The Korean Community

Compiled by Clifton L. Holland

Maps of the Korean population in Los Angeles

The American Cities Atlas Project is a continuing public education project of Professor William Bowen of California State University Northridge. For maps on Korean population distribution and density in the Los Angeles area based on 1990 Census see:

The IDEA Strategic Mapping and Information Service, directed by Clifton L. Holland, has produced a series of computer maps on ethnic and religious diversity in the Los Angeles 5-County Region, based on the 1990 Census of Population.    See the following links:   

Los Angeles County:  ../laco/korean.pdf (note PDF format).      Orange County:  ../orco/d-as-kor.pdf (note PDF format).

History of Koreatown

While Los Angeles' Koreatown's boundaries are not formally set, it occupies much of the area of the Wilshire Center, and is found between Arlington Avenue/Wilton Place on the west, Melrose Avenue on the north, Hoover Street on the east, and Pico Boulevard on the south. Hollywood lies to the north, Westlake and Pico-Union lie to the east, Harvard Heights lies to the south, and Country Club Park and Hancock Park lie to the west.

Major thoroughfares include Beverly, Wilshire, and Olympic Boulevards, Western Avenue, Normandie, and Vermont Avenues, and 3rd, 6th, and 8th Streets. The Hollywood Freeway runs through the district's northeast corner.

Prior to the 1960s, Wilshire Center was a wealthy commercial and residential district. As Los Angeles rapidly decentralized along newly constructed freeway corridors, Wilshire Boulevard and the areas surrounding it went into a lengthy decline. With property values drastically diminished, the area saw a heavy influx of Koreans during the 1960s, after restrictions on immigration to the United States from East Asia were lifted in 1965.

Growth of Koreatown

In the 1970s, the Heavy-Chemical Industry Drive initiated by South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee, which displaced much of Korea's petty bourgeoisie, resulted in even more Koreans settling in Wilshire Center, which was soon rechristened "Koreatown." The name "Koreatown" had more to do, however, with the predominance of Korean-owned businesses on the community's major arteries--Western Avenue, Olympic Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, Eighth Street, Sixth Street, Third Street and Vermont Avenue--than with the demographics of the residents, as large parts of the area were heavily Latino throughout the 1970s and 1980s while the level of Korean residents in other areas remained low as well.

Violence, riots, and aftermath

Tensions arose when Korean shopkeepers who had experienced actual incidents of armed store robberies or had heard reports of armed store robberies treated black and Latino customers with suspicion. The March 1991 shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins at the hands of female Korean grocery clerk Soon Ja Du enraged many living in the area.

Many Korean-owned businesses were looted, damaged, and burned down during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In the aftermath, much of the Korean population decamped to the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. The vacuum was largely filled by Mexican and Central American immigrants, who continued to make up a large part of the population of the area, particularly in the eastern portions of the neighborhood. At the end of the 1990s, Latino-Americans made up over three-fourths of Koreatown's population, while Asian Americans made up less than one-fifth of the total population.


The early 2000s have seen a revitalization of the area with many Korean-Americans returning, seeking a more urban lifestyle than could be found in Korean-heavy suburbs like Cerritos, and Irvine. The neighborhood has also become invigorated with the arrival of a new generation of middle-class immigrants from Korea, seeking better positions than are generally available in South Korea's stagnant economy. Koreatown has also become a somewhat chic destination for hipsters priced out of Los Feliz, West Hollywood, and Park La Brea, although the area's troublingly high crime rate [2] and crushingly overcrowded schools significantly reduce its desirability for families with children. (According to the LAPD's Wilshire Division, crime in the areas of Koreatown west of Normandie Avenue has plummeted, but gang activity and property crime remaining common in the areas adjoining Westlake and Pico-Union.)

Koreatown now brims with vibrant nightlife and commerce, and the construction of mid-high end residential buildings, including numerous apartments and condominiums continues to attract new residents. As of 2000, the estimated population of Koreans in Los Angeles is about 186,350 or 2% of the population [US Census 2000]. The construction of the Aroma Wilshire Center, a $40 million spa, which opened in June of 2001, caters to the city's affluent Korean population. Another notable addition is the construction of Koreatown Galleria, a 124,000 square foot (12,000 mē) shopping complex, which opened in October, 2001. Koreatown's presence has also notably expanded into Westlake and Country Club Park.


