John Hwang makes friends with some of society’s most invisible members: the people living on L.A.’s Skid Row. Many know his face and name, some have his number. He knows their stories and, with their permission, shares them with the world. “Everyone has a story,” he says. Here’s his.
by ELAINE CHA
This piece elaborates on an audio profile produced by this writer and broadcast on Southern California Public Radio/89.3 KPCC’s “Off-Ramp,” in March 2014. Listen to it here.
It’s a damp, late afternoon in January. John Hwang, still in scrubs from his occupational therapy shift in Monterey Park, California, is about to hit downtown Los Angeles. But he’s not headed to a hip rooftop bar on Broadway or a new gastropub in Little Tokyo. He’s going to Alameda and 4th Street—roughly the northeast corner of L.A.’s Skid Row, which some call “the homeless capital of the United States”—to start one of his many check-ins with old friends and, very likely, make new ones along the way.
This Friday evening, he spots a familiar figure on T Avenue. “Hey, Richard,” he says, crouching down to touch the shoulder of an African American man in his early 50s staring down into his lap. “How are you today?” Richard looks up from the kids’-sized yogurt he’s nursing and, recognizing Hwang, smiles. His arrestingly light eyes brighten as he returns a quiet salutation. Just a few sentences pass between them: “How have you been? Have you been all right through the rain the last couple nights? Do you have enough to read?” Richard responds by nodding his head, moving his shoulders. He’s a man of few words, Hwang explains, as the latter continues walking through Skid Row. “People who stay on this street mostly keep to themselves. … They don’t want any drama,” Hwang says. “Every street has its own personality.”
As he continues toward San Pedro Street, Hwang meets others he knows—and who know him well enough to call when lonely. One such man, a white Vietnam war vet called Bob whose PTSD makes living anywhere with a roof unbearable, is setting up for the night near the Downtown Women’s Center when Hwang stops to say hello. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you,” Hwang says, extending a hand to Bob’s arm. Bob’s been in the hospital recently, though “I’m OK, now,” he says. He’s tried calling Hwang a couple of times, but couldn’t reach him. “Oh, yeah, I got a new phone,” Hwang tells him as he pulls out his cell. He hands it to Bob to input his number. “I’ll call you, so you have my info.”
Hwang met Camha just outside Skid Row last October. “She was barely coherent. Often mumbling words silently under her lips, as if she was chanting a prayer. When there was food around her mouth, I got a napkin and gently wiped her mouth and face. Tears began to well up in her eyes. No words were needed then.”
Such sharing isn’t something he does with everyone, says Hwang later. But with some he’ s met downtown, he’s open to that contact. “I just have a feeling. I know it’ s OK.”
Based on what happens the rest of the visit, it seems that Skid Row feels Hwang is OK, too. Tonight’s walk is a short one compared to the many others he’s made over the last two years or so. In the span of just a couple hours, Hwang greets and points out a half-dozen Skid Row residents who have told him their stories; he even has his portrait crayoned on the sidewalk by someone he’s met for the first time, a new friend who shares a stick of chewing gum along with his back story. Hwang’ s gentle manner and capacity for fast connection—the bonds he forms are often quick and firm—draws people hungry for interaction. And it’s meaningful connection that keeps Hwang coming back. “Everyone is unique,” he says. “Everyone has a story.”
Hwang’s own story features elements at once familiar and unusual. Like many ethnic Koreans in the U.S., his start came outside the States. Born in the Canary Islands in 1974, Hwang lived in Panama and Mexico before his family immigrated to Southern California when he was 7. And, like a vast swath of Korean Americans, he spent a good part of his youth and young adulthood at Protestant churches that included urban ministry.
An outing with an Orange County-based church back in the 1990s—long before downtown became “DTLA”— occasioned Hwang’ s first direct contact with the homeless of Skid Row. Nearly all his fellow volunteers focused on distributing food. “I was more intrigued by the people,” says Hwang, who spent the afternoon talking with street residents instead of handing out sandwiches. “One man in particular, his intelligence just struck me. He was so different from the stereotypes about the homeless … that they’re all addicts, or mentally ill.”
