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Trying to Preserve the History of One of LA’s Most Vibrant Neighborhoods

During the pandemic, Emanuel Hahn set out to photograph Los Angeles’ famed Koreatown as way to work out a creative rut, looking at how Covid-19 and gentrification were changing the area. But as he spent more time with the shopkeepers he met, the project became a way to create a record of the lives of the Korean immigrants who have made Koreatown what it is today.
Emanuel Hahn
Mr. Kwak has over 60 years of experience in refurbishing and building antique Korean furniture. © Emanuel Hahn

For much of his 20’s Emanuel Hahn called New York City home, having come to the city to study finance and then spending time working in the tech industry. It was a dream come true for him, a Korean Third Culture Kid, who grew up in Singapore and Cambodia. But it was a camera that Hahn had received from his brother before heading off to college that drew him into a much different career path.

“My older brother gave me his Canon 1000D as a parting gift when I was off to NYU to study finance. The idea was that I could document my new life in America and share it with my family, most of whom are in different parts of Asia. I didn’t even learn to use the camera properly until I studied abroad in London, and when I traveled all over, I learned all the functions of the camera.”

When he returned to New York after his time abroad, Hahn would save money from his various internships and jobs to buy better equipment. As he became more proficient in photography, his confidence grew, and in 2015 he left his tech job to pursue photography full time. He covered stories on the coffee farmers in Columbia, the Chinese Americans that call the Mississippi Delta home, and the Korean Uzbek population that lives in Brooklyn among others. His work was published widely in outlets like the New York Times, Buzzfeed News, and The Huffington Post. And his client list began to grow as well.

Emanuel Hahn
Gol Tong Chicken is a one-man shop run by former movie director Mr. Jeong © Emanuel Hahn

Then in his late 20’s, Hahn decided he really wanted to peruse film making, and decided that Los Angeles made sense as a destination, though he had no definitive plan. But the Covid-19 pandemic changed his timeline.

“I was sort of trying to delay that move as long as possible because it seemed that once I left New York, it would be extremely hard to come back. But when the pandemic happened in 2020, my lease ran out on my New York apartment and that’s when I decided to make the move to LA. I bought a Prius in New Jersey, loaded up what little possessions I had, and drove cross country to LA.”

The pandemic was hard on Hahn financially, as it was for so many others. That stress also boiled over into his personal work and drove him into a creative rut. To try and change his outlook, and reinvigorate his creative side, he devised a plan.

Emanuel Hahn
Eighth Street Florist has changed hands 4 times but still serves a vital purpose for everyday and special occasions like birthdays, weddings and funerals. © Emanuel Hahn
Emanuel Hahn
Chinese Best Western is one of an ever dwindling number of Eastern Medicine practitioners in Koreatown. © Emanuel Hahn
Emanuel Hahn
Dan Sung Sa was one of the first pojangmachas (Korean-style food bars) that opened in Koreatown and still going strong. © Emanuel Hahn
Emanuel Hahn
Kim Im Sook is one of the first hairdressers to open in Koreatown in the 80s and was active in putting together beauty pageants. © Emanuel Hahn

“Because I moved during the pandemic, it was hard to meet people or even work on projects. The only thing I could control was finding something to photograph, and that became Koreatown for me. I made a pact with myself that at least for all of Dec 2020, I would at least drive myself to Koreatown and photograph something every single day.”

Los Angeles’ Koreatown began in the 1960’s as large numbers of Korean immigrants began moving to the area. This influx brough life back to the area, which had seen an economic decline. The low housing costs and open commercial spaces allowed the Korean immigrants to set up new businesses, and the economic boom led to the area becoming a hub of Korean immigrant life. But Koreatown is also changing as gentrification plays out in the area. 

“Koreatown is changing so rapidly because it occupies an advantageous location in the city of Los Angeles – it is central to most parts of the city – plus it is one the densest and most vibrant. Naturally, this attracts many developers, both Korean-owned and other, that want to profit from this fact. I think the question will be how the marginalized will be protected by the community, and how small businesses will fare in an even more competitive space.”

