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Korean American business leaders push for recognition of Koreatown in northwest Dallas

In northwest Dallas at the corner of Royal Lane and Harry Hines Boulevard two structures that read “Asian Trade District” sit on opposite sides of the intersection. The color of the materials on the signs has faded. One of the letters is missing. Trash is littered around the small patches of wilted grass surrounding the structures.

The signs were envisioned as landmarks to welcome people and customers to the area, which decades ago bustled with Asian American-oriented businesses, many owned by people of Korean descent. A 1991 Dallas Morning News article described how this once “languishing” part of the city was lit up with storefront signs.

Stores like Sam Moon and restaurants like Korea House became cornerstones to the growth and identity of the area, which to many Korean Americans in North Texas is unofficially called “K-Town” or “Koreatown.”

Now, the Greater Dallas Korean American Chamber of Commerce is pushing for the city to approve street toppers for a stretch of Royal Lane to be labeled Koreatown. The organization hopes the toppers can be an important step in preserving the history of the area.

The Asian Trade District signs in Dallas, one of which is missing a letter, were envisioned as landmarks to welcome people and customers to the area.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

“I feel like we should pay homage to the legacy of Koreans that have built Koreatown,” said John Lee, a board member of the Korean American Chamber.

Lee is spearheading efforts to get the city’s approval for the street toppers on Royal Lane, from Luna Road to Harry Hines Boulevard. He has enrolled the support of Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez, whose district encompasses the less-than-two-mile stretch of road.

Narvaez confirmed in a written statement in November that his office is pushing for an official Koreatown designation by the city.

He expressed his support for an official Koreatown designation during a town hall meeting days after a May shooting at a hair salon where three women were shot and injured by a gunman. Jeremy Theron Smith, 37, who was arrested in connection to the shooting, is facing hate crime charges.

The attack rocked this community.

Shopkeepers near the hair salon that was targeted told The News that business has returned to levels seen before the shooting, but others, such as the restaurants, are still reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, with a significant number of Korean-owned businesses moving to suburban areas outside of Dallas, those who have stayed in the area say they are eager for a spark to revitalize Koreatown.

The recognition of this business district would go a long way in highlighting the contributions of the Korean American community to Dallas’ history.

“The movement to designate a Koreatown District is moving along and we hope to have this designation completed in the first quarter of 2023,” Narvaez wrote.

Lee said he has seen the Korean area grow by “leaps and bounds” in the last three decades. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2019 that about 41,000 Korean Americans lived in the D-FW area, but the Consular Office of the Republic of Korea in Dallas estimates the number is much higher.

Lee had tried to push the city for an official Koreatown designation about 10 years ago, but that effort “lost steam,” he said. The coronavirus pandemic also delayed Lee’s plans.

Cars pass Royal Korea Town Plaza along Royal Lane in Dallas. The Korean Chamber of Commerce...
Cars pass Royal Korea Town Plaza along Royal Lane in Dallas. The Korean Chamber of Commerce is trying to designate a stretch of Royal Lane as Dallas’ official Koreatown.(Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

Toppers would be a visible representation of what the Korean American chamber wants to achieve. The goal, Lee said, is to revitalize the area in addition to making sure the city recognizes its importance.

“Whether that’s with the private sector or through grants — wherever we can get the money,” Lee said. “We want to start to reinvigorate Koreatown.”

Any story about the success of Dallas’ Koreatown would be incomplete without Sam Moon Trading Company, which started in 1984 as a 5,000-square-foot store at the corner of Royal Lane and Harry Hines Boulevard.

At the time, many Korean-owned businesses had operated out of Belt Line Road in Irving. David Moon, who founded the wholesale merchandise company, said he was among the first Korean Americans to start a business in what would later become the Asian Trade District in Dallas.

As business grew, Moon said he invested in a 50,000-square-foot property several blocks down. Today, the flagship store is at a retail center that Moon’s company owns at the intersection of Interstate 35E and Interstate 635. In the early 2000s, more than 200 Korean-owned businesses had opened around Harry Hines Boulevard and along Royal Lane.

Moon, however, has seen the number of Korean-owned businesses in the area decline since its boom in the 1990s and early 2000s.

David Moon, who founded Sam Moon Trading Co., said he was among the first Korean Americans...
David Moon, who founded Sam Moon Trading Co., said he was among the first Korean Americans to start a business in what would later become the Asian Trade District in Dallas. Today, the flagship store is at a retail center that Moon’s company owns at the intersection of Interstate 35E and Interstate 635. (Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

“Slowly they shut down because the business was no good,” he said. “Still we have about 50 to 60 Korean-owned businesses in this area.”

The COVID pandemic also stifled business growth, Moon said.

Moon said he thinks Korean-owned businesses in the area are finding ways to succeed, pointing to banks on Royal Lane, including Hanmi and American First National, which serve a large number of Korean Americans.

Moon’s family enterprise, Sam Moon Group, has expanded to real estate and luxury hotels.

Daniel Moon, 49, vice president of Sam Moon Group, said stores like the one started by his parents in the mid-1980s pioneered the growth of Koreatown.

