From Korea to Ke'eaumoku
|•||Faces and stories from a Korean neighborhood|
By Gordon Y.K Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
At the Net Cafe on Makaloa Street, 21-year-old Hye Kim is taking a break between her school and work duties — slurping a bowl of spicy instant noodles and sipping a can of Coke while flipping through a Korean-language magazine.
She and her folks have moved out of the Kaheka-Ke'eaumoku area, where a high concentration of businesses cater to the Korean community, and now live in Salt Lake. But she still spends much of her free time in the neighborhood where many of her friends live and, if given her druthers, where she'd still live.
"It's more comfortable here," she said.
Two blocks away, at the Palama Supermarket, chief operating officer Daniel Lim is gazing contentedly from his second-floor office as customers select from a colorful assortment of kim chee and other Korean delicacies.
When his father, Hyo Kyu Lim, was looking for a suitable second location to serve the growing Korean community, he settled on a 27,000-square-foot lot on the prime corner of Kalakaua and Makaloa streets, the site of a former Gas 'n Glow and within a stone's throw of the Kaheka Street Daiei, the area's longtime retail giant.
"The location is ideal," said Daniel Lim, 27, who lives in a condominium across the street from the market, which also houses a tutoring center, two eateries, beauty salon and a number of other shops. All, with the exception of a UPS store, are uniquely Korean. "What better place to put it than right smack in the middle of where all of the Korean people are located?"
At a time when other ethnic groups in Hawai'i have continued to move away from their traditional enclaves and blend into more homogenous neighborhoods, Koreans continue to stream into the Kaheka-Ke'eaumoku area as they have done for the past four decades.
BECOMING A COMMUNITY
Jonathan Okamura, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, and Duk Hee Lee Murabayashi, a Korean immigrant who moved to Hawai'i in 1968, say the first Koreans in the area opened up bars in the 1960s and '70s.
"That's how it started," said Murabayashi, a lecturer at the Center for Korean Studies at UH-Manoa.
Over the years, to serve those who worked in the bars, Korean restaurants and beauty salons began to crop up, Murabayashi said. They were joined by Korean clothing and specialty boutiques, churches, tutoring centers, martial arts studios and other businesses.
Many retailers were successful vendors who had outgrown their businesses at the International Marketplace in Waikiki and were looking to set up shop outside Ala Moana Center, which was beyond their economic means, Murabayashi said.
Today, strip malls consisting almost entirely of Korean businesses populate Kapi'olani, Makaloa and Rycroft streets.
The area may soon become home to the state's first bank aimed at attracting the business of Korean-Americans. Last month, investors of Ohana Pacific Bank said they intend to open a single branch on Kapi'olani, in front of Ala Moana Center, as early as next year. The business plan for the bank said its proposed location is in the thick of what it described as "the Korean business district."
Besides working, shopping and playing in the area, Koreans also have gradually come to live there.
Anthony Fuller, who speaks fluent Korean and spent a number of years in Korea, said he spends nearly all of his time in the Kaheka-Kapi'olani area. Fuller, 20, works two jobs — as a clerk at Palama Super Market and as an overnight worker at a clothing shop at Ala Moana Center. He lives with his sister several blocks away on Rycroft Street.
When he's not working or at home, Fuller is at a nearby gym playing basketball, eating at one of the restaurants or surfing the Web at an Internet cafe.
"I'm here 24/7," said Fuller, who is half Korean and half Filipino. "I'd say this neighborhood is one of the most convenient places to be."
In the 2000 Census, 20.3 percent of those living in the tract bounded by Kapi'olani Boulevard, Kalakaua Avenue, King and Pensacola streets checked themselves off as Korean or part Korean, giving the area the highest concentration of Koreans in the state. Statewide, only 3.4 percent of the population described itself as of Korean ancestry.
Okamura said that the growth of the Korean community in the area is somewhat atypical of other ethnic enclaves both here and on the Mainland.