John Hwang shares the pictures and stories of his friends on Skid Row, with their permission. He wrote this about Richard: “His eyes lit up when I handed him the National Geographic magazine. Richard loves to read. ‘It takes me to places I’ve never gone,’ he told me. … Richard was in a car accident that left him disabled. Confined to the streets. However, reading set his mind free.”
Many years elapsed between that visit and Hwang’s next one. In 2011, he was one among many looking into lofts in Little Tokyo, an area adjacent to a cluster of homeless service centers. Juxtaposing the lofts’ price tag with Skid Row next door jarred him. It also recalled his years’ -back conversation with a street resident. Soon enough, he ended up back downtown—not to live, but to learn.
“I’ve always been very intrigued by people living on the street,” says Hwang, “because if you live in L.A., you see them all the time.” He had no plans to document his visits when he started going to Skid Row about two years ago. Yet as he met more people, and heard more of their stories, he felt he needed to share them somehow.
So Hwang started taking photos.
With his subjects’ permission, Hwang posted their portraits to Facebook, pairing the images with simple descriptions or anecdotes. Melody’ s picture, for example, presents a young woman holding her head high, with this: “She hears voices. … She shared with me stories of her life, her family. … I asked, ‘Do you still hear voices now?’ and she responded with ‘I can hear yours …’” A color and black-and-white diptych of a gently smiling Benito, who “has the kind of voice that would make for a good storyteller or narrator for a movie,” shows images of a man who imparts “the wisdom that comes with age and living on the streets. He likes to spend his time reading. … When he feels down he just thinks about how there are many others who are less fortunate than him.”
And then there’s Tracey in a black cap and white undershirt, standing in a graffitti’d tunnel near the L.A. River. A former singer with a beautiful voice, seven years on the streets, and both AIDS and prostate cancer, Tracey “survives by finding food in the dumpsters of restaurants, markets and produce vendors, [and] makes an effort to care for other homeless people around him, including helping feed them.”
This is a shot of the blanket that Sam, a 21-year-old Korean American living on Skid Row, was carrying when Hwang took him to the home of a pastor who does homeless ministry. Hwang wrote of their first encounter: “So we sat there together at Subway. Quietly, he ate. As I watched him, I started to think back to when I was his age of 21 and what I was doing with my life. I couldn’t understand how he ended up on the street or begin to imagine the reality of his life. … Then he looked up at me with teary eyes and said, ‘thank you, hyung.’”
The combination of striking photos and narrative elicited immediate response. Likes, comments and shares reached scores of people he’s known over the years. They also made the news feeds of those he didn’t know at all—people who’ve reached out to offer Hwang help with funds, food, clothes, even a collection of National Geographic magazines. “It’s been amazing to see [how the posts] move people,” Hwang says.
For all the engagement he seeks with others, and for all the attention he’s gotten, Hwang remains independent. This is especially evident in his approach to Skid Row and its residents. His early exposure to downtown L.A.’s homeless may have come through a faith community, yet his work, so to speak, is not affiliated with any church entity or motivated by conventional religious mission. While Hwang speaks about “praying for direction” when he sets out on his visits and posts stories about the work of ministries serving the downtown homeless population, his sensibilities run more to the spiritual than the religious; he is compelled by what he can contribute to effecting kindness to others anyplace, not just in Skid Row.
There’s also no secular agenda driving Hwang. In the last two years, he has been solicited or advised by readers working in homeless outreach. He understands where such response comes from, especially given the degree and scale of issues he sees among those he engages on the street. But he is quick to assert that what he does “is not advocacy. I’m not trying to join a cause,’ he says, “or rescue anyone or solve anyone’s problems. [Homelessness] is complicated.”
Two cases in which Hwang’s lent more than a listening ear and a hot meal point up the complexity of what puts— and keeps—people on the street. The
first, involving a Vietnamese senior named Camha, shows what can happen when a person ends up far from home but cannot return on her own. When Hwang met her just outside Skid Row last October, she “didn’t have shoes [and] was wearing hospital-issued socks that were blackened from the dirtiness of the street. All she had was a small bag and a blanket she sat on. She was barely coherent … mumbling words silently under her lips, as if she was chanting a prayer.” As Camha had a California state senior citizen ID card, Hwang shared a photo of it on Facebook, asking, “Does anyone have any connection to the Vietnamese community up in the Bay Area?”
