ‘Plot-Breeding’ U.N. Rights Office With ‘Punishment’

North Korea on Monday threatened a planned U.N. field office in South Korea set up to investigate human rights abuses in the isolated country, saying anyone involved would be “ruthlessly punished”. The United Nations in March called for the field office to monitor human rights in North Korea following the release of a 372-page U.N. Commission of Inquiry report that detailed wide-ranging abuses, including systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.

Get a Big Dose of Korean Culture While You Relax and Avoid the Heat at King Waterpark
Dallas Observer

If you haven’t been to King Spa & Sauna, you’re missing out on one of the most unique cultural experiences in Dallas. Called jjimjilbangs in Korea, these sometimes gender-segregated, sometimes co-ed bath houses offer an opportunity to detoxify (whatever that means) in ornately decorated saunas, eat Korean food, have a massage, sleep, maybe even sing a little karaoke while you’re there.

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Kim Young-sam to get doctorate from Russia
Korea Joongang Daily

Former President Kim Young-sam, who played a key role in building ties with the former Soviet Union, is slated to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences today.

The degree comes 25 years after Kim’s pioneering visit to the Soviet Union, the first for a South Korean political figure, which helped pave the way for bilateral ties between Seoul and Moscow.

The Shipment, The Pit, Barbican, London – Review
Financial Times

The playwright Young Jean Lee habitually sets out to challenge herself and her audience. With The Shipment, which begins as a stylistically diverse mix of discrete scenes and routines before changing gear into drama, she, a Korean-American artist, sets out to make a theatre piece about African-American identity and experience, and dares us to… what exactly? To move past the aggressive accusations of racism in the opening spoken segment, a mock-stand-up comedy sequence that leads into a first-half “minstrel show”? To consider seriously the glib final twist in the more or less naturalistic drama that takes up the latter half of the performance? To be disconcerted out of our preconceptions?

Park Nominates Former Journalist as New South Korean Premier

South Korean President Park Geun Hye nominated a former journalist as prime minister to lead a government shakeup prompted by public anger over the Sewol ferry sinking. Moon Chang Keuk, who worked at JoongAng Ilbo newspaper and teaches journalism at Seoul National University, was picked to replace Prime Minister Chung Hong Won, presidential spokesman Min Kyung Wook said today at a televised briefing. Chung offered his resignation to assume responsibility for the April 16 sinking that left about 300 people dead or missing, most of them high school students on a field trip.

Can fans unravel the Babel of the world’s TV dramas?


A Korean TV show about an alien who arrived on Earth 400 years ago and falls in love with a modern actress becomes one of the top series watched in Hebrew and Arabic. A Thai drama about a sharp-tongued woman who ends up being the maid of a Hong Kong mafia member strikes a chord with Spanish speakers.

Viki, a site where dramas, telenovelas, comedies and movies from the globe are translated by fans, gives a glimpse into the cross section of the world’s entertainment interests. It’s where its 22 million monthly users find TV shows that have never made it on their local television sets.

Night Market Comes to Monterey Park
LA Weekly

The city of Monterey Park has approved the first long-term city-sponsored night market in the Southland. KCM Agency, the Korean-American event production and marketing force behind Kollaboration and K-town Night Market has signed an agreement to host six-hour long public nighttime soiree at Barnes Park every third Friday of the month.

In conjunction with Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce, KCM also plans to operate the first ever public beer and wine garden in Monterey Park, with three percent of its profits going to the Monterey Park American Legion Post.


The Line Hotel And Why It’s Cool To Be Korean In Los Angeles

Follow the Line

Out of all the places to open a hip new L.A. hotel, why would one choose Koreatown? Because it’s apparently “cool” now to be Korean.


What would you do if you were a hotshot real estate developer, with a reputation for producing stylish boutique hotels frequented by today’s class of cool kids, looking to build your first property in Los Angeles proper? Well, if you’re Andrew Zobler, the man behind the Ace Hotels in New York and Palm Springs, you would turn to hotshot chef Roy Choi, the culinary mind behind the Kogi food trucks and a growing empire of restaurants throughout the city.

It’s just that Choi basically told him this: not interested. “It felt like a real job again,” said Choi. “That’s the truth. It had everything to do with the fact that, ever since Kogi happened, Kogi bought me freedom. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do in life, and that’s a very rare thing to have. And once you have it, I felt like this project would be giving that freedom back.”

