These Photos Are A Love Letter To Koreatowns Everywhere

Emanuel Hahn, a photographer who moved to Los Angeles in the midst of the pandemic was stuck in a creative rut. Curbed reports that he visited LA's Koreatown first, and it is still the most popular in the US. Curbed says he was drawn to the signage and old graphics. He was reminded of his hometown in South Korea, Daegu, when he first visited the storefronts. He began to visit businesses and struck up conversations with the owners. He learned that these businesses, like many Asian American communities in America, were being severely affected by the gentrification and pandemic. Hahn stated that he was trying to settle in a new place and decided to start a documentary project in Koreatown. This would give him inspiration for future editorial projects. Koreatown Dreaming is the result of his many walks and photographs. He plans to publish it in the fall. We talked with him about the project's origin, the encounters with business owners, and the dangers of cultural shifts that can affect once-thriving immigrant communities. This interview was lightly edited to improve clarity and style.Emanuel Hahn Yongsusan is a popular Korean restaurant. A woman walks along it. A normally bustling street was almost empty in December 2020.What's LA's Koreatown like. Koreatown's history is a great example of the immigrant story. From the 1970s through 1990s, many Koreans fled to the United States to find better lives and work. They brought Korean culture, food and music to the country. Ahn Chang-ho, a vocal advocate for Korean independence following the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early 20th Century, and visionaries such as Hi Duk Lee (credited with the founding of Koreatown), were some of the first members of Koreatown. Three main waves of Korean immigrants arrived in the US. The first wave was made up of plantation workers from Hawaii. Next, war brides and students came to the US after the Korean War. Finally, the Hart-Celler Act of 1995 reversed the racist immigration policies in the US that were in place since the 1920s. The third wave was the most important in terms of impact and numbers. This was the time Koreatown began to evolve into the city we know today. There were many restaurants and small shops that were run by mom-and-pop. White flight began to take place in the area after the Watts riots of 1965 and subsequent freeway expansions. Many Korean immigrants found affordable housing in the area, and started setting up restaurants and businesses. Koreatown was finally established in Los Angeles County in 1980. Why did you decide to photograph small businesses in Koreatown? LA's Koreatown is a place I consider a spiritual home for all Korean Americans in America and an important part of the Korean immigrant journey to the USA. It houses the largest Korean community in Los Angeles, and a variety of Korean restaurants and businesses. Koreatown is a lively and diverse community of people from many cultures, religions, languages, and cuisines. There are many Korean restaurants, Oaxacan restaurants and Bangladeshi delis within a few minutes of each other. Koreatown is one of LA's most densely populated areas. Therefore, you can also walk around the area as a means of transport. It is where immigrants and dreamers come to realize their American dream. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, rising gentrification and other changes, I wanted to capture some of its elements. In Koreatown, construction was a major feature of my stay in Los Angeles in October 2020. Even before the pandemic, there was a lot of development in Koreatown. I wondered how the small businesses would be affected. These destabilizing forces intrigued me.Emanuel Hahn is the shopkeeper at Home Mart Plus Co. on Rodeo Galleria, Western AvenueHow did you meet these people? And how did they open up to you? I approached many small-business owners to ask how their day was. I was curious to find out how they dealt with the pandemic. Many of the shops were empty, so the owners were just sitting there. They would tell me their stories about immigrant lives and share interesting anecdotes. I would spend several hours listening to each owner. At first, I didn't take any notes so I memorized their names. I eventually asked them if they would allow me to photograph them. A Rodeo Galleria home goods store was the first one I photographed. The owner seemed stressed due to the lack of customers, so I took my time. To make sure she remembered me, I returned four times and bought something each time. She opened up more on the fourth visit and I learned many things about her. For example, she said she wanted to be an actress when she was in her twenties. I tried to take her picture, but she was so shy and refused. I tried to persuade her politely and persistently until she agreed that I could only take one photo. I took the shot, and prayed that it would be properly exposed. That was how the series began. I returned to her store several weeks ago, and she was so happy to see me. She said that her store was visited by a few people after she posted my Instagram feature. This encouraged her to continue. She was moved by the support shown her store by so many people in her community. Her family had suffered a tragedy and she was considering closing down her store. She decided to keep her store open as long as possible after people began supporting her. Many immigrants of first generation are self-centered and believe their stories aren't that extraordinary. Their lives were about making a living for their families and keeping their heads down. They were skeptical of me when I first approached them. Many businesses were extremely grateful at the end each session. Many of these people worked tirelessly for decades without ever having a platform to share their stories. It must have been satisfying and perhaps even cathartic for them to finally be able talk about their experiences.Emanuel Hahn children taking ballet lessons at Toe Toe Ballet. As indoor activities were no longer possible, the business was devastated.What role does the community space (and these businesses) play in the Koreatown community's life? These small businesses are vital because they provide immigrants with a home away from home as well as opportunities to build relationships, network and find work. Certain stores are essential to Korean culture. These include hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) shops and rice cake stores. A patron might visit a store for rice cakes when they are having a baby, a wedding, or a funeral. Song Je Ho Table Tennis Club is another example. This is where older Koreans can meet and exercise. It is becoming increasingly important