Friends, contacts and even strangers responded immediately to the post with offers of help and useful tips. Less than 24 hours later, Hwang spoke with someone who knew the lost woman, who’d “been reported missing for some time.” Just a couple of hours after that, Camha was on a Greyhound bus headed back to her home in San Francisco.
Walter is one of Hwang’s oldest friends on Skid Row. “He frequents all the local recycle centers, going 5-6 times a day,” wrote Hwang. “Sadly one recycling center he often goes to mistreats him. … He is talked down to and treated like he is dumb or crazy. When actually he is a bright, hard working and sensitive man. It hurts him deeply. I can see it in his eyes. Walter grew up in rural Texas, during the time of segregation. So it brings back some painful memories. But Walter refuses to feel sorry for himself. He refuses to feel bitter. He knows his worth as a human being.”
What happened with Sam, a 21-year-old Korean Hwang tried to help off the street, provides a counterpoint to the “success” of Camha’s story. Hwang’s first encounter with Sam started with a sandwich and some basic background (“He said his mother was killed when he was a young child, and he hadn’t spoken to his father for a long time.”) and ended with a “thank you, hyung.” The next time they ran into each other, Hwang took Sam to a Korean pastor who runs a homeless ministry. Although Sam had been on the street for just four months—a stint much shorter than the years Tracey, Benito and Bob have spent on Skid Row— Hwang says he had a hunch this dongsaeng would end up back where he first saw him.
“It seemed like he didn’t really want to be helped,” Hwang says in retrospect. He concedes he was initially disappointed to see Sam among the homeless on subsequent visits downtown. It was a reminder, nevertheless, of a reality Hwang understands more deeply as he spends more time in the rougher parts of Los Angeles: living on the street is a choice some make, even if a way off is within reach.
Despite (or, perhaps because of) the sheer magnitude of what it would take to eradicate homelessness, Hwang’s focus remains fixed on what he can do. Make eye contact and say hello, offer a meal and some company, share photos and stories that impact others where they are. And what he does isn’t so much about the homeless specifically as it is about “connecting with the humanity” in people. A midspring post about Cora, a woman Hwang met on an unusually quiet night downtown, captures this:
“The empty street felt lonely last night. There [were] no cars or traffic. Only a few people walking by … while I was waiting at an intersection … [t]his sweet lady started making random conversation with me so I asked her to dinner. We sat at a small family-owned pizza place on that empty street. Cora lives alone in a low-income housing unit downtown. She says she doesn’t really have any friends, and that she was coming home from a karaoke bar by herself. Singing and dancing makes her happy. She slowly ate her French fries she drowned in ketchup and her chicken wings, as if to savor the time we have together. We talked about all kinds of things; childhood stories, favorite foods, our travels, what makes us happy, to what’s important in life. I told her she is my new friend, and she smiled and gave me a warm hug. That street didn’t feel so empty to me anymore.”
A Facebook stranger who shared Hwang’ s post included a note saying, “This is what we should be doing … sharing our time and listening … We ALL just want to know we matter.” Another wrote, “So many lonely, invisible people out there, and he stops and reaches out to them.”
Hwang readily admits the personal gratification he derives from his “work” on Skid Row. “It’s an amazing thing to be able to connect so deeply with a stranger so quickly. It’s an incredible high.” He also says, introspectively, “Ultimately, this is something I do for myself.” The response his efforts have drawn makes it clear, nevertheless, that he’s making some kind of difference for others. If for no other reason than sharing stories that somehow move people, it’ s likely Hwang will continue making after-work trips to see friends downtown and, as he puts it, to “be the change [he] wants to see in the world.”
Top photo courtesy of John Cha.
This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).
Jeremy Lin is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers after the Houston Rockets traded the point guard to clear salary cap space for the expected free agent signing of Chris Bosh, according to ESPN.
The Lakers also receive a future first-round pick and other draft considerations. In return, the Rockets take cash and rights to an overseas player from the Lakers, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarwski, a reputable NBA insider.
The Lakers will send cash and rights to overseas player to the Rockets, but no salary back, league source tells Yahoo.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 11, 2014
When LeBron James took over the headlines earlier today by announcing his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the largest domino fell in the NBA’s free agency.
