Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Koreatown, Los Angeles: Immigration, Race, and the “American Dream”

Stanford University Press, 2022

216 Pages


Reviewed by Christopher Ndubuizu

For the past several years, the rise of anti-Asian racism, coupled with police brutality as seen with the 2020 George Floyd demonstrations, has forced the United States to confront its ongoing reality with racial oppression. Shelley Sang-Hee Lee’s timely and relevant text gives readers an opportunity to learn how the ambiguous treatment and reception of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants can be traced throughout American history. In six thorough yet concise chapters, Lee’s well-researched text provides a historical and ethnographic account of the experiences of Korean Americans by centering the popular Koreatown in Los Angeles as a case study. Throughout the text, Lee artfully employs a combination of interviews, memoirs, and online sources to capture the unique ways Koreans have immersed themselves into American society to assert their belonging.

Throughout Chapter One, Lee articulates the push-pull factors that facilitated Korean immigration in the United States. Centering the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 as a reference mark, Lee emphasizes that Korean migration to the United States came at a time when the United States was trying to fulfill its promise to multiculturalism while also maintaining its free market principles. Post-war politics in South Korea along with rapid population growth compelled many South Koreans to migrate due to political instability. Los Angeles, like many cities throughout the United States, was trying to rebound from the 1970s recession that left many neighborhoods blighted and abandoned. In an effort to revitalize the communities, then mayor Tom Bradley relied on foreign investors to revitalize many neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles. Based on this phenomenon, Lee transitions to highlight the stories of the pioneers who were instrumental in establishing ‘Koreatown’ in the 1970s and early 1980s throughout Chapter Two. Several of Koreatown’s founders, as noted by Lee, came from entrepreneurial backgrounds and envisioned establishing a physical site that symbolically represented home. Lee reminds readers that the makings of an ethnic enclave require a substantial degree of financial and social capital, though many observers during this time expressed one dimensional cultural narratives such as ‘hardworking’ to explain the economic integration of Korean immigrants into the United States. In terms of exploring their beliefs regarding the mythological ethos of the ‘American Dream,’ readers learn that many Korean migrants believed their pathway to exercising their belonging in the United States relied on entrepreneurship, economic self-sufficiency, and upward mobility.

While traditional sociological scholarship often homogenizes the identities and experiences of migrant groups, Lee deviates from that tradition by exploring the identity formation between recent Korean immigrants and multigenerational Korean Americans throughout Chapter Three. The cultural and temporal divide between Korean immigrants and Korean Americans compelled both migrant cohorts to ask what it meant to be Korean in the United States. Lee emphasizes how discriminatory US immigration policy created the generational divide between both cohorts. The divide manifested itself with earlier cohorts and their descendants being forced to assimilate to US customs by abandoning their traditions while newer cohorts felt encouraged to practice their customs and traditions. Early migrant cohorts migrated to the United States at the height of racial exclusion and arrived as laborers, students, and political exiles. Their children had to withstand overt discrimination due to their speech, food, and customs, while newer migrant cohorts were often college educated and hailed from middle- to upper-middle class backgrounds. According to Lee, the rise of multiculturalism after the Civil Rights movement compelled many Korean Americans to learn more about their heritage and the number of Korean immigrants in the United States ballooned to 290,000 by 1980. Therefore, the need to create and foster programs and institutions that supported the needs of new migrants was more critical than ever.

Lee transitions to explain to readers what the increased presence of East Asian immigrants meant for the economy of Los Angeles and the United States writ large in Chapter Four. Lee informs readers about how the emergence of Koreatown, which made Los Angeles into what many would regard as an international metropolis, not only strengthened the trade relationship between the Pacific West Coast and East Asia but also heightened the visibility of Korean immigrants that fortified their sense of belonging in the United States. However, Lee informs readers that the increased visibility of Asian migrants was not always met with warm regard. As Asian-based companies were establishing their branch offices in the United States, many US manufacturing companies shipped their companies overseas, and Asian migrants in the US were blamed by some working-class US-born groups for the loss of US-based manufacturing jobs. Consequently, Asian immigrants became the subject of various racist, xenophobic hate crimes throughout the 1980s.

Chapter Five diverges from popular narratives surrounding racial tension by centering the complex relationship between communities of color. While public opinion about immigrants have traditionally centered the opinions of white Americans, this chapter uniquely captures the nuanced opinions many working class African Americans expressed regarding the rapid increase of Latinx and East Asian migrants settling and establishing businesses in South Central, Los Angeles. Lee maintains that the relationship between African Americans and Korean store owners operated on a spectrum of contention and occasional solidarity. To address the ethnic and racial tensions between working class African Americans and Korean store owners, groups like the Black-Korean Coalition were formed to improve relations between both communities. However, Lee maintains that the challenges both groups were facing were far too systemic to be eliminated solely through improved interpersonal relations. Unfortunately, the ongoing strife between both groups ultimately culminated into the 1992 Los Angeles riots which destroyed hundreds of Korean-owned businesses throughout Koreatown and South Central.

Lee’s concluding chapter details the rebirth of Koreatown in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Although many businesses were lost, local, federal agencies, and private Korean companies all partook in the redevelopment of Koreatown. Once again, South Korean investors and Los Angeles elected officials saw the redevelopment of Koreatown as another opportunity for economic growth. In spite of the neighborhood’s revitalization, Lee exposes readers to present-day inequalities in Koreatown as a consequence of its revitalization efforts. Many of Koreatown’s longtime residents are members of the working-poor who are foreign-born. Additionally, the neighborhood’s high cost of living has been attributed to its high rates of unemployment and homelessness. Though not explicitly stated, Lee’s text illustrates how the history of Koreatown is representative of the United States’ performative efforts of exercising multiculturalism all while being committed to maintaining its ethno-racial hierarchy.  For example, Los Angeles elected officials were more concerned with maintaining the city’s economy rather than comprehensively addressing the unique needs of its longstanding populations and growing migrant populations.

Lee’s text is undoubtedly useful in both diaspora studies and critical race studies. Both fields explore the extent to which migrant populations are integrated into host societies and how they are incorporated into a host country’s social hierarchies. It would be interesting to explore how this text can be applied to discussions surrounding settler colonial theory. While settler colonialism is inextricably tied to white supremacy and capitalism, there are useful debates regarding the role migrant groups play in contributing to settler colonialism in the United States. As displayed in Lee’s text, many well-off economic migrants partook in behaviors that resulted in displacement, wage theft, and worker exploitation for the sake of personal profit. I believe this text offers value in enhancing scholars and activists’ understanding of how immigrants, albeit unconsciously, partake or reinforce settler colonialism by exercising the concept of private property. In the era of Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, this text solidifies why interracial political solidarity is more important than ever before as communities of color continue to be plagued with racial and economic oppression in the midst of a global oppression.