A New York Staple, Korean Grocers Are Dwindling

Joo Han
Joo Han, a grocer on the Upper West Side, grew up stocking shelves at the store, which his parents opened in the 1970s. Photo credit: Chang W. Lee / The New York Times.
The New York Times recently featured the plight of a New York staple business – Korean groceries. The Times profiled Joo Han, the son of Korean immigrants, who runs a Manhattan produce store that looks much as it did when his parents opened it a generation ago. The Times writes, “Korean grocers have not only populated New York’s neighborhoods over the last several decades; they have also popped up in its culture, lore and literature.” But the shop that paved Han’s parents’ path to the middle class can barely cover the rent today. Han is thinking of closing or selling the business — a step that two nearby Korean grocers are also considering, and that hundreds others have already taken.

For decades, Korean greengrocers have embodied a classic New York type — the immigrant entrepreneur — and become as much a staple of city life as the yellow cab and the pretzel vendor. Spike Lee and Jerry Seinfeld found early inspiration in them. The Rev. Al Sharpton led boycotts against them; Rudolph W. Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign used them as a key symbol. Now, they are on the wane, reports The Times.

Koreans still dominate the small-grocery business in New York; the Korean Produce Association estimates that they own 70 percent of the city’s stores. But their ranks are thinning as they face the same forces that threaten all sorts of mom-and-pop businesses: rising rents, increased competition from online and corporate rivals, and more scrutiny from city agencies that impose fines.

The stores are also succumbing to the same impulse that prompted Mom and Pop to open them in the first place: the desire to see their children do much, much better, continues The Times.

“In 10 years, there will be no more Korean mom-and-pop stores,” said Chong Sik Lee, president of the Korean-American Grocers Association of New York.

The tradition began in the 1970s, when good produce could be hard to find, even in some affluent neighborhoods. Korean immigrants began opening fresh-fruit-and-vegetable shops — and quickly established a quintessential ethnic employment niche, as Filipinos did in nursing, reported the Times.

Youth Wins Spelling Bee With “Cymotrichous”

Most people could not spell “cymotrichous” with a dictionary, but a 14 year-old girl from Pennsylvania, Sukanya Roy, spelled the word on June 2 to win a marathon-length 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee, reported Yahoo! News. Roy, participating in the competition for the third time this year, won after 20 rounds in the final competition that went on until the late evening.

Sukanya Roy

An eighth grader at Abington Heights Middle School, Roy traced the letters of each word on her hands, round by round, increasing her confidence, she said. Besides the trophy the superlative speller took home a $30,000 cash prize, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond, a complete reference library, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works and other prizes. A speaker of Bengali, Roy travels to India every summer to visit family and hopes to pursue a career in international relations. The 275 spellers who started the bee on June 1, included students from the United States and its territories, as well as the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The first National Spelling Bee was held in 1925 and since then has become one of the largest and well known educational competitions. Last year’s winner, Anamika Veeramani from Cleveland, Ohio, won by spelling “stromuhr” correctly.

Ken Jeong Hosts Billboard Music Awards

Ken Jeong
Ken Jeong. Photo credit: Ethan Miller / ABC.

Ken Jeong, the Korean American comedian who became an instant celebrity with his over-the-top performance as nasty little Mr. Chow in the film, “The Hangover” (2009), hosted this year’s Billboard Music Awards on May 22. Jeong won the 2010 MTV Movie Award for the best WTF Moment for his role as the naked Asian who jumps out of a car trunk with a crowbar and clobbers the car’s occupants.

“Me and my [genatalia] would like to thank MTV and the voters,” began Jeong’s acceptance speech last June. He then stunned the audience by unexpectedly segueing into sobs as he paid tribute to his wife Tran who had just won a long fight with breast cancer. She had been the one who pushed him to take the Mr. Chow role, he said.

The world shared a rare heartfelt moment as the camera panned between Jeong and his wife, a family doctor practicing at the Woodland Hills Kaiser Permanente medical center. Jeong himself had been an internist moonlighting as a standup comic before turning to acting full time after his memorable role as the shockingly brusque OB GYN in the 2007 comedy “Knocked Up”.