Lin has been caught in the middle of these conversations with multiple reports hinting that he could be headed to the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade this past week.
By sending Lin and his contract to the Lakers (worth $8.4 million), Houston would have enough cap space to sign a maximum contract with Bosh. The trade makes sense for the Lakers, too, as they don’t have to worry about absorbing the contract, which expires next summer. They hardly have any players signed at the moment, anyways.
Unfortunately, Mike D’Antoni, who was head coach of the New York Knicks during Linsanity, is no longer with the Lakers.
by JAMES S. KIM
Big Bang’s G-Dragon and girl group SPICA are the latest names to join the lineup for this year’s KCON, the largest Hallyu fan convention in America, happening on August 9 and 10 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Billboard.com reported that the singer/rapper will headline the first of the two concerts at the festival, which also features fan meet-and-greets and panels.
G-Dragon, who performed with Missy Elliott at last year’s event, will join SPICA (U.S. debut), Girls’ Generation, IU, CNBLUE, Teen Top, B1A4, BTS, VIXX and Jung Joon-young on the stage. South Korean TV and movie stars Lee Seung-gi, Lee Seo-ji and Yoo In-na are also set to appear at the festival.
KCON expanded to a two-night festival last year, and this year’s event will feature two concerts as well. South Korean music chart program M Countdown will also be filming the performances, which might mean longer sets from the performers.
Tickets go on sale today, and more ticketing options will be available later. You can purchase them at KCONUSA.com.
Top photo: G-Dragon performed with Missy Elliott at last year’s KCON.
by JOANNE LEE
KoreAm was at Koreatown L.A.’s World Cup viewing party this past Sunday when Team Korea took on Algeria in its pivotal second group stage match, which ended with heartbreak.
The viewing party was hosted in front of the lawn at the Radio Korea building on Wilshire. Watch the video to see interviews of Korean American fans who came out to support the Korean team!
by HAEIN JUNG
The Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles hosted an intimate evening this past Monday with celebrated South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin, who read excerpts from her latest translated novel, I’ll Be Right There.
Shin, a veteran novelist acclaimed for her best-selling Please Look After Mom, talked about her most recent work, a powerful story steeped in tragedy.
The novel centers around protagonist Jung Yoon, who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend, whom she hasn’t spoken to in eight years. He calls to inform her that their beloved college professor is dying. This triggers memories of being in their 20s, when they, along with friends Dahn and Miru, bonded over their love of poetry and aspiration to ignite change within their politically turbulent country.
“It’s about human relationships and also about art and how I would want people to form relationships, which is also a topic of the novel,” Shin told the audience of about 50 people.
The novel was inspired by real-life events in South Korea in the 1980s, when the country was rocked daily by confrontations between pro-democracy student demonstrations and riot police armed with tear gas. Shin, who lived through this time period, said she compiled extensive research on young people who died back then for unknown reasons, and would go through a pile of such documents during her writing process each morning.
“It was really painful to read these documents because a lot of young men in their 20s–22-years-olds, 23-year-olds–were going through brilliant youth and bright futures, [and] they died. Many of their names remain, but we still don’t know what happened to them,” the author said. “I wrote this novel to sort of make sure that we don’t forget about them.”
Though real-life events served as inspiration, the author deliberately avoided specifying this time period in the book in order to lend the story a more universal relatability.
“I didn’t want people to think that it’s a story that has already passed, [it's] in the past and a story that has already been forgotten,” said Shin. “Rather, I wanted people to understand that it’s a story that could happen anywhere, anytime, in any country, now. It was sort of symbolic in that way. For that reason, I didn’t refer to it as the 1980s in South Korea, but everybody knew.”
I’ll Be Right There marks Shin’s seventh novel and her second translated into English. (Sora Kim-Russell is credited as the English translator for I’ll Be Right There.) Her 2011 novel, Please Look After Mom, sold 2 million copies in Korea and became an international hit, topping the New York Times Best Seller List, and was included in Oprah’s “18 Books to Watch for in April 2011.”
Image of Kyung-sook Shin (seated, at far left of photo), via Korea Cultural Center, 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.
by JIMMY LEE
Photos by ADRIAN GAUT
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.
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.