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Jessica Pak holds one her chickens in her tailor shop.
A tailor from Koreatown, Jessica Pak, made her own egg incubator using styrofoam as an experiment until a couple of eggs hatched. | Emanuel Hahn

L.A. Photographer Captures the Stories Behind Koreatown's Businesses

Emanuel Hahn, a local photographer, captures the lives of shopkeepers and vendors trying to stay afloat in Koreatown.
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Like many small businesses in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, the alteration shop on Eighth and Westmoreland is easy to miss. The store sign, unadorned, simply reads "alteration" in English and Korean, but inside, to the surprise of some customers, chickens abound.

While some discovered baking banana bread and regrowing green onions during the pandemic, shop owner Jessica Pak has taken to raising chickens. She grew up near a farm in Korea and was no stranger to livestock. Her husband died a few years ago, and she wanted to work with living things. Bored one day, she devised an egg incubator using styrofoam, experimenting until a couple of eggs hatched.

Her clothing alternation business had slowed down, and she wanted a new hobby.

"Over the course of over a year, she's accumulated over 150 chickens in L.A. and Phelan [in San Bernardino County] claiming that she's gone mad for chicken," said a Feb. 26 Instagram caption by photographer Emanuel Hahn. "She thought about selling the chickens and eggs but said that God told her to simply share them with people around her."

Jessica Pak and her employee work on tailoring clothes.
Having grown up on a farm in Korea, Jessica Pak’s familiarity with livestock lead her to own over 150 chickens. | Emanuel Hahn

In the social media post, Hahn included portraits of Pak and her chickens, a video of her showing off a cellphone video of chicks coming out of their shells, and an image of the big jar of kimchi that Pak gave Hahn before he left her shop. It was more than he expected from his visit. He just needed his curtain hemmed.

The post is part of what began as a serendipitous series in which Hahn documents small businesses within the 2.70-square mile neighborhood of Koreatown, where owners have had to adapt to challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hahn, who is of Korean descent but grew up all over Asia before attending New York University, moved to Los Angeles last November.

He worked in finance before teaching himself how to use a camera. He started taking photos for weddings and friends' engagements before taking on a project with a partner to photograph the Chinese American community in the Mississippi Delta.

"It gave both of us this high of wanting to document real people, especially Asian Americans, because our stories are not told," Hahn said. "There [are] more stories now. But even a few years ago, framing for Asian American stories tended to be very one-dimensional."

In Los Angeles, Hahn began making the 20 to 30-minute drive from his apartment in Highland Park to Koreatown every day, walking around and taking photos of things he found interesting. He became obsessed with store signages.

Laura, a hanbok maker, stands in her shop with dresses and tailors.
Laura came to the U.S. in 1986, against her mother’s wishes, as a fourth-generation hanbok maker who was determined to turn her skills into a career. | Emanuel Hahn

"It almost feels like Koreatown as a place is a time capsule, there's something so romantic and nostalgic about it," he said. "I wanted to see imagery of that, but I couldn't really find anything."

While Koreatown gets a lot of attention for its food scene, the many mom-and-pop businesses in the neighborhood do not. Hahn wanted to tell their stories.

In December, Hahn wandered around Rodeo Galleria looking for items he needed for his new apartment.

"There were no customers, but all the shop owners were there," Hahn said. "A lot of them didn't want to talk because they were having a really bad time with business. But there were some who were happy to talk. And I think one of the things that I realized while doing this project is there are plenty of small business owners that have lived and worked here for over 30 years, and no one has asked them for their stories."

The Galleria mostly caters to elderly Korean people, and when the pandemic hit, foot traffic dwindled.

At one home goods store Hahn visited, the shopkeeper acknowledged she was losing money but couldn't retire just yet. She proudly showed him a photo of her son, who held an "office job."

A shopkeeper in Koreatown stands by the checkout counter smiling with rows of goods behind her.
A shopkeeper in Koreatown kept her store going during the pandemic because she couldn’t retire just yet. In her 20s, she dreamed of being a model until she moved to the U.S. | Emanuel Hahn

"When I requested to take her photo, she said, 'What are you trying to take photos of 70-year-olds for?" Hahn wrote on Instagram. "I said she aged very gracefully. Then she told me that in her 20s she loved taking pictures and wanted to be a model, until she met her husband and moved to the States, and the rest was history."

There was also the fruit truck parked behind the plaza. Hahn found it interesting because he didn't see a lot of Korean fruit truck owners.

"I kept going to him to buy oranges and avocados, and over time, he would recognize me and we would just end up talking," Hahn said. "And he poured out a lovely story. He was giving me business advice."

The owner said that he worked at a market when he first came to the United States and noticed how much vendors paid in operating expenses. So he bought a truck.

A Koreatown fruit truck vendor stands in front of his product.
Photographer Emanuel Hahn learned some business advice from one of the few fruit truck vendors in Koreatown through continuously buying his oranges and avocados. The vendor was practicing for his citizenship, but wondered what good it’d do for him at 70 years old. | Emanuel Hahn

Now, while business has slowed down significantly, he's grateful for not having to pay much for overhead expenses.

"When I met him, he was practicing for his citizenship interview in his basic English - Who is our President? Joe Biden. Who is our Vice President? Kamala Harris" Hahn wrote in his Instagram post.

"He didn't seem convinced that citizenship had much to offer him at this point, in his mid-70s, wondering out loud whether he should even do the interview. I had a sense he was nervous about answering the questions incorrectly and was putting his interview off. I also wondered how his life would materially change if he did become a citizen. He seemed pretty content with his life."

Three blocks away on Western Avenue, there's the traditional Korean dress shop run by a fourth-generation hanbok maker who moved to the U.S. in 1986. The store had been through the 1992 L.A. riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, she said, but the pandemic was something else.

While the physical shop had to close during the lockdown, the owner worked with her daughter to offer masks online and more hanbok pieces that could be mixed, matched and worn as everyday pieces.

Laura folds a piece of fabric in her shop.
To modernize her hanbok style, Laura enrolled in a fashion school in Los Angeles in her 40s. She wanted to understand the fashion scene by hanging out with 20 year olds. | Emanuel Hahn

Since Hahn published the first photos on Instagram in February, his series has gained traction. Children of Koreatown business owners began showing his work to their parents, suggesting they be a part of it. The photographer is still exploring the neighborhood on his own, but now, he gets requests.

"A lot of these small businesses, they've just been grinding for the last 30 years. … But because they were so focused on the work, they've never had a chance to tell their story," Hahn said. "Also, it's this sense of immigrant mentality: Keep your head down. Don't be seen just yet, just do the work, and you'll be fine. But I think a lot of people are realizing now that they actually have a pretty powerful story."

Hahn hopes to see more stories come out from other communities, especially among Latinos.

"It's cool, through this project I've been connected to some people who are doing that work," he said. "So hopefully we'll see that as well."

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