In the case of the Chinese in Chinatown, the Filipinos in Kalihi and the Japanese in Mo'ili'ili, ethnic businesses built up around the area immigrants lived in, Okamura said. In the Kaheka-Ke'eaumoku area, the reverse happened.
But as with other groups who have created ethnic communities both here and elsewhere, the reasons for coming together are still the same.
Sang Min Ji, president of the Hana Mart kitchenware and gifts store tucked away in a building off Ke'eaumoku Street, said most of those living in the Kaheka-Ke'eaumoku area are first-generation immigrants who want to live among others who speak their language and know their culture.
A majority of them, the 28-year-old Ji said, are either young people in their 20s or retirees. He said he believes those in their 30s, 40s and 50s, typically those with families, tend to live in Leeward, Central or East O'ahu.
Hana's sales philosophy is a reflection of that hypothesis. The 4,500-square-foot Ke'eaumoku store carries a wide variety of merchandise from trinkets to comforters to ginseng.
A separate location at the Pearl Kai Shopping Center in 'Aiea is concentrated on furniture sales.
LIVING AND SHOPPING
Several blocks away, at the Hope Learning Center on Rycroft Street, five students, who look 8 to 12 years old, have finished up their mid-afternoon snack and are about to get tutoring in English, math and other subjects, reinforcing what they first learn during their standard school day.
The center is part of the Hawai'i Hope Mission Baptist Church, which carries a congregation of about 200, mostly Korean parishioners. Despite this, center director Dae Lee said, there is almost no Korean spoken during the after-school program.
Lee, who has a "day job" as a student services coordinator at Kaimuki High School, said learning-center students additionally receive spiritual and religious enrichment.
More than anything, she said, the program offers a morale boost for children with Korean immigrant parents, students who often find themselves suffering from an identity crisis.
"In school, they're not totally local, and at home, they're not totally Korean," Lee said.
There is a Korean language class that's attended by about 30 students, Lee said. But unlike Hawai'i's daily Japanese or Chinese language schools, the Korean language class at the center meets only on weekends.
For the most part, Korean parents with children at the center instruct their children on Korean language and culture at home and instead want the students to succeed in their regular schools, Lee said. "The focus (at the center) is on learning English."
Sean Chu, a reporter for the Korea Times, said it makes it much easier for a Korean immigrant with limited English skills to live in a close-knit community.
"If I'm sick and I can't speak English, I have to find a doctor who can speak Korean," Chu said.
Thus, there might be more of a tendency to move into a neighborhood — such as Kaheka-Ke'eaumoku — where there are a number of Korean doctors, he said.
Rex Kim, an attorney and president of the Hawai'i Korean Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
"The first generation tends to stay where they're comfortable," said Kim, a member of the group hoping to start up the bank. "They're familiar with the food and language, and the people are like them, so they've kind of congregated around the Ke'eaumoku area."
In other parts of the country, such as Los Angeles, the area most heavily populated by Koreans has commonly come to be known as "Koreatown," but local Koreans have shied way from that label for the Kaheka-Ke'eaumoku neighborhood.
Daniel Lim said one reason may be that Koreans still are only a relatively small segment of the resident population.
Korean businesswoman and community advocate Jennifer Kim said Koreans also would view the neighborhood more as their own if they actually owned more of the land. While some sections, including the new Palama Supermarket site and Maka-loa Plaza, are now owned by Korean-Americans, Jennifer Kim said, most of the parcels are still owned by others.
"It's obvious you have to own the land in order to settle down there," she said, noting the example of the Chinese-Americans who bought up most of the property in Chinatowns here and on the Mainland.
"If people want to invest in a Koreatown, they need to invest in the land," Jennifer Kim said.
Sean Chu, the Korea Times reporter, agreed.
"Before, the Korean store owners rented or leased their spaces," he said. "But recently, they started to purchase the property. They are gathering that place as a Koreatown."