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Korean Immigrants In America

By Minjok Tongshin

January 18, 2002

Adapted from Chapter Ten:  THE ROLE OF IMMIGRANT CHURCH

In Los Angeles the situation, however, was somewhat different. A retired missionary, Mrs. Sherman, opened a residential mission center in March 1904 with assistance from a Methodist church. The center had evening classes in Bible study and English for Korean immigrants and services were conducted on Sunday until June, 1910.

After this, a number of Korean preachers served the mission but it became inactive. By October 1930, the Korean Methodist Church of Los Angeles was officially established, not by a Korean but by Rev. Davids, an American preacher. Rev. Whang Sa-yong was invited to serve the church soon after that. And much like the situation in San Francisco, Rev. Whang Sa-yong retired and moved to Honolulu. The church invited a brilliant young minister, Chiang Key-hyung, for the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. For the first time, the church had a bi-lingual minister to serve the second generation congregation.

Besides the Methodist church, there was a Presbyterian church, which also served the Korean community in Los Angeles. According to Mrs. Chung He-kyong of Los Angeles, the Korean Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles began in 1918. She came to Los Angeles in 1916 as the picture bride of Mr. Chung In-young who had gone to Hawaii in 1904. Mrs. Chung said that the church started with the members of a social club--Chinae-hoe--under the leadership of Rev. Hong Chi-bum, a brother-in-law of Rev. Min Chan-ho. There were about 40 to 50 people in the congregation which lasted until 1922 when Rev. Hong moved out of the church with about 20 followers due to a difference in opinion among the church leaders.

Rev. Hong was soon invited to the Methodist church and the remainder of the Presbyterian church met without a minister. The determined congregation worked hard to recover their strength and the congregation again increased to about 40 by 1925. A small group of the officers of the church went to see and appeal to the Presbyterian church headquarters for official recognition. The Los Angeles Presbytery responded happily and sent Dr. Preacher and two other delegates from the office to meet with the Korean congregation. It so happened that there were about 50 people attending when these official delegates came to see them at one Sunday service.

Dr. Preacher said to the congregation that if they have that many worshippers, then an official recognition is in order. The Korean Presbyterian Church was officially established on the spot. Mr. Cho Sung-hwa was ordained as a presbyter. From that time on, the congregation saved money for a church building. They bought a house as a worship place for $3,000 down and made 19 monthly payments thereafter. In 1927, Rev. Kim Jung-soo, who came to America to attend a Sunday School Convention from Korea, was invited to stay as a minister. Later Rev. Kim resigned his position and started an independent church of his own which was primarily to care for the elders in Los Angeles. The church was again left without a minister.

In 1937, Rev. Kim Sung-nak was invited to minister to the Presbyterian church as a national mission worker by the Los Angeles Presbytery.  Rev. Kim, then was building a pioneering church in a slum area, Pyongyang, Korea, while teaching a course in philosophy at Soongsil Christian College. Because of his patriotic activities and pioneering in a slum church, he was under constant surveillance by the Japanese police.

The Korean Presbyterian Church was sharing a Black church building on Denker Street when Rev. Kim Sung-nak arrived. There were about 1,000 Koreans living in Los Angeles. Rev. Kim recalled: "When we arrived...there were three Korean churches in Los Angeles and the Korean community was so small, and didn’t need three churches, so I thought of creating a single Korean community church.  At that time, Rev. Whang Sa-yong worked with the Methodist.  The Presbyterian Church was without a minister.  I was to fill it.  I really thought one church would serve the community best."

Dr. Kim didn’t get much support from anyone. He was disappointed, but had to meet his assignment for his church. He felt that the church needed a building. He started efforts to raise funds for a church building. He recalled, "I spoke, my wife sang, and since we didn’t have a car, we took the street car to everywhere with our infant daughter two months old. We made a total of 76 appearances."  He remembered that it was customary to get paid $5 for preaching, but he told the host church to send the contribution to the Presbyterian headquarters to add to the Korean church building fund instead of paying him. They all sent in more than just $5 but about $50. The Vermont Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, Rev. Kim recalled, sent in the largest contribution of $500.00.

By Thanksgiving, the foundation was laid and the next year, Easter, 1938, the Korean Presbyterian Church on West Jefferson Boulevard was dedicated.  It became a source of pride of the Korean community and has remained as a historical site there. This was the first Korean Presbyterian Church to be owned by Koreans. It is still the only Korean owned Presbyterian church according to Dr. Kim. Dr. Kim is not only a recognized church leader but also a well-known educator, and a community leader.  He was one of the five who were invited to Korea by the American Military Government in 1945 immediately following its liberation from the occupation of Japan.