Zobler, of course, persisted, and now Choi is running not just one restaurant but two, named Pot and Commissary (the latter will begin serving a fruit and vegetable-focused menu later this year), as well as a bakery and a bar in the lobby of the Line Hotel, which recently opened on Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Koreatown. It just made Condé Nast Traveler’s 2014 Hot List of the 33 best new hotels in the world for essentially oozing style and bringing in “some of L.A.’s coolest and most innovative minds, including street food king Chef Roy Choi,” said the write-up.

Choi is not the only talent that Zobler has tapped to make the Line a destination not just for travelers but also for Los Angeles locals. The Houston Brothers, noted nightlife impresarios with bars and lounges mostly in Hollywood, will operate a club/lounge called Speek. And retail outlet Poketo, co-founded by Korean American Angie Myung and her husband Ted Vadakan, opened their second store in the hotel. With these collaborators on board, Zobler has in line (bad pun intended) multiple pieces to attract even more people, including the cool and hip, into Koreatown.

But the Line is not the only hipster game in K-town. In fact, on the very same block is the Normandie Hotel, another recently renovated boutique establishment, which has its own coolness credentials: a soon-to-open bar from Cedd Moses, who’s a central figure in turning Downtown L.A. into a teeming nightlife destination, with spots like the Golden Gopher and Broadway Bar.

So get ready, Koreatown, for an invasion of skinny jeans.


It’ s a stark contrast to
nadir: the fires and looting of the 1992 L.A. riots. There was little consideration paid to the concerns of Korean Americans at that time. Back then, there was a sense that Koreatown was under siege, with Korean Americans forced to barricade themselves from what felt like relentless attacks not only from looters but also politicians and the media. Those memories have not faded, including for those involved with the Line.

Jonnie and Mark Houston, twins from a German-Irish father and a Thai-Chinese mother, grew up living in Koreatown. In fact, Jonnie’ s best friend at the time was a Korean American whose parents’ liquor store was destroyed in the riots. Poketo’ s Angie Myung, who’ s from the L.A. suburb of Diamond Bar and was in high school in 1992, remembered going to Koreatown after the riots and seeing all the burnt stores. “It felt like an apocalypse that happened,” said Myung. Despite all that they lost, many Korean American business owners chose not to abandon the neighborhood, but to rebuild. And Koreatown today, which has also seen an infusion of investment from South Korea, is not only bigger but still expanding and thriving, most notably for its restaurants and a nightlife that runs well past last call and into the early morning. There’s one other noted difference from the days before the riots: Koreatown is more welcoming to non-Koreans. Some restaurants today still have menus only in Hangeul, but their numbers appear to be in the decline.

“[The riots] brought some positive changes. The Korean immigrants that owned businesses there saw that they couldn’t survive on their own island,” said Myung. “They realized they had to open up. And not only that, but it was actually very profitable and successful for them the more they opened.”

“If you weren’t Korean, they wouldn’t let you in. It was very closed off to non-Koreans,” said Jonnie Houston. “When you walk up to a door and you don’t speak Korean, they’re like get away. A lot of that has changed. It’s a lot more friendly to everybody now.”

The Houstons also noted that Koreans have been innovative when it comes to operating dance clubs. “Korean culture has brought to the table bottle service and the little bells that you press for service,” said Mark Houston, referring to how non-Korean clubs have adopted these practices. 
 These Koreatown factors, and the availability of what was most recently called the Wilshire Radisson Hotel, a mid-century modern design from architecture firm Daniel Johnson Mann & Mendenhall built in 1964, is how the Line came to be. “We loved the vibrancy of the neighborhood and the architecture of the building,” said Zobler in an email interview, as to why he chose Koreatown, and not, say, Venice or Hollywood, areas that might better fit the sensibility of his past developments. (Zobler’ s company, the New York-based Sydell Group, was not involved with the new Ace Hotel that recently opened in Downtown.)

“Koreatown is a very special L.A.- only place,” said Zobler. “We love what is coming out of this community and out of Korea culturally, and the food—we love the food. We also love that the neighborhood is geographically in the center of many of the things we love most about L.A.—Hollywood, Downtown, Beverly Hills, Silver Lake—and that it sits right on a Metro [subway] stop.”

