Hi-Duk Lee

Hi-Duk Lee moved to Los Angeles with his wife in 1968 from West Germany where Lee had worked as a miner. Both Lee and his wife were college graduates from South Korea.  In Los Angeles, Lee worked first as a can inspector, then as welder while his wife was employed as a nurse.  During their first three years, they saved about 8,000 dollars and bought Olympic Market at 3122 W. Olympic Blvd. in the heart of contemporary Koreatown.1

The opening of Olympic Market was what anthropologist Nancy Abelmann and sociologist John Lie describe as “the symbolic beginning of contemporary Koreatown in Los Angeles. …Before 1970 Korean American concentration was south of Pico Blvd., it shifted northward thereafter.”2

Following the success of Olympic Market, in 1974 the Lees purchased property and built the VIP Palace Restaurant and Nightclub on Olympic Blvd. also known as Young Bin Kwan.  This restaurant became a place where various dignitaries and members of the Korean American community gathered.  Among them was the Koreatown Development Association – a group of Korean immigrant real estate promoters of which Lee was director.  These Koreatown developers bought up cheap land in the mid-Wilshire district, promoted Koreatown in Seoul and became the major property owners in Koreatown during the 1970s.  To promote Koreatown awareness in Korea and Los Angeles, in 1973 the KDA offered free business signs in Korean for firms in the targeted area.

In 1975 the KDA organized the first Koreatown parade which made news both in Seoul and Los Angeles.  They also petitioned the City of Los Angeles to designate the mid-Wilshire district “Koreatown.”  So in 1980 despite the fact that Koreans only made up 7% of the residential population of Koreatown at that time, Koreatown signs were erected in Los Angeles.  Shortly after, KDA had the California Department of Transportation erect a freeway sign at Vermont and Normandie indicating the exit for Koreatown to passing drivers.

Though the original Korean architectural design of the VIP Palace remains, it has, since the 1980s been home to the Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza.

  1. Bong Youn Choy, Koreans in America, (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979), 225-6. 

  2. Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots, (Harvard University Press, 1995), 100-1.