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Exerpts from Edward Drewry Jervey, The History of Methodism in Southern California and Arizona.  Nashville, TN:  Parthenon Press for the Historical Society of the Southern California-Arizona Conference, 1960, pages 86-87.   (California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North). 

Christian activity among Koreans was also scattered, but the [Methodist] Church was alert to whatever opportunity presented itself.  In 1909 the only Methodist Episcopal Mission for Koreans in the entire United States was in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Missionary Society gave most of the support for it.  Mr. and Mrs. Walter H. Fisher of the First Methodist Church also worked part-time among these Koreans.   This devoted lay couple was deeply interest in the missions.  Mrs. Fisher was at one time President of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society.   Mr. Fisher was one of the Trustees of the first Japanese Methodist Church formed in Los Angeles.   They also participated in the Chinese Mission at First [Methodist] Church.   Koreans were never to be found in southern California in extensive numbers, but by 1939 a gradual increase was noticeable.  At Unification [in 1939] the Methodists had an organized society of one hundred and twenty-five [Korean] members but no buildings.  

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Korean Ethnic Church Growth Phenomenon in the United States

 By Chul Tim Chang

 A paper presented at the American Academy of Religion in Claremont, CA

 March 12, 2006

About the author:  Dr. Chul Tim Chang is the Associate Pastor at the Berendo Street Baptist Church in Los Angeles. He received his PhD degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

The growth of the Korean ethnic church in the United States, or the Korean American church, from its beginning in 1902 to 2001, is both a social and spiritual phenomenon. It started with one congregation in San Francisco, and after one hundred years, it has grown to more than three thousand churches. This paper seeks to provide a historical outline of how this large growth, both socially and spiritually, has taken place and also to provide a general description of its organization.

First, I’ll discuss the beginning of the Korean ethnic church movement in San Francisco in 1902 with Changho Ahn and his wife. Second, I’ll note how it grew from the early 1900s to the Korean War. Third, I’ll outline its rapid growth from post Korean War to 2001. And fourth, I’ll share what I believe to be twenty-two characteristics of a typical Korean ethnic church in the United States.

1. Beginning of the Korean Ethnic Church Movement

The first Korean church in the United States started on October 14, 1902 in San Francisco after the arrival of Changho Ahn, also known as Dosan (“island mountain”), and his wife, “Helen.”

Dosan became a Christian while attending the Salvation School in Seoul, established by Horace G. Underwood, the first ordained Presbyterian missionary from the United States to Korea (B. I. Kim 1995:23). After his conversion, Dosan sought to convert others to the Christian religion, which he believed would help Korea to become a strong nation. Yong-Taek Chon attributed the following quote to Ahn: “Only in the days when our people all have a Bible in their hands will our nation be able to stand on its own feet” (Gardiner 1979:25).

With the help of Underwood and other missionaries, the Ahns were able to immigrate to the United States to do “further studies in theology and education” (J. Pak Interview 2001). When they arrived in San Francisco, there were less than fifty Koreans in Hawaii and on the mainland (Choy 1979:72). When Dosan first met the Koreans living in San Francisco, he was appalled. They lived reckless lives and were prone to much fighting.

He became concerned with their welfare and also with the negative image they gave to Americans about Korean people (Choy 1979:80).

Dosan’s concern for Koreans in America, together with his passion for theological study, led him to initiate a church for the Koreans to study the Bible and to better themselves as one nation. As well, he found himself very busy meeting the practical needs of the San Francisco Korean community. At first, some were suspicious of his motive for cleaning, planting, and doing whatever he could at no charge, but eventually he was able to win their hearts and became their pastor, friend and trusted advisor (Choy 1979:81).  

It was during his stay in San Francisco that Dosan changed from pursuing “further studies in theology and education” to becoming a “social activist and community organizer” (J. Pak Interview 2001). In 1905, Dosan founded the first Korean political organization, Kongnip Hyop Hoe, the “Mutual Assistance Association,” in the United States (Choy1979:81).  

When Dosan moved to Riverside, California, in 1905, he founded another church for the Korean people who worked there as fruit pickers and domestic helpers. From 1907 until his death in 1938, he gave most of his attention, with limited involvement in the church, to freeing the motherland from Japanese oppressors.

2. Growth of the Early Korean Ethnic Church  

The second Korean ethnic church in the United States [Hawaii], led by Seung-Ha Hong from Neri Methodist Church, was founded on January 13, 1903 after the arrival of the first large Korean immigration which brought one hundred and one Koreans to work on Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations. By 1906, just three years later, there were 4,700 Koreans on the plantations (Patterson 2000:55).  