The zeal for Koreatown and Koreans that Zobler has expressed is not isolated. For lack of a better phrase, it’s kind of cool to be Korean right now. Tune into a TV cooking competition these days and a Korean American is bound to be one of the culinary contestants. Anthony Bourdain recently spoke the praises of KA chefs, and his CNN travel show’s premiere episode focused not on Los Angeles but specifically Koreatown.

“I totally feel like I’m much cooler being Korean now than ever,” said Myung, whose first Poketo store in L.A.’s Arts District does more than sell products. It hosts art shows and workshops, including a kimchi-making class taught by her mom—activities that she anticipates will also be offered at the Line’s outlet. “I think it has a lot to do with Korean pop culture, that’s taking over the whole world. It’s definitely come to the U.S. Come on, ‘Gangnam Style?’”

Myung, 39, cites her generation’s members, as well as the next, who have chosen more creative fields. “[We] have made a lot of strides,” said Myung. “Koreans are just more visible now.”

At the center of the team assembled by Zobler is Choi, arguably the most high-profile Korean American chef today. “We wanted, as a paramount matter in our design and choice of collaborators, to celebrate the local community and urban L.A. in general. We brought in Roy Choi and the Houston Brothers who were raised in the neighborhood to be our guides,” said Zobler.

The contribution that the Houston Brothers, who shop at their nearby HK Korean supermarket and have frequented Koreatown bars, are bringing to the Line will reflect the surrounding neighborhood that they know well. Speek will be a club that includes a dance floor, live music and that other local nightlife staple: the noraebang. “We definitely wanted it to be a homage to Koreatown and what they’ve created, and embrace it and put our little twist on it,” said Jonnie. Plus, the cocktail program will feature Korean flavors: think Korean pears and even barbecue.

For Choi, who will be cooking some pretty straight-up Korean food for the first time with the restaurant Pot, there’s a lot to think about. “It’s a huge project, with a lot of employees, a lot of responsibility, a lot of money invested,” said Choi. “I am nervous about serving Korean food in Koreatown. But it’s not a nervous of failure; it’s a nervous of, like, I really want people to enjoy it. I want the Korean and Koreatown residents to really know that we’re honest—all our food, once you’ve taste it, tastes like any other Korean [food].”

But, with Choi involved, there’s bound to be something out of the ordinary, and he pointed out the composition of his staff. “That no one cooking in the kitchen is Korean, except me. And I was never trained in Korean food—that’s pretty unique, wouldn’t you say?”

It’s also a sign of Koreatown evolving with more complex and dynamic interpersonal relationships at play—it’s not just ajummas in the kitchens ordering around the many Latinos often employed in the neighborhood’s restaurants. There’s a diverse staff at Pot, and they just look like ajummas. One of Choi’ s cheeky decisions is for the hostess to wear clothes an ajumma would wear: think baggy pants and mismatched prints.

On a more serious note, Choi credited the team he works with for convincing him to finally say yes to Zobler. “And once they talked me into it, … I realized there’s something special and important that we can do here,” said Choi. “I can be somewhat of a bridge … to the neighborhood, and to all the people who live here, and everything we’ve gone through. It’s almost like I saw it as, if you think about the first Koreans who came here and where we are now. This can be a little marker in that, like a gift back.”

L.A. chef Roy Choi is a partner in the Line venture, with two restaurants in the hotel.


Slate Asks What Donald Sterling’s Love Of Koreans Reveals About Racism

Tuesday’s column on Slate about Donald Sterling, the disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner, reveals what his “fondness” of Koreans means to the broader pattern of racism in America.

Sterling, 80, was suspended indefinitely by the NBA recently after the recording of his remarks to his girlfriend about his disdain on blacks and how he didn’t want her to bring them to Clippers game caused a public outcry.


In 2002, Sterling was sued for allegedly discriminating against black and Hispanic housing applicants at one of his apartment buildings located in Koreatown district of Los Angeles. Sterling had changed the name of the building to “Korean World Towers” and decorated the building with Korean flags. He even allegedly tried to force black and Hispanic tenants out of the building, saying they “smell and attract vermin.”


To Sterling, the column suggests, Koreans were the “ideal” tenants. He allegedly said that Koreans “will live in whatever conditions and still pay the rent without complaint” and told one of his former non-Asian female employees that she should “learn the ‘Asian way’ from his younger girls because they knew how to please him.”

