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Hi Duk Lee, visionary who founded Los Angeles’ Koreatown, dies at 79
Driving around Koreatown in the passenger seat of his daughter’s car, Hi Duk Lee peered out the window, in awe of how much the neighborhood had changed in half a century.
Physically worn down from cancer, he asked his daughter to show him the town’s businesses and restaurants — many of them long gone — and he commented on what he noticed along the way.
He would say something like: This area is cleaner than before, or that business used to be something else, his youngest daughter, Helen Lee, reflected.
It was one of the last rides around the neighborhood her father helped build, his daughter said. The idealistic immigrant who paved the way for Koreatown to be the vibrant Los Angeles community it is today died in his Silver Lake home on March 7 after a six-month battle with colon cancer, according to family. He was 79.
“Whether he failed or succeeded, he was always trying something new and making change,” his daughter said. “He wanted a certain community, people helping each other. He’s proud to know he took part in creating whatever is there.”
Lee arrived in Los Angeles in 1968 after escaping Korea’s dictatorship and working briefly as a miner in Germany. But when he looked around, he deeply missed his country’s charm and felt there was a hole in his new community.
“They didn’t have any good restaurants for entertainment or a meeting place,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “I planned to make Koreatown. Chinese people have Chinatowns everywhere: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montebello. But there’s no Koreatown.”
Lee’s first success came in 1971, when he opened the Olympic Market at Olympic and Normandie, one of the first Korean-owned groceries in Los Angeles. He purchased five blocks in the area, where he would go on to build the Korean Village, with some 40 shops and restaurants in an area that became known as the heart of Second Seoul.
In 1975, he opened the VIP Palace restaurant, built using traditional Korean architecture, with imported blue Korean tiles. Later, the shopping center VIP Plaza would accompany the restaurant. Lee’s market and restaurant became places of community for many Koreans in the area, where they could socialize and hold meetings in a way they couldn’t before.
“At the time, that was the place where Korean immigrants got together,” said Ricky Im, an employee at Han Kook Mortuary, where Lee’s memorial service was held last week. “Of course, they got groceries, but that was the meeting place,” he said of the Olympic Market and VIP Palace.
Lee lobbied city officials and negotiated with property owners, hoping to further develop the Koreatown he envisioned, complete with gates to the “city” on Olympic Boulevard. He invested half a million dollars in the late 1970s to build the VIP Hotel, a 230-room, five-story building at 3000 W. Olympic Blvd. But with increasing interest rates, Lee began falling behind on rent.
Although no one would help fund his vision of the Koreatown gates, Lee began pushing then-Mayor Tom Bradley and other city leaders to install a Koreatown sign in the area. In 1982, one went up on the 10 Freeway near the Normandie Avenue exit.
That same year, Lee filed for bankruptcy and sold everything he had built. VIP Palace was converted into a Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza. Its inside has Mexican decorations, with bright blues, reds and yellows, but the exterior is still Korean in style.
Later, Lee would even sell his Loz Feliz home, which he had made into a tribute to his home country. He built a pond in the shape of North and South Korea, with a small green bridge leading to his doorstep, the “DMZ,” he said.
“I tell my children that my house is a Lee family immigrant museum,” he said about the home in an interview with The Times.
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