Living on the plantations was no paradise. Using a collection of first-hand accounts of the daily life on the plantations, we may see what they experienced: (1) “During those early days on the plantations, we lived in one big camp. The families were given small houses for themselves, and the single men lived in big barracks.” (2) “A working day on the plantation followed the same pattern day in and day out. The cook would get up at three in the morning, prepare breakfast, and make lunches for the field hands, who got up at five. A train would take them to the place of work in the fields, after the lunas [foremen] had gone to the head boss to get their assignments for the day.” (3) “We worked in the hot sun for 10 hours a day. I was not used to this kind of work, and I had a difficult time.

But I did the best I could and struggled along with the other men.” And (4) “[t]here were three haole [white] bosses. They were good men. They gave us free houses and anything we needed, if we were good and did not cause trouble” (Patterson and H.-C. Kim 1977:29-32).  

More than any other denomination, the Methodists were successful in reaching the Koreans working on the plantations. By 1916, there were as many as thirty-one Korean Methodist churches and thirty-five Methodist mission stations with over 2,800 members collectively throughout the Hawaiian islands (K. Chong and M. G. Son 1991:50).

Hawaiian Methodist Mission Superintendents, often in cooperation with the plantation owners, employed Korean ministers to work with the immigrant churches and mission stations.  

Syngman Rhee, a well educated man with a Ph.D. from Princeton University, who would eventually become the first president of the South Korean Republic, did not work well under the control of Methodist Superintendents. He broke from the Korean Methodist Church in Hawaii in 1916 and formed his own church and denomination, the Korean Christian Church.  By the time of World War II, the Korean Christian Church had 1,000 members in Hawaii (Patterson 2000:67).  

In search of easier and better lives, the Koreans left plantation and farm work and moved as soon as possible to the cities, consolidating the many plantation and farm churches and mission stations to a small number of city churches. By 1950, there were only fifteen Korean ethnic churches serving about 10,000 Koreans living in the United States (Chang 2003:86; Shin 1971:200).  

Woong-Min Kim cites nine Korean ethnic churches on the mainland before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 (1981:55):

For the early immigrants the church, more than any other social organization, acted as the center of the community. According to Bon Y. Choy, the church served three key functions (1979:263): (1) as “the social center and means of cultural identification for Koreans in America;” (2) as an “educational function by teaching American-born Koreans the Korean language, history, and culture;” and (3) as the place that kept “Korean nationalism alive.”  

The church, for many early Korean immigrants, was much more than a place to worship God and learn about the Bible. It was their home. It was the one place where they could be themselves, eat their own food, speak their own language. The church consequently became an extended family with the church pastor as the father and priest.  

3. Rapid Growth of the Korean Ethnic Church following the Korean War:  1951-2001  

At the end of the Korean War, the United States gave special permission to four different groups of Koreans to immigrate: the wives of U.S. servicemen, orphans who were usually mixed race, students, and highly skilled professionals. The last two groups were primarily responsible for starting new churches from 1951 to 1973.  

Taek-Yong Kim lists a total of twenty new churches that were started between 1951 to 1967 (1985:93):

By 1967, there were 35 churches, by 1970, 100 churches, and by 1973, 200 churches (Chang 2003:86; T-Y Kim 1985:95). As in previous cases, the church acted as the community center where Koreans gathered to meet their social and spiritual needs.  

After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, tens of thousands of Koreans annually immigrated to the United States. From 1976 to 1989, a steady flow of 30,000 to 35,000 immigrants arrived each year. By 1991, the number of Korean churches had swelled to 2,515 (W-S Chung 1996:11).  

By 2001, there were 3,375 Korean churches in the United States listed in The Korean Church Directory in America (2001:1-264). California alone had 1,108 churches. Nine states had over 100 churches: New York (356), Illinois (221), New Jersey (171), Virginia (157), Texas (153), Maryland (141), Pennsylvania (113), Washington (111), and Georgia (110). Three states possessed 50 to 99 churches: Hawaii (77), Florida (61), and South Carolina (54). The remaining 37 states had less than 50 churches.  

In regard to Korean American church membership, Ryan Chang found that 68 percent of Koreans in Los Angeles were church members (1989:197, 201). However, Woo-Song Chung argues, depending on location, church attendance fluctuated from 45 to 75 percent (1996:15).