The column’s co-authors, Hua Hsu and Richard Jean So, wrote that Sterling’s preference for Koreans and Asian Americans fits into the typical pattern of racism in America:

Why did Donald Sterling love Koreans? At a basic level, he was buying into the myth of the “model minority”: the perception that Asian-Americans, compared with other nonwhite minorities, are innately intelligent and well-behaved.

This will all sound very familiar to Asian-Americans, cast as the put-upon overachievers, whose head-down, by-the-bootstraps stoicism has resulted in remarkable educational andfinancial attainment. The “model minority” myth persists in part because it is cited as evidence that the system works. It makes for a great story—the plucky, determined Asian-American succeeding where others have failed. But the ultimate beneficiaries of this racial typecasting are the people who invoke the model as a bludgeon against others. Sterling’s admiration for his Korean tenants is actually a kind of scorn. After all, he still subjected Korean tenants to the same degrading treatment as everyone else—the only difference is that the Koreans seemed willing to take it.

Above all, Sterling saw the world in terms of winners and losers (“I like people who are achievers,” he once noted), and he used this logic to categorize racial groups along a sliding scale of desirability. For Sterling, Koreans never merited the decency of being looked upon as individual human beings. Rather, they were a faceless bloc, a group of indistinguishable “achievers” that did nothing more than provide the contrast that enabled his contempt for blacks. This is the lesson of Donald Sterling’s racism: A hierarchy that flatters those at the top and demeans those at the bottom can only serve to distract us from noticing the one shuffling the rankings.



Inaugural K-town Night Market Draws Thousands

article and photos by RUTH KIM

Korean American comedian Walter Hong quipped, “We’re in Koreatown right now, but I feel like I’m a minority!”

Playing event emcee, Hong was addressing the vastly diverse crowd who made their way, by the thousands, to the inaugural K-town Night Market, which took place April 18-19 at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus in the heart of L.A. Koreatown.

Reminiscent of the popular 626 Night Market and night markets across Asia, the event featured a host of famous food trucks, food booths, merchandise vendors, a carnival area, as well as live performances.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Danny Park, one of the founders of the K-town Night Market. “We’re trying to bring that old night market to L.A., you know? We want to celebrate the diversity of Koreatown, but also celebrate Korean culture, too.”

Park certainly got what he wished for, with an estimated turnout of 80,000 people who attended the market over the two days.

The streets surrounding the Robert F. Kennedy campus were bustling with pedestrians on April 19, when this KoreAm reporter made her way there. A seemingly endless line from the entrance stretched along Catalina Street toward Wilshire Boulevard, as people queued up to enter the market grounds. Despite some complaints of long food lines, the wait did wonders working up the appetite, and there was plenty of food to go around. Headlined by Season 3 winners of the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, Seoul Sausage, the food truck lineup offered a diversity of cuisines and also featured seasons 1 and 2 Great Food Truck Race winners Grill ‘Em All and The Lime Truck, respectively.

“It’s been really fun for me to be kind of personally involved in this project because it hits close to home. We call Koreatown our second home,” said Yong Kim, one of the three founders of Seoul Sausage, which served as the event’s food truck curator. “It’s something that we planned a long time ago, and it’s finally happening. People are really excited about it, and we are, too.  Everybody that we wanted [for the food truck lineup] agreed to do it, you know, so it’s just been really fun, personally.”

While the food trucks were assembled on one half of the event grounds, the other half was occupied by additional food vendors in booths, including Korean American chef Brian Huskey of Top Chef fame at Table 13, IOTA Café, Orochon Ramen and 8 Korean BBQ, to name a few.  Attendees could grab a bite to eat while they shopped the vendor booths selling K-pop fan gear and other items, and enjoyed the live performances on stage.

Tagged on social media as #KTOWNCoachella, Friday’s lineup boasted the musical talents of K-pop stars such as YG Entertainment’s Lydia Paek, K-pop star Z. Hera, Chad Future, The Fu, and Shin-B. Saturday’s stage was headlined by K-town native and hip-hop artist Dumbfoundead, DJ Zo, Korean American rapper DANakaDAN and Grammy-nominated producer Scoop Deville.





