For Immigrants, Changes in Store
N.Y. Neighborhood Feels Cultural Shift as Last Korean-Run Grocery Is Sold
In midmorning traffic along Flushing's Main Street, Sungkyu Yun braked his white Honda and
ignored the delivery trucks honking behind him as he pointed out his childhood haunts: On the corner was
a store where he bought Korean history books; down the block was the market where his mother bought
kimchi, ramen and Korean-style marinated beef.
"It was considered the heart of Korean America in New York," said Yun, 32. But now Chinese-run
restaurants, bakeries and banks with red-scripted signs stand in their places. "We don't have a trace of it,"
A neighborhood with a rich history of immigrants cobbling together their savings until they could
afford suburban life, the Flushing section of Queens has started a new chapter in ethnic succession. Main
Street, which served as New York's hub for Korean immigrants for two decades, recently saw its last
Korean-run grocery sold to a Chinese family. Later this summer, the new owners will open in its place a
high-end Chinese market catering to Chinese immigrants in Flushing and the nearby Long Island suburbs.
The sale launched sharp exchanges between the Korean and Chinese communities. The Korea Times
reported that many Korean Americans felt "bitter" after the Global Chinese Times touted the sale with
headlines such as "The Last Korean Stronghold Demolished" and "Flushing Now Under Chinese Control."
"It is very unfortunate for the Korean community," said Sung Soo Kim, president of the Korean
American Small Business Service Center of New York. "We don't have a Korean town."
But other Korean residents and business owners in Flushing say they are content to leave this
congested enclave for cheaper commercial space and larger suburban homes. Over the past several years,
as Chinese businesses have filled Flushing's central strip, about 700 Korean businesses have opened on
nearby Union Street and Northern Boulevard, Kim said. Korean Americans say these streets offer parking,
larger shops and slightly better access to Long Island.
"I never considered Main Street a permanent type of Koreatown," said Yun, who heads the National
Korean American Service & Education Consortium.
Immigration experts say this exodus also marks a move for Koreans away from first-generation jobs,
such as running green markets. Their children, commonly called the 1.5 Generation for their Korean
birthplace and U.S. education, are moving into white-collar jobs instead of taking over these shops.
"The reason why Korean businesses operated to begin with was to put their kids through college,"
said Jack Tchen, New York University's director of Asian/Pacific/American studies. "It's not like these
Korean grocers came over with their life ambition to be greengrocers. They came over to sacrifice for their
Koreans first came to New York in large numbers during the late 1970s, said Frank Vardy, a
demographer for the Department of City Planning. They rented out storefronts on Flushing's commercial
strip, which was then occupied by Irish, Italian and Jewish shop owners. In the '80s and '90s, more than 80
Korean-American-run businesses lined Flushing's Main Street, Kim said.
But prosperity in Korea in the early 1990s led to a drop in the number of immigrants, while Chinese
immigration remained high. Between 1990 and 1996, 5,869 Chinese immigrants moved to Flushing,
compared with 2,563 Koreans, according to city figures. By 1998, new Chinese immigrants to New York
City outnumbered new Korean immigrants nearly 9 to 1.
The United States remained enticing to Chinese immigrants such as Kenny Chan, who bought the
Green Farm grocery from a Korean American businessman who had run it for 20 years.
Chan, now 29, arrived in Brooklyn with his family in 1982. As his family moved first to Manhattan's
Chinatown, then to East Brunswick, N.J., and then to the outer edges of Queens, Chan learned English and
studied fine arts and graphics. In 1997, he left his work as an illustrator to work full time at his parents'
Chinese restaurant in Flushing.
While waking early to shop for groceries and working late to manage his father's books, Chan spent
six months searching for other businesses to buy. Green Farm's location and parking lot---a decided plus
for Main Street real estate -- caught his eye: "I said, 'This place could do better if they fix it up.' "
On May 23, Chan -- with his father, cousin and brother-in-law -- bought Green Farm for about
$300,000. His father oversees renovations, adding live fish tanks and blue-neon ceiling lights, and plans to
offer Chinese products. Green Farm will be renamed Maple Market -- with a sign in English and Chinese
-- for its location on the corner of Main and Maple streets. That way, Chan hopes to attract Chinese
customers from the neighborhood and from Long Island suburbs.
"Back in the old day, we used to go to Manhattan for the variety of Asian products," Chan said. "Now,
why travel to Manhattan and sit in traffic for a half an hour to get the same stuff?"
The seller of Green Farm, Austin Shin, did not respond to requests for interviews, but public records
show that in October he bought a $673,000 house in the Long Island suburb of Melville.
The few Korean businesses remaining on Main Street -- a photo shop, pharmacy, stationery store and
pet store -- now try to cater to Chinese customers.
"A lot of Chinese customers teach me," said Sung Hwang, 39, a Korean American who owns a
stationery store and has learned Chinese numbers and a few basic phrases. As she sells royal-blue lottery
tickets to customers at a steady clip, she describes how her Chinese customers have grown to 80 percent of
her business, while her Korean customers have dropped to 5 percent.
"A long time ago, lots of Korean people," she said. "Six years ago, there were no Chinese people. . . .
Two years ago, so many people."
In the past 6 1/2 years, her rent has more than doubled, and now, she doesn't think she will be able to
afford the space when her lease runs out in four years.
Chan, on the other hand, is confident that Maple Market will be able to afford the rising rents.
"Main Street is really more populated with Asians these days, especially after 9/11; everybody moved
to Queens," he said. "There's a lot of crazy stuff happening in Manhattan, so Flushing is growing."
Yun, meanwhile, has his own vision of the future. Since his family moved to a northern New Jersey
suburb in 1985, Yun has returned to Flushing each day to work and shop -- but these days, he heads to the
Koreatown of Union Street to buy Korean CDs and dine with friends in Korean restaurants.
"I like it better because it's less congested compared to Main Street," he said.
Main Street, he says, is part of his past.
"They were stores, not a cultural landmark," Yun said. "The Korean community, they have to move