LOS ANGELES — Koreatown, Los Angeles is nestled in the heart of the sprawling city, between Downtown and Santa Monica from east to west, Hollywood and South Los Angeles from north to south. The neighborhood is home to the largest community of ethnic Koreans in the US outside of Korea. It is unmistakable when you’re in Koreatown; telltale plaza signage in ’80s-style lettering serves as a lighthouse beacon to countless small businesses and humble mom-and-pop restaurants that serve the community.
Highlighting forty of these Koreatown establishments is Koreatown Dreaming, a photo book by photographer and director Emanuel Hahn. When Hahn moved from New York to Los Angeles in December 2020 during the height of the city’s quarantine, the usually bustling streets of Koreatown were quiet. With a sense of urgency that was echoed by many others, he set out on foot, walking Koreatown’s sweeping blocks, to document the rapidly changing neighborhood as it weathered the challenges of aggressive gentrification and the COVID-19 pandemic. Through funds raised on Kickstarter, Hahn was able to compile the images together to bring the photo book to life.
The 122 pages of photographs, essays, and stories in Koreatown Dreaming serve as a love letter to the people who make up this singular neighborhood in Los Angeles. In the book’s foreword, Katherine Yungmee Kim (author of Los Angeles’s Koreatown) writes about the pandemic’s impact on the neighborhood, weaving in the history of Korean immigration to Los Angeles through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and how today’s Koreatown came to be, providing readers with essential context to the photographs and anecdotes. Divided into three sections focusing on retail, services, and restaurants, the photo book offers beautifully personal photographs of the proprietors in their workplace, sometimes with their families, accompanied by the story of their past lives and their current struggles.
In many of the anecdotes, we learn about the shopkeeper’s hopes before they immigrated to America, reminding readers that each had a life and a home that they left behind in pursuit of a better future. The pages dedicated to Aqua 9+, a business that specializes in filtered mineral drinking water, introduce us to the father and son duo, Sam and James Park. Before leaving Korea, Sam had dreams of becoming a flutist. With Universal Cleaners, we meet Yong Seok Choi and his wife, who came to America believing they’d work in auto repair. Their plans changed when the person picking them up from the airport needed their help cleaning clothes.
In other anecdotes, we’re introduced to businesses that Los Angeles at large might never have gotten to know otherwise — with no website, no Yelp page — that serve an aging, non-English speaking population. An example is Happy Music Center: a music school and karaoke hall for the elderly in Koreatown, a safe space for them to sing and experience joy. With the recent attacks against the elderly in AAPI communities, these places are vital to the health of the senior citizens in Koreatown and beyond.
The last few years have seen Korean cuisine’s rise in popularity, to the point that gochujang in your barbecue sauce at Sweetgreen or kimchi accompanying an “experimental” dish is no longer surprising or exotic. Less common is the acknowledgment of the community who cooked these foods for others who were inspired by their flavors. It’s special to see the people behind some of Koreatown’s culinary institutions being honored through Hahn’s gorgeous portraits against the backdrop of their recognizable restaurant interiors. The stories humanize the chefs who helped bring specialties like bossam, sliced boiled pork, and naengmyun, Korean cold noodles, to the American palate.
In her essay, Cathy Park names some of the Koreatown restaurants that closed permanently during the pandemic. When indoor dining felt doable in 2021, I was able to gather with friends to enjoy a meal within the Koreatown restaurants again. The conversation would inevitably steer to shared memories of these shuttered spaces — playing on the floors of Dong Il Jang during family celebrations, or meeting friends at the favorite coffee shop that was replaced by a new luxury condo building. As the neighborhood’s residents continue to witness foundational storefronts close for good, there is uncertainty as to what a future Koreatown might look like.
Koreatown Dreaming feels necessary and timely as rent in Los Angeles steadily increases and a precarious world leaves the future of small businesses in question. The photo book uplifts the histories of some of the people that made Koreatown what it is today, and serves as a record of their existence and survival in America. Work chronicling these experiences feels especially poignant in a country where Asian American experiences are either heralded as a success in order to uphold the Model Minority Myth or invisibilized completely, in a country where a shooting that targets Asian-owned spas is not immediately considered racially motivated.
Some of the anecdotes mention the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, referred to in the text as the “’92 Los Angeles Riots.” While the event only plays a background character in the photo book, the Los Angeles Uprising is significant in the city’s history, its effects felt all throughout Los Angeles and across the nation still to this day. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the five days of civil unrest in Los Angeles, and it feels important to reflect on the indelible events in the context of Koreatown’s history, and what we’ve learned in the years since.
Within the Korean-American diaspora, the events are assigned the name Sa-I-Gu, which literally translates to April 29. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, a Black man, was severely beaten by LAPD officers, and the recording was circulated around the world. Shortly after, a fifteen-year-old Black child named Latasha Harlins was killed by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du on March 16, 1991. On April 29, 1992, the jury for the Rodney King case delivered an acquittal of all four officers on trial. Los Angeles erupted in flames of anger, grief, and distress, and the LAPD formed a blockade along the borders of Koreatown to protect the affluent white neighboring areas, leaving those caught in the chaos to their own devices.
Incessant media coverage for years after perpetuated the narrative that Black-Korean racial tensions were the root cause of the upheaval. After 30 years of media examination, we’ve learned that this story operated to deflect blame away from LAPD and stoke resentment and tension between minority groups. All throughout the above tragedies, and for far longer before them, Black and Latine communities in Los Angeles were heavily policed, unemployment rates were high, and immigrant communities struggled to survive side by side with the little resources they were allowed.
In an NPR Morning Edition segment from 2015 discussing the implications of labeling an event a “riot” versus an “uprising” or “rebellion,” Jack Schneider, now Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says that he “believes the choice in terminology during an event can shape what happens after. If you consider it as a rebellion, you all of a sudden are responsible for thinking more deeply about its origins and its roots and the collective responsibility we bear for it.” Today, as communities work to preserve the histories of those who had little visibility, it feels vital to make the important linguistic distinction between naming the 1992 upheaval as an uprising rather than a riot, and to share this learning with the generation above.
The stories and essays in Koreatown Dreaming provide a space for Korean American store owners who experienced the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising to add their experiences to the story that we are still learning from today. But it’s clear that the Los Angeles Uprising is a complicated and layered history, one that requires care and varied perspectives that cannot be singularly represented by Korean business owners. One way to acknowledge this complexity is through the language we choose moving forward, to address Sa-I-Gu as the city’s uprising, rather than a riot.
There is an urgency within the younger Korean diaspora to unearth and bring to a wider audience the stories of the generations that came before them — stories they could not tell themselves due to language barriers, cultural stoicism, or unfamiliarity with the larger systemic issues at play. Koreatown Dreaming is not a sociological book chronicling Koreatown’s history, but there is an importance in being able to see the stories and people we’ve grown up with memorialized. My own parents immigrated from South Korea to Los Angeles in 1973 and 1974, and as I watch them grow older, I wonder how much of what their generation built in Koreatown will remain, what we can learn from their memories, and how we can continue building upon them.
Through Hahn’s intimate photographs and anecdotes and essays by the contributing writers, Koreatown Dreaming offers readers a personal look into the stories of a generation that often remains tight-lipped about their hardships to put on a brave face for the world. As a second-generation Korean American, who wasn’t taught Asian American history in early education, who quickly forgot their mother tongue, I find that I regularly look for myself in the stories of my parents and their community. Reading through Koreatown Dreaming feels like holding a piece of myself and my Korean American identity.
Koreatown Dreaming (2021) is self-published by Emanuel Hahn and is available online.