“Many of the wholesalers, in the 1980s especially, were Korean, so you started seeing more Korean restaurants, and then you got the grocery stores that served the restaurants,” Daniel Moon said. “Then you saw lawyers and accountants open shop, you saw barber shops. It organically grew from all of those Korean wholesalers being in that area.”

But Moon thinks the Koreatown district needs official recognition by the city to keep growing.

Increased city support could inject new excitement and confidence for more Korean-owned businesses to open shop in the original Koreatown.

“I think it would be great for everyone working together to get more traction for that area,” Daniel Moon said.

Caroline Kim has seen Korea House — a restaurant her family owns and operates — as a lasting anchor to Dallas’ Koreatown. Newspaper clippings with photos of Kim’s mother, Sung Kim, the matriarch of the restaurant, in her traditional Korean Hanbok dress greeting Korean presidents and celebrities line one of the hallways inside the restaurant.

Korea House opened in 1979 in Richardson, but the location that would become its flagship opened in Dallas in 1987, according to its website.

Korea House originally opened in 1979 in Richardson, but the location that would become its...
Korea House originally opened in 1979 in Richardson, but the location that would become its flagship opened in Dallas in 1987.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Caroline Kim said she credits the success of her mother’s restaurant to her ability to adapt and manage businesses.

“My mom is a good businesswoman and she’s seen it all,” Kim said. “She has seen recessions and economic downturns and shifts in the neighborhood and has been able to weather through it all.”

Kim said Dallas’ Koreatown is a tight-knit community with a humble beginning.

For the past several decades, Korean Americans have shaped the identity of the neighborhood, she said.

“There were a lot of Korean Chambers and community and business associations that were doing what they could, many times on a volunteer basis, to try to grow that area to make sure that it’s not just profitable, but welcoming,” she said.

Today, some locals refer to the area as “old” or “original” Koreatown. Although it is a pillar of the largest Korean American community in Texas, business isn’t what it used to be, according to Rich Kim, who operates Shin Chon Market, the longest-surviving Korean grocery store in Dallas.

Smaller grocery market operations like his were particularly forced to adapt to changes in Koreatown.

The store is nestled between the wholesale and trade businesses that have become characteristic of the trade district, a few blocks away from where Lee and the chamber are hoping to place Koreatown toppers.

Rich Kim said he left South Korea and moved to the U.S. in February 2003 with his wife and child to experience life outside of a smaller country.

Rich Kim operates Shin Chon Market, the longest-surviving Korean grocery store in Dallas.
Rich Kim operates Shin Chon Market, the longest-surviving Korean grocery store in Dallas.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

His father-in-law operated the grocery market and Kim worked as a manager. When he learned about four years ago that his father-in-law was thinking about closing down the business, Kim said he offered to take over the market. Kim remodeled the grocery store, adding a dining area, and reopened in 2020.

Kim said he wanted to keep the store open because he knows that he still has loyal customers who have been shopping there since his wife’s mother and father originally opened the business in 1987. He said he wants to continue making changes and improvements to bring new customers.

When Komart, a larger Korean grocery store, came to the area in the late 1990s, Kim said Shin Chon Market lost some business, but added that it was still viable because of the growth of the Korean community in North Texas.

Then later, when H-Mart opened in Carrollton, which boasts its own Koreatown, he saw the number of Korean customers diminish further.

But the receding number of Korean American customers has been replenished by those from other backgrounds and cultures, Rich Kim said.

“We aren’t a business just for Korean people anymore, we serve people from other communities and I think we should grow our business little by little by serving customers who are not necessarily Korean,” he said.

A sign advertises various Asian businesses at the Asiana Plaza along Royal Lane in Dallas....
A sign advertises various Asian businesses at the Asiana Plaza along Royal Lane in Dallas. The Korean Chamber of Commerce is trying to designate a stretch of Royal Lane as Dallas’ official Koreatown.
(Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

Kim said he, too, would like to see more investment in Koreatown from the city of Dallas. But he said he doesn’t think that an official Koreatown designation alone would lead to economic revitalization.

“If it’s just a matter of calling the area Koreatown, I don’t think anything will happen; it will just be surface-level,” Kim said. “What’s more important is a discussion with stakeholders of what we can do to improve and upgrade the area.”

Yet Stephanie Drenka, co-founder of the Dallas Asian American Historical Society, thinks it is important for the city of Dallas to invest in Koreatown long-term.

Drenka said other culturally significant enclaves that were started by different Asian American populations in the city have been ignored, and their histories have been lost.

That has made it more difficult for organizations like the historical society to preserve the city’s Asian American history.

“That’s what’s really unique about Koreatown; it has thrived, it has flourished and stayed intact as a presence in Dallas proper,” Drenka said. “So I think we should learn from what we’ve lost.”

Drenka said Koreatown’s identity shouldn’t be focused only on business and commerce, but also on its contribution to the city’s history and culture.

“The city has to invest into the infrastructure and community around it so that Koreatown is more than a sign that no one sees,” Drenka said.

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