Emanuel Hahn
Eden Foods is a rare food truck operated by Mr. Yang. © Emanuel Hahn

Hahn’s pact with himself began by driving himself to Koreatown every day, and photographing building exteriors, signages and street life in the area. He became fascinated with how Koreatown seemed to be stuck in time, while at the same time new developments were happening all over the area. As the days went by, this combination of old and new led him to decide to focus on the effects of the twin forces of the pandemic and gentrification on the businesses in Koreatown.

It quickly became clear to Hahn that just photographing the stores and street life were not going to be enough. But many of the small business owners were apprehensive at first about participating in the project. The Korean immigrants in Koreatown tend to be private and do not want to stand out. Many were also not used to the attention that Hahn was giving them. But Hahn worked to tread lightly and put everyone at ease. And as the time passed, the shop owners slowly would open up to him and his camera.

“Soon I realized I had to talk to real people being affected by the pandemic. So that’s what brought me inside stores and plazas. I would walk in and make casual conversation with the store owners, and over time they would really open up to me. Their stories would always move me in some sort of way, and I could see the enormity of their experience – decades of ups and downs – that were never expressed. I started writing down their stories, started sharing them along with the photos, and that’s how this project came to be.”

Emanuel Hahn
Home Mart Plus Co. sells everyday Korean goods from back scratchers to rice cookers. © Emanuel Hahn
Emanuel Hahn
Happy Music is a gathering place for the elderly to karaoke and learn musical instruments. © Emanuel Hahn

The project eventually grew into the book Koreatown Dreaming, which tells the stories of 40 small businesses in the three realms of retail, services, and restaurants. But Hahn didn’t want the book to just be the photographs and stories of the shop owners. He reached out to writers who knew Koreatown and its people to write essays for the book.

“When I was researching for my book, I read numerous essays by Lisa Kwon for LA Taco and Cathy Park for Eater LA, and found their takes really interesting, so I reached out to them via Instagram DM. I met Katherine through a non-profit Koreatown Youth and Community Center, and I realized she had published a book about the history of Koreatown, so it was a no-brainer to have her write the introduction to the book. As for Dumbfounded, I’d known him to be an iconic Koreatown legend from the early days, and I knew he would be perfect to write the epilogue for the book. Fortunately, all of them said yes!”

As Koreatown Dreaming progressed, so did the effects of the pandemic on Koreatown itself. Some stores closed because they were not able to survive the drop in business. And many older members of the community succumbed to the disease and passed away. But the area is a resilient one, and one that Hahn does think will recover, though it will change. As one generation passes the area onto the next, new business owned by the children of the first generation will open to replace those that were lost, while at the same time trying to preserve their history and traditions for the next generation and newer audiences.

Emanuel Hahn
Kae Sung Kimchi is only kimchi manufacturer that still operates in Koreatown as most other kimchi makers have moved out to larger facilities. © Emanuel Hahn

In the end, Hahn’s wants his project to be about sharing the stories and the faces of those who call Koreatown home, while at the same being a record of the history of the area for the future. But he also wants to show that the immigrant community is not a generalized group of people, but as individuals whose history and story are important to all.

“Often immigrants are simply lumped into groups and generalized to be so-and-so. I want to challenge that notion by showing each person in the book to be an interesting character unto themselves. I also want this book to serve as a record of the hard work of Korean immigrants to create the Koreatown in LA that we know today. And more broadly, that immigrants being so much good to a new country, and that America specifically is better off for it. As Koreatown continues to change, I hope this book can be a time capsule of sorts for future generations to look back and say, ‘these people lived here’.”

Emanuel Hahn’s work can be seen on his website here. And while book sales are halted at the moment due to lack of stock, Hahn is thinking of doing a second run, but it is not yet confirmed. But information on the book can be found here.

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