The Korean leaders are hoping the new Ohana Pacific Bank will play a key role in that effort.
Woon S. Hyun, chief executive officer and president of the proposed bank, said that while exploring the potential for a Korean financial institution, Korean business owners expressed a desire to expand their interests in the area.
"I think the Korean businesses are being underserved by the existing Hawai'i banks," Hyun said. "And the first generation of immigrants from Korea have certain language barriers, so we can help them to choose better banking products."
Hyun stressed the need to draw from customers of all ethnicities in order for his bank, which still needs the approval of the state Division of Financial Institutions before it can operate, to be successful.
"We also want to serve all the other ethnic communities and the entire City and County of Honolulu," he said. "Everybody can be our customer."
The need to appeal to non-Koreans in order to be more successful is a theme shared by many businesses in the area.
Fortunately for many of the Korean business owners, the huge growth in popularity of Korean soap operas and, to some extent, Korean pop culture in general, have caused a boom in non-Korean customers for many of them.
Anna Lim, president of Beauty Touch, an importer of Korean cosmetics that has now branched out into DVDS, CDs and related Korean pop-culture items at her leased space at the Kaheka Daiei store, said 85 percent of her business comes from non-Koreans.
Korean soap-opera fans come into her store looking for the makeup that is used and endorsed by the stars of their favorite programs, Lim said.
Even at the Hana Mart where, at least for now, no DVDs or CD are sold, much of what is brought into the store is influenced by the TV dramas.
Company president Sang Min Ji said much of his research consists of watching TV.
"Whatever you see on Korean TV, you're probably going to see it here," Ji said.
Non-Koreans now make up 20 percent of his business, double what it was several years ago, Ji said.
Daniel Lim said among the most satisfying things about his job comes from introducing Korean products to the growing number of non-Korean locals who enter his supermarket.
"I get a thrill out of that," he said.
STILL A BAR DISTRICT
When Ann Kobayashi replaced Andy Mirikitani on the City Council seat that includes the Kaheka-Ke'eaumoku area, she retained from his staff his liaison to the Korean community.
Kobayashi said the Korean-Americans have played a key role in the overall growth of the community.
"They're real hard-working, and none of them want to be on welfare or accept government's help," she said. "They just want to keep on working."
John Breinich, chairman of the Ala Moana/Kaka'ako Neighborhood Board, said Koreans have made numerous positive contributions to the community.
Breinich said, however, that the Ke'eaumoku area is still home to a number of bars and other businesses that have caused headaches for residential and commercial neighbors.
"It's not particularly Korean-based. I'm not saying that, but some of them are," Breinich said.
Fighting the shadow of their historical role in the development of the bar scene in the Ke'eaumoku-Kapi'olani area has been a constant struggle for Koreans in the area.
Chu, the Korea Times reporter, said that rightly or wrongly, the bar scene is part of the immigrant experience, regardless of ethnicity.
"When there is a language barrier, it's not easy to get jobs, especially for women," he said. "And one way to make big money is to go work in the bars."
He said old-timers have told him that bars in the area at one time were primarily the purview of Japanese immigrants. And while Korean-Americans may have owned most of them at one time, today many are owned by Vietnamese interests, Chu said.
Kobayashi said that while some problems exist, legitimate bars can get a bad rap even though they provide employment for a significant number of immigrants.
"For some of them, it's a small business, and that's what they're good at," she said. "They provide jobs for a lot of people without skills who don't want government handouts."
A NEW GENERATION
Jennifer Kim, who has a program on AM 1540 Radio Seoul and writes occasionally for the Korea Times, said the Korean community, for the most part, has moved past the bar roots. She said she's encouraged by the emergence of a second generation of Korean-Americans in the community such as Daniel Lim and and Sang Min Ji.
Raised in Korean homes and educated in American business practices, "it's a new generation, everyone can see that," she said.
"They're all bilingual, and in America, if you want to survive and if you want to grow your business, you have to speak English and understand the American ways."