to create safe spaces for older people so they can exercise and socialize in a safe environment. Recurring interactions at small businesses strengthen the trust people have in one another and makes them feel part of a larger collective. This is how communities can be formed and strengthened. These bonds enable individuals to get support and help during times of tragedy such as the 92 LA Riots when many Korean businesses were set on fire by rioters. How has COVID-19 impacted the community? The impact of COVID-19 on the Koreatown community was very negative. COVID caused the deaths of a few Korean barbers, as well as many small-business owners. Many of Koreatown's businesses depend on foot traffic. When the lockdown began, there was little to no business activity. Restaurants that relied on weekends and busy nights for their income had to close for at least half of the year. Many cash-strapped restaurants were forced to close permanently. Also, mom-and-pop shops without customers had to shut down. Many stores still owe rent and have accumulated unsustainable debt to continue their operations. Because the community is so interdependent, when one store closes, it can have a series of negative effects. If a restaurant closes, all employees, valet attendants and parking security guards are affected. Multiplying that over multiple blocks results in an entire neighborhood being effectively shut down. This is why it is important to do so now. Many of these small-business owners of the first generation are approaching retirement. Many of these businesses will not be taken over and will likely be sold off or closed forever. This will mean that the business' rich history will be lost forever. It would be a shame not to know the valuable contributions these small businesses made to Koreatown which is now considered one of the most desirable areas to live in. Koreatown was built by hardworking Korean immigrants. It is important to recognize their legacy and existence in California. It is crucial that younger Korean Americans understand their history so they can carry on their legacy. Today, we live in an age of anti-Asian rhetoric and misinformation. A lot of hateful rhetoric directed at Asians is misguided. I offer the history of one community of Asian Americans. I hope people will have a better understanding of the inner and domestic lives of Korean immigrants, and be able to appreciate them.8th Street Florist Emanuel Hahn8th Street Florist is a landmark establishment at Vermont and 8th. It's a multicultural intersection that hosts Korean restaurants, Mexican shops, and Chinese businesses. Sun Young Kong, the current owner, took over the business after the owner died from cancer last year. Because she didn't have any business records from the previous year, she couldn't apply to PPP. All her wedding jobs were also canceled. Kong was one of many Korean immigrants who arrived in the United States after the 1997 IMF financial crisis. This left many Koreans without jobs and looking for a better future. Kong moved to the United States to work in various jobs. She then decided to become a florist and worked with the former owners of 8th Street Florist. She is beginning to see more customers return to her store as the lockdown eases. Events continue as before.Kim Im Sook Hairdressers Emanuel HahnIm Sook Kim, a hairdresser, was the first to open a salon in Los Angeles. He also became one of the original tenants of Koreatown Plaza, a landmark in Koreatown. Kim won the Long Beach International Beauty Expo make-up contests numerous times in the early days. Kim also created the KIS hair show to showcase different hairdressers. Ms. Kim was also a primary makeup and hair artist for the LA Miss Korea pageants. Today, Ms. Kim enjoys running her shop and her loyal customers. She is determined to keep working for as long as she can.Moorimgoong Martial Art Emanuel HahnBorn into a family of martial artist, Great Grandmaster Yong Moon taught martial arts for more than 53 years. He immigrated to America in 1979 to start a martial arts school. After teaching for more than a decade, he decided to move to Los Angeles and open Moorimgoong Martial Art in 1992. He was inspired by a fight between a father-son in his neighbourhood. Moon created a space in the community to not only teach self-defense and physical fighting, but also to help teens avoid drug and gang abuse. Moorimgong's mission in life is to be a pillar for strength and support within its community.Lucky Rice Cakes Emanuel HahnLucky Rice Cakes was the first LA-based rice cake store to open. After working there for many decades, Eunice Park's dad took over the store. Eunice was forced to take over when her father died in December. Eunice has many fond memories of her father's time at the store. Her father's legacy is preserved and she can continue to adapt her products to a modern audience while keeping their traditions and integrity. Rice cakes are integral to Korean culture's special occasions, including children's birthdays, first birthdays, weddings, celebrations, funerals, and other important events. Eunice's work can touch all ages of the Korean community.Song Je Ho Table Tennis Emanuel HahnJe Ho Song was a table tennis player competing in the US Open in 1980 when he first visited the United States. He saw the possibilities and decided to move to America in 1983. All he had was a suitcase and his table tennis bag. He didn't care about getting a visa or finding permanent housing when he arrived. He just wanted to play tabletennis with his compatriots. Song had worked in various jobs for more than 20 years and was finally able, thanks to the encouragement of a friend from his church, to start a table tennis league. Many older Koreans, particularly retirees, have made table tennis a part of their lives. They can meet up and have fun in a safe setting. These venues are essential to the social fabric in a community such as Koreatown. They provide a space where people can meet and exercise while also providing a safe environment.Lee Hwa Hanbok Emanuel HahnLee Hwa, a fourth-generation Hanbok maker and purveyor, is from her family. Her contribution to the American craft is widely acknowledged. She promoted the traditional elements of the Hanbok dress but also taught how to adapt her designs to a younger, more Western audience. Laura Lee, who is the owner, returned to FIDM fashion school in her 40s to learn more about the trends and styles of the younger generation. To adapt her business, she attended classes and met with 20-year olds. Hanboks are revered in Korean culture for their durability and tradition. Lee Hwa made it more common to wear hanboks every day, rather than making them exclusive for special occasions.Han Bat Sul Tang Emanuel Hahn