Through hard work and 'kye,' the centuries-old tradition of community self-help, Korean-Americans are becoming an economic force in Baltimore.


August 19, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

Ensconced behind what looks like acres of shiny, bulletproof Plexiglas, Simon Yoo resolutely plys his trade.

Welcome to the Sun & Moon Grocery, at the corner of Division and Presstman streets. Mr. Yoo owns and operates the business with his wife, Helen. They can be found there 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

A wiry, engaging man, Mr. Yoo ushers a visitor to the rear of his retailing fortress, amid shelves stocked with sanitary napkins, canned juices and toilet tissue.

Mr. Yoo, 57, a graduate of Yun Sae University, came to this country nine years ago from Seoul, South Korea, where he was a television producer. But his poor English language skills prevented him from finding a similar job here. "I can read, but speaking is very poor," he says almost apologetically.

So the Yoos, like many other Korean-Americans, started a small business. In their first home, Orange County, Calif., they opened a restaurant. But it failed and they moved East.

"I have five cousins in Baltimore, so they asked me to come over here and get a small business like this grocery store," says Mrs. Yoo, 50. Using savings, plus $5,000 lent by Mrs. Yoo's cousins, she and her husband bought the Sun & Moon seven years ago. The previous owners, also Korean-Americans, left to concentrate their downtown restaurant.

Profits from the small grocery store have allowed the Yoos to steer their family toward the American Dream. Daughter Jean, 25, works in Tokyo for General Electric Co., and is in a management training program. Stacy, 26, works in sales for a national diet firm. And the promise of a bright future for their son, Robert, 20, a marketing major at the University of Maryland at College Park, keeps the Woos coming back to the Sun & Moon, day in, day out.

Still, the Yoos hold little love for the Sun & Moon Grocery. Not long after their son graduates from college, the Yoos probably will stop minding the store.

"We think we will retire after a couple more years," Mrs. Yoo says without a hint of regret.*

The superhuman hours, the small, crowded store, the pooneighborhood -- even the disaffection -- are common themes for many Korean-Americans. So is the hope. Hope that the next generation can bypass mom-and-pop businesses to play roles in the economic mainstream.

The signs already are here, from the ambitious Charles Village business development proposed by young Koreans Ki Duck Han and Heesok Kim, to the increasing enrollments of U.S.-born Korean-Americans in professional schools, to the creation of International Computers & Telecommunications Inc., a Rockville computer firm founded by David Y. Sohn.

Meanwhile, many Korean-Americans run small grocery stores, cleaners, liquor stores and restaurants in the Baltimore area. Of course, not all the businesses are small shops -- Timonium-based Kim's Karate is a growing chain of martial arts schools stretching along the East Coast.

According to the Census Bureau, in 1987 Korean-Americans owned 1,223 small businesses in the city alone. Many of those businesses are dotted along North Avenue.

The Korean-American community is bound tight by a tradition of self-help. Many businesses have been started with seed money gathered within the community, a funding mechanism known as a "kye" (pronounced "kay"). Such voluntary, cooperative arrangements, which can raise thousands of dollars, are enviable models for community action.

Yet Korean-American shopowners continue to face unflattering stereotypes. Some misconceptions of them -- spawned against a backdrop of cultural and linguistic misunderstanding -- seem to have taken on a life of their own.

Like the perception that they are dour workaholics who get wealthy by using their ubiquitous mom-and-pop stores to dredge inner-city neighborhoods of capital. Or that they're cold and condescending to customers, frequently refusing even to make eye contact.

It's time to debunk some of those myths, says Baltimore commercial real estate broker Yusang Chung.

Mr. Chung, a former University of Baltimore economics professor who has jet black hair and is "around 50," enthusiastically leaps into the fray. Seated in his business' plant-filled office on South Hanover Street, Mr. Chung rests his arms on a table that squeaks when he leans forward to make a point. The table begins to squeak quite a bit.

For starters, he says that Koreans don't perceive themselves as being in some kind of economic catbird seat.

"Among Americans, who goes to low-income, corner groceries, risks their lives working 17 and 18 hours and tries to make a living?" he demands rhetorically. "Look at that labor market. All the affluent people. . . . They go to General Electric, General Dynamics, they work over there. Who remains to work at the low-income neighborhood and fight with the bullets and try to make a living?"

Overwhelmingly, Korean-Americans do. Because of cultural differences, some may come across as rude to customers when, by and large, they are actually diffident and reserved, Mr. Chung says.

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