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LA-based photographer captures Koreatown unfazed by pandemic

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Eden Food owner Sung Rae Yang poses in front of his fruit truck in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Emanuel Hahn

Emannuel Hahn's photobook, 'Koreatown Dreaming: Stories & Portraits of Korean Immigrant Life,' unravels small business owners' inner strength
By Kang Hyun-kyung

Koreatown in Los Angeles was like no other during the pandemic.

Unlike many self-employed people in the services sector who closed their businesses, small business owners in Koreatown stayed open even at the height of COVID-19 in 2020-21.

Facing this unprecedented time, Korean immigrants hung in there.

But customers, fearing infection, stopped dropping by.

Many vendors and small business owners felt the pinch as rents and other business costs far outweighed revenue.

Keeping their shops open during the pandemic sounds irrational because this would only worsen the financial health of their businesses.

But many Korean immigrants chose to do so, rather than helplessly playing a waiting game, and with their fingers crossed, hoping for the pandemic to end as soon as possible.

In his forthcoming photobook, titled "Koreatown Dreaming: Stories & Portraits of Korean Immigrant Life," documentary photographer and director Emanuel Hahn captured dozens of Korean immigrants running small businesses in Koreatowns _ mostly Koreatown in Los Angeles with a few based in other cities in the United States, including Honolulu_ and told their stories.

Sung Rae Yang, the owner of a fruit truck, was grateful and relieved that he didn't t have huge overhead expenses.

"Many of the vendors were struggling with rent and other business costs. His advice: keep your operating costs low. Deal in cash if you can. Give discounts so customers keep coming back and take care of your health," Hahn said in his book.

Scott and Cyndi Kim, the couple who runs Kim's Home Center, shared their knowhow that made their business become an indispensable store, despite a host of competitors in their neighborhood.

They offer one-of-a-kind quality goods at a great price, according to Hahn.

"Customers trust Kims, thanks to its steadfast offerings and service over the years," his book reads.

As well as Yang and the Kim couple, Korean immigrants involved in various other small businesses, including a kimchi maker, a barber, a hairdresser, a rice cake maker, a book shop owner, a florist and an art supplier are also featured in the photobook.

A woman pours ground peppers and other ingredients into vegetables to make Kae Sung Kimchi. Courtesy of Emanuel Hahn

"Koreatown Dreaming: Stories & Portraits of Korean Immigrant Life" testifies to a unique quality among Korean immigrants.

Unbeknownst to themselves, Korean immigrants, while going through a host of the toughest challenges in their lives after their arrival in the U.S., developed an inner strength to survive the pandemic.

Their inner strength was an integral part of the first generation of Korean immigrants to the U.S., to stand on their own feet and build their businesses against all odds.

They are no strangers to adversity.

Koreatown in Los Angeles was reconstructed after it was torn apart during the 1992 L.A. riots. Stores owned by Korean immigrants were targeted, set on fire, attacked, and looted by violent protestors.

Korean immigrants started from scratch again to rebuild Koreatown.

It is this inner strength that also helped them earn the reputation of "model minority."

The first generation of Korean immigrants' toils, endurance and perseverance paid off, particularly with the success of their descendants.

"For many of them, their aspiration for their children was something safe and respectable, and didn't require long hours of manual work. Professions like medicine and law were also appealing because of the associated prestige and job security," Hahn said in a recent email interview with The Korea Times.

Curious about how people in Koreatown survived during the unprecedented time, he embarked on his photo project in October 2020.

During the pandemic, some business owners tried to be grateful for what they had; others shared tips to help other community members survive; while some kept trying to find inner peace to get through the challenges.

Hahn said Koreatown in Los Angeles is a snapshot of South Korea in the 1980s and 90s, adding people can find all kinds of Korean food there at any time.

Interacting with dozens of owners of time-honored small businesses and vendors for almost a year for the photo project following his arrival in Los Angeles in October 2020, Hahn said that his project helped him find his identity as well.

"Working on this project put me in touch with the world in a way I never could have imagined, making me think about my life and about what it means to be Korean in America," he said. "I feel I have found my people. I feel like I belong there."

Documentary photographer Emanuel Hahn / Courtesy of Brittany Bravo

Born in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean, as his father worked in the tourism sector there, Hahn spent his childhood in Cambodia and Singapore with most of his young adolescent years in Singapore. He came to New York to study economics and finance at New York University.

After graduating, he lived in New York for 10 years working at tech startups where he said he "dabbled in venture capital, engineering, and product management."

After paying off his student loans, he decided to follow his heart and become a freelance photographer.

He moved to L.A. three years ago at the height of the pandemic, hoping to write and direct movies.

"What was supposed to be a temporary move ended up becoming somewhat permanent because of my project ‘Koreatown Dreaming' where I met with small business owners in Koreatown and interviewed and photographed them," he said.

"Koreatown Dreaming: Stories & Portraits of Korean Immigrant Life" is his latest photo project about ethnic minorities.

Previously, Hahn captured Chinese grocery store owners in the Mississippi Delta, and Korean Uzbeks in Brooklyn in his photo projects.

Through these projects, the L.A.-based photographer came to find a pattern in ethnic minorities' adaptation to U.S. society.

He said the Mississippi Delta Chinese's experience was unique because there was serious racial segregation in the U.S. in the late 1800s and they were in between white and black people.

"So, their experience was characterized by trying to fit in by keeping their heads down and being conciliatory to both sides, especially because the Chinese ran grocery stores primarily catering toward black people," he said. "But their experience would have been substantially different from Chinese folks in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or New York, where there was a bigger Chinese population, so they could be more at ease and be themselves."

Hahn said Koreatown in Los Angeles has been in transition from an enclave for Korean immigrants struggling with a language barrier into a bustling, expensive neighborhood.

"Obviously being in a major city like Los Angeles was a big attraction for immigrants, and more specifically when Koreans started to arrive in large numbers in the 1970s and 80s, the area was affordable for new immigrants," he said. "Today, it's a different story, because the central location and density of LA's Koreatown makes it one of the most desirable places to live, making it expensive."

"Koreatown Dreaming: Stories & Portraits of Korean Immigrant Life" will be published on Oct. 17.

Happy Barber Shop owner Soon Ahm Kwon, left, and his wife pose on a couch at their barber shop in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Emanuel Hahn

Kang Hyun-kyung


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