Sponsored Post: KHEIR begins construction on 2nd clinic in Koreatown

New state-of-the-art facility will offer superior services at low and no cost in English, Korean and Spanish

KHEIR Center will open its second community clinic at 3255 Wilshire Blvd. in early 2015, increasing the Koreatown community’s access to high-quality, affordable services in a new upscale facility with top-of-the-line equipment and furnishings.

The clinic will house 15 exam rooms, in addition to a conference room, a children’s play area, and multiple consultation rooms for mental health therapy. The new clinic will have the capacity to provide more than 200 patient visits per day and more than 45,000 visits annually—a 50% increase over the service capacity of KHEIR’s existing 6th Street location.

The clinic will offer a wide variety of primary care services in English, Korean and Spanish, including physicals, pediatric care, cancer screenings, women’s health, prenatal services, and family planning methods such as birth control and intrauterine device (IUD) insertion, all at low or no cost for those who qualify. KHEIR staff will provide enrollment assistance for uninsured low-income individuals to help them find a public program for which they are eligible. No-cost care for undocumented immigrant patients is available through multiple programs, including Los Angeles County’s My Health LA coverage and California’s Cancer Detection Program and Family PACT program.

KHEIR’s new clinic will utilize the latest technology to ensure streamlined, superior service for patients. Electronic health records will be fully implemented from day one, with new features for patients, including online access to lab results and specialist referral status.

The street-level space, in suite 120 at the northwest corner of Wilshire Blvd. and New Hampshire Ave., will offer affordable parking rates with validation and is within walking distance of multiple pharmacies, schools and the Wilshire/Vermont Metro Station, making it a central, convenient stop for both local residents and commuters to Koreatown.

KHEIR’s current clinic location at 3727 W. 6th Street will continue operation as normal. KHEIR’s opening of a 2nd site is in response to the growing demand for free and affordable health services since the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act on January 1, 2014. The legislation expanded private and public insurance to millions of Californians, many of whom remain uninsured or without a regular medical home. KHEIR’s current clinic is at capacity, necessitating an additional site to meet the vast demand for services in Wilshire Center and surrounding Metro LA neighborhoods. KHEIR’s ability to serve diverse populations with cultural and linguistic sensitivity makes it uniquely positioned to provide a broad spectrum of Los Angeles residents with the high-quality care they need and deserve.

For more information about KHEIR’s new clinic, please email info@lakheir.org. To learn more about Medi-Cal, My Health LA and other low and no-cost public programs, , please call KHEIR’s Patient Resources Department at (213) 637-1080 to speak with a Certified Enrollment counselor.

Featured image: Construction is currently in progress on KHEIR’s new Clinic at 3255 Wilshire Blvd. that will expand affordable health care in the community.

*    *    *

Korean Health Education, Information & Research Center (KHEIR)

The KHEIR Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit service agency, was founded in 1986 to serve as a liaison between recently immigrated Korean Americans and existing health and human services in Los Angeles. Since, it has evolved into a comprehensive multi-service agency that renders primary and preventive health care, with a special focus on providing culturally and linguistically appropriate support to the low income, limited-English speaking Korean and Latino residents. The KHEIR Center includes the only full-time community clinic in the United States that offers assistance in English, Spanish and Korean. With funding from government agencies, public and private foundations, and individual donations, KHEIR will continue its mission of caring for the community by providing quality health and human services to the under-served and uninsured residents of Southern California.


KHEIR Administration
3727 W. Sixth St., Ste. 210
Los Angeles, CA 90020
t: (213) 427-4000
f: (213) 427-4008

KHEIR Community Clinic
3727 W. Sixth St., Ste. 200
Los Angeles, CA 90020
t: (213) 637-1070
f: (213) 251-8647

KHEIR Human Services
3727 W. Sixth St., Ste. 230
Los Angeles, CA 90020
t: (213) 637-1080
f: (213) 637-1075

KHEIR Adult Day Health Care Center
3030 W. Eighth St.
Los Angeles, CA 90005
t: (213) 389-6565
f: (213) 389-6262


April Issue: Will LA’s Korean American Community Back City Council Candidate John Choi?

John Choi addresses supporters after the primary for the L.A. City Council District 13 seat.

