Koreans Make Boomtown Their Business

October 28, 1990|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The Army sergeant said he'd rather be back in Korea. For now, Bill's Lounge on the Boomtown strip would have to do.

The sergeant -- recently transferred from South Korea to Fort Meade -- sat at the bar shortly after midnight on a Saturday. He talked with a Korean waitress as Korean video discs played on two televisions, one at each end of the bar. He ate sushimi ordered from the Korean restaurant next door.

After midnight, Korean patrons streamed into Bill's. The place filled with cigarette smoke, Korean chatter and nostalgia for the homeland. A patron picked up a microphone and sang along with the video disc -- a sad Korean tune.

The sergeant -- who asks not to be named -- is biding his time in Fort Meade, awaiting his first chance to transfer out. He doesn't much care for Meade, where he's lived since early this year. In South Korea he was a troop commander. That's where he wants to go. At Meade he has no men to command. Just a job. Meade is no place for soldiers, he said. Too many civilians. Too many administrators.

There's no point in asking what the sergeant does at Meade, because he answers with an old line: "If I tell you what I do, I have to kill you."

Saturday nights often find him moving along the strip between Bill's and Kim's Lounge, a few doors down. "I like to drink, have a good time," said the sergeant, who is unmarried and about 30. "I don't want to have to drive back" to Fort Meade from bars in Washington or Baltimore.

Walking from Bill's to Kim's you pass the Star Inn, which on weekends serves a predominantly Hispanic crowd, and My Place, where most of the the weekend patrons are black. Kim's -- once a rough biker bar called the 400 Club -- is popular with Army people now. The crowd there is mostly white.

All these bars are managed by Koreans.

Bill's Lounge undergoes a transformation as the night wears on. Early in the evening the music is Blues Brothers and The Doors. Most of the customers are white. Around 10 o'clock the manager switches from rock 'n' roll to Korean video discs. After midnight you might swear you were in Seoul.

That's the feeling along much of Boomtown, the stretch of Route 175 that faces Fort Meade, which since the early 1980s has drawn one Korean business owner after another. Behind the crazy-quilt of restaurants, liquor stores, bars, Asian markets, dry cleaners and a pool room lies a tight association of business owners who have banded together to lend advice and money.

Some of the business owners and managers have found their way to Odenton through word of mouth of family or friends. Some, like Chom Ok Funk, whose mother owns Sue's Sub Shop, followed their serviceman husbands to Fort Meade. Funk met her husband, Sgt. Thomas Funk, 12 years ago at an Air Force field station about 50 miles outside Seoul. They've been married 10 years and have lived in the area since 1985. The couple lives in Severn, where their two sons attend Ridgeway Elementary School.

"Oh yeah, I like it here, just like Korea," said Chom Ok Funk. "I can get whatever I want to get in Korean food. I don't like American food."

From time to time customers remark with some resentment about the concentration of Korean business owners. She makes no apologies.

"A lot of customers come in and say to us 'How come all the Koreans own these stores?'. . . The thing is, Americans, they don't want to work hard.

Koreans work hard. A lot of people, they don't want to work Saturday, they don't want to work Sunday. . . . Like my mom works seven days a week."

She points a few doors down the strip toward Tom's Liquors. The story of owner Tom Hall, born Song Ung Ho, presents a classic of immigrant lore. As Hall's 25-year-old son, Hyon, tells it, Hall arrived in the United States in 1972 after having worked on a U.S. base in Vietnam. He heard there were jobs in this area and began working at a local gas station, then switched to a factory job. For a time he worked two full-time jobs and some weekends.

Tom Hall opened the liquor store, which used to be part of the Korean restaurant next door, with money borrowed from the owners' association.

About once a week the group of 10 to 40 people meets in a restaurant or a home. They discuss business and pool their money for loans, Hyon said.

"We help each other, pull together," said Hyon, who was born in Seoul and came to the United States with his family, after his father, in 1975.

His father, who was in Washington this afternoon on business, opened the store in September 1989. Hyon said his father hasn't taken a day off yet.

"I can't handle that sort of thing," said Hyon, a computer science graduate of UMBC. "We're built different." Maybe, he wondered aloud, he has become Americanized.

He sat behind the cash register with a portable computer at his side. He uses it to do work for the small computer software and hardware company he started with a few college friends. After eight hours' work at the liquor store, he often heads to the computer company.

By about 4:30 the scene at the register presented a telling image. This young man with the computer at his side and another job waiting was selling Old Milwaukee and Jack Daniels to a stream of American customers. Their workday was done.

"If I had my choice, I'd be working a 9-to-5 job in computers," he said.

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