Jeong’s career has exploded after the release of The Hangover. He plays the crazily incompetent former Spanish teacher Señor Chang on NBC’s “Community”.

Queen Decorates Nepali for Afghanistan Heroics

Corporal Dipprasad Pun
Sergeant Dipprasad Pun, of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, proudly holds his Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Photo credit: Associated Press.

Corporal Dipprasad Pun, a Nepalese soldier in the British army, was given the United Kingdom’s top award for bravery for his heroic actions in Afghanistan, where he single-handedly fought off more than 30 Taliban fighters. Corporal Pun was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, which is given “in recognition of acts of conspicuous gallantry during active operations against the enemy.” Pun’s brand of gallantry included firing more than 400 rounds, launching 17 grenades and detonating a mine to repel the Taliban assault on his checkpoint in southern Afghanistan.

API Diver Fought Racism to Earn Olympic Gold

Sammy Lee
Gold medal diver Sammy Lee. Photo credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times.
Sammy Lee won gold in the men’s platform at the London Games in 1948, and won again at Helsinki in 1952, reported the Los Angeles Times, despite racism that tried to stop him from becoming a world ambassador in diving. As a young man, Lee could use a public pool in Pasadena, Calif., only on the one day of the week designated as the ‘non-white’ day. Sammy Lee, 90, said of becoming an Olympic diver during an era of racism: “I was angered, but I was going to prove that in America I could do anything.”

“It inspired me to perform,” Lee said of the prejudice that threatened to quash the boyhood dreams of an ambitious son of Korean immigrants. So determined was Lee that when a college recruiter scoffed at his life goals — to win an Olympic gold medal and become a doctor — and inquired about his backup plan, he realized he didn’t have one. Nor would he need one, continued the LA Times. The diver, all of 5 feet, was already known as Dr. Sammy Lee by the time he won gold in 1948, and at 32, he won again at Helsinki in 1952, becoming the oldest diver to win a gold medal. The ear, nose and throat specialist later coached Olympic champions Bob Webster and Greg Louganis. He added another honor June 11 as part of the inaugural class inducted into the L.A. Unified School District High School Sports Hall of Fame.

During an interview at his harborfront home in Huntington Beach, the 1939 L.A. City diving champion remembers running for student body president over the objections of a school administrator. “He calls me in and says, ‘This school has never had a non-white student body president,’” Lee recalls. “He says, ‘You might as well get your name off the list,’ but I refused. And when I got elected, he called me into his office, looked me up and down and said, ‘I just don’t know what happened.’“I said, ‘My fellow classmates do not look at me as Korean. They look at me as a fellow American.’”

Korean American Tapped As Next U.S. Ambassador to South Korea

Sung Kim is expected to succeed Kathleen Stephens as the next American ambassador to South Korea, according to the Korea Times. Kim, 51, is currently the U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks aimed at addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Sung Kim
Sung Kim

The Korea Times reported that if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Kim will be the first U.S. ambassador to Korea with a Korean background. A prosecutor-turned-diplomat, Kim has been working as a special envoy to the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program since July 2008. One month prior to that, he, then the head of the Korean office at the State Department, flew to Yongbyon in North Korea to see the demolition of a cooling tower at its main nuclear site. He has visited the North more than 10 times in official capacities. Kim previously served as chief of political-military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in 2003 and also previously worked in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

Li Na’s French Open Win Will Open Tennis To China

Li Na Wins 2011 French Open
Li Na. Photo credit: PacificCoastNews.com.

On June 4, at the French Open, 29-year-old Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, beating defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (0). Li had already made history recently by becoming the first Chinese player to reach the French Open final by defeating Maria Sharapova. She was also the first Chinese woman to win a WTA singles title, the first to enter to the top ten in the rankings and the first to make it to a Grand Slam final. And now she’s a French Open winner, reports NBC Sports. It is reported that as many as 50 million households in China watched the match.

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