The Race Within the Race

A Korean American has never been elected to Los Angeles’ city council. After a primary that saw the community split over two KA candidates, John Choi has advanced to the runoff. But will the community now unite behind him?

story by JIMMY LEE and EUGENE YI | photographs by JIMMY LEE

A pathetically low 20 percent of registered voters in the City of Los Angeles made it to their localpolling place in last March’s primary election for the next mayor of the second largest municipality in the country.  While interest citywide was abysmal, the race for the empty seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing the 13th District, which includes Hollywood, the hipster trifecta of Silver Lake/Los Feliz/Echo Park, and the northeastern sliver of Koreatown, was being closely watched by Korean Americans.

Among the 12 vying for the seat were two Korean Americans. The hopeful whispers among Korean Americans became nearly audible: Could one of us finally ascend to elected office in L.A., the spiritual capital of Korean America?

We’re halfway to finding out, now that one of the two, John Choi, has made it past the primary and will face Mitch O’Farrell in the runoff election later this year.

This local race, for many in the Korean American community, marked a major milestone in its political coming of age. Finally, in 2013, there was a local election with no false pretenders—no one like Andrew Kim, a lawyer who seemingly ran for every political office during the 1990s and early aughts, including City Council.  With minimal to nonexistent campaigning, Kim’s efforts were largely seen as a joke—the races were mere opportunities for him to plaster his name all over Koreatown with posters.

Rather, for the contest for District 13, it looked like there were going to be three legitimate KA contenders, each with extensive — albeit varied — experience in Los Angeles city governance. BongHwan Kim was the head of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after years of leadership positions at various nonprofits. Emile Mack, a deputy fire chief, ran on his compelling backstory as the Korean adoptee of African American parents, and as a firefighter during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And Choi, whose resume includes stints with the mayor, a councilman and the city’s Public Works Commission, was a relatively unknown but well-connected, young lawyer who had amassed the biggest war chest of any candidate in the race.

By the end of 2012, Kim had exited the race and taken a job in San Diego, leaving Choi and Mack to split the votes of Korean Americans. Coincidentally, both held their respective campaign kickoffs on the same Saturday in January, allowing a few reporters to do an easy compare and contrast.

Mack held his kickoff in a dilapidated second-floor office of a building on an anonymous stretch of boulevard between downtown and Pico Union, an area just barely feeling the effects of the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods.  It was difficult to find the door.  About a dozen people showed up to a small office. About half were a diverse set of clean-cut college students, and the other half were heavily tattooed young Latino men. After a rally-the-troops speech by an elderly Korean American lawyer, the group set out to canvass.

Choi’s event took place in the street-level cornerstorefront at an intersection in East Hollywood, close to trendy cafes and bars. Hundreds showed up, including community leaders, union members wearing purple SEIU (Service Employees International Union) T-shirts, and a healthy sampling of politically active Korean Americans, many of them familiar from last year’s fight over the redistricting of the council’s boundaries.

Both candidates, along with Filipino American Alex de Ocampo, had been invited to a Korean American Democratic Committee (KADC) event to field questions from the organization’s board.  Some board members who declined to be identified said they were unimpressed with Mack’s answers, while Choi and de Ocampo provided more polished responses (though both Choi and Mack apparently whiffed at a softball question regarding favorite restaurant in the district, while de Ocampo did fine. Not surprising, since Ocampo grew up in the district, while Choi and Mack both moved there to run.)

A few weeks afterward, the board of KADC, one of the primary organizations involved in the redistricting battle, endorsed Choi over Mack.

“We thought he had the most relevant experience, instead of just in one department, and we also felt his future was brighter in allowing or helping the Korean American community, not just with allocating resources but also with allocating and identifying other KAs to get elected to office,” said Matthew Yang, executive director of KADC.

The endorsement by the organization, made up of mostly 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans, reflected an overall trend among the community’s voters.

“Younger Korean Americans are supporting John [Choi], but then, when it comes to the first-generation Koreans, I heard quite a few people are supporting Emile [Mack],” said Yonah Hong, a local community activist. “I hate that our community is split.”

John Choi talks to a resident about his candidacy.

Mack said this reflected some of the fissures in the community that had emerged during last year’s highly contentious—and headline-making—redistricting debate. At the redistricting commission’s first few public hearings, a relatively united Korean American community appeared, calling for Koreatown to be drawn into a single council district to maximize its political clout.  But after early draft maps showed the neighborhood still divided, some disappointed second-generation advocates started publicly airing some dirty laundry regarding Koreatown’s cozy relationship with City Council President Herb Wesson, who represents most of the neighborhood, and counts on Korean Americans for a third of his political contributions. Unproven allegations included stories of small business owners being strong-armed into donating to Wesson.

An old rift emerged in the community, as many prominent Korean Americans with business interests in Koreatown—primarily first-generation immigrants—had long-established relationships with Wesson. Mack said when he first decided to run for office, he had sought the help of two Koreatown figures: Grace Yoo, the outspoken executive director of the Korean American Coalition, and Chang Lee, the former head of the Koreatown Chamber of Commerce with the perfect salt-and-pepper high-and-tight coiffeur, as well as with the rumors of a close relationship with Wesson. Yoo went on to become one of the leaders in the redistricting fight, while Lee worked in the background to smooth over relations with Wesson and publicly decried the activists’ efforts.

Mack ended up siding with Lee.  And the former candidate thinks that cost him the support of many second-generation Korean Americans.

DURING THE FINAL weekend before the March 5 vote, Mack and Choi did what candidates do when running for local office: canvass the neighborhood, pleading for votes.

And on March 2, Mack was joined by his wife Jenny and their 3-year-old Miya while walking door-to-door in East Hollywood. Mack has a disarmingly personable demeanor, and the sight of father and daughter canvassing together could win over any voter’s hearts. But with Mack getting little attention from the mainstream press, Mack’s hopes were faint, especially with a crowded field of 12 candidates.

Meeting people and getting “to see people’s beliefs and hopes” made the whole campaign experience worthwhile, said Mack after the election.

Being in the conversation was not an issue with John Choi, who had raised the most money of the 12. Multiple articles in the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly had emphasized — and criticized — Choi’s support from labor unions, which helped to finance his campaign. The implication was that he would be in labor’s back pocket if elected, and these stories were clearly a source of irritation while he canvassed the neighborhood of Atwater Village on March 3.

Then, as if on cue, the next house was answered by a man who told Choi that he won’t get his vote because of the labor support. To other Atwater residents, he spoke passionately on how his relationships with the unions would be helpful when it came time to mediate the city’s budget problems.

“I can’t just be pro-labor, or else I know [the other councilmembers] won’t take me seriously,” said Choi.

Emile Mack canvassed neighborhoods with wife Jenny and daughter Miya in tow.

It’s understandable where Choi’s sympathies lie, since he worked for one of the biggest unions in the region, the County Federation of Labor, as its economic development director for two years. For him, union backing meant having the support of the firefighter, construction workers and the health caregivers who make up these groups, and Choi was proud to have it. They would help him nab second place, with 4,008 votes, and a spot in the runoff.

For his election night victory speech, Choi relayed the story of a female union member who worked at a downtown hotel.

“She told me, ‘I bought a house because I had a good job; I had a union that fought for me. I had hope and a dream and hard work,’” said Choi.  “That’s the story of why I’m running for city council. That’s the kind of opportunity I want to create for everyone in the 13th District and the entire city of Los Angeles. That’s the story of my family.”

Emile Mack finished 10th, with 845 votes. A few days later he was back at his job with the L.A. Fire Department. And he had no regrets.  “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Mack, who has no plans to run for office again.

Mack will endorse Choi. “His political background will benefit us” living in the 13th, Mack said of his former opponent. But more importantly, Mack wants the primary competition to be a precursor to other Korean Americans getting elected. “One of the reasons why I decided to run was for [more] Asian American representation,” he said. “Seeing the two of us going the distance in the primary, I hope, will show other Korean Americans that they can run for office, too.”

If Choi wins on May 21, he will be the first Asian American on the City Council in 20 years. Michael Woo, a Chinese American, once held that same District 13 seat.

He faces a tough runoff, though.  His opponent, Mitch O’Farrell—who used to work for former 13thDistrict Councilman Eric Garcetti, now a mayoral candidate—won the primary with 4,530 votes. But with endorsements from the likes of Mayor Villaraigosa and the L.A. County Democratic Party, Choi boasts some powerful backers, too.

Without a national election to spur interest, the runoff will likely have a similarly low turnout as the primary. It’ll be a game of inches, not feet. It is, in short, the kind of race that a small and vocal minority group can sway. Whether the Korean American community unites behind Choi and plays this role in the election remains to be seen.

This article was published in the April 2013 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).