Jin was the longtime owner of A&B Motors Group, Inc., a car dealership in Koreatown that was in business for almost 20 years. Jin consulted with KYCC’s Small Business Program in 2017. Since this interview, the business—like many in the neighborhood with first-generation owners—has shuttered.
Where is your hometown?
I am originally from Namyang-dong in Seoul, South Korea. It’s near Namsan and Samgak-chi and the American military base. I came to the U.S. in 1978—I was 14 or 15 years old and we moved to Torrance. Everything was different at that time—the language and culture.
We had to start with ESL. My parents worked hard every morning and came in at nighttime. My dad worked for a fish market and my mom worked sewing. It’s the same story for all Koreans, right? Garment industry. My father was a government accountant—he had a high education, but here he had to start from the bottom in his job.
Do you live or work in Koreatown?
I work in Koreatown. I own A&B Motors Group. But when I got married, I lived in Koreatown for three years with my husband. My husband and I started this rental car business, A&B, about 20 years ago. We started on Venice, then moved to Olympic Boulevard and then we moved to Western near Hanmi Motors. This is my sixth year at the location on Western.
My husband worked in the automotive industry, in sales and rental, so we decided to open our own business in this field. At the time, there was only one other Korean place for rental cars. But when we opened, they closed. So we were the only ones for about 10 years. Now, there are about three or four owned by Koreans in Los Angeles. Besides that, there are the big companies—Hertz, Enterprise. Now there are more than 10 to 15 in total in Koreatown.
We used to rent Budget trucks, but we stopped doing that because these days, the prices went up for offices and parking lots. Originally, all of the businesses in this neighborhood were owned by first-generation Koreans. They understand each other and if the economy was down, prices remained low. Now it’s turning to second-generation owners who raise prices. Everybody says that they don’t care, they don’t understand. But the first-generation understands how we are all still working hard together.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown today?
Koreatown has changed. High rent, high leases.
Starting from five years ago, everything started building—apartments and condominiums. Then, three or four years ago, everything changed so fast.
Everybody says it’s a hard time. Even Korean restaurants say 70 percent are non-Koreans. Sometimes Koreans can’t afford lunch. Even my friend who works downtown selling clothing, she says that this year is more work. If she made $1,000 last year, this year it’s about $200-$300. Maybe it’s Trump, maybe it’s just a bad economy.
All of these restaurants around me—there used to be a line at lunchtime, but now there’s not many. Jamison owns a lot of buildings. That’s why Koreatown has changed. Big developers changed buildings to condos.
Korean people say that developers are the only ones making money. But not people like us. If someone has money, they can build a four to ten-unit building in Koreatown. Everybody is saying it’s harder and harder every year to get a place in Koreatown. Even Korean news employees, bank tellers, everybody is saying business is going down, closing down. People are just surviving. If they close, they can’t get a job, because they’ve only operated their business for 20 or 30 years. So they’re downsizing.
Everybody is saying this—this is Koreatown news. Downtown is down, business is slow; Korea’s economy is down and that affects Koreatown. Not only me, but all of the business owners around me, say it’s hard.
People have to get housing in Koreatown—but everything is over a million. But in Koreatown, everyone survives by coffeeshops or restaurants, but some are closing down. Everything changes. It’s really changed.
What is your clientele like at A&B Motors Group?
Twenty years ago, many of our clients were Japanese. Sixty percent were local customers from town, 20 percent were Korean and the other 20 percent were Japanese. Of the 60 percent who were local, about 50 percent were Korean American and the rest were L.A. locals. So at the time, we had a Japanese employee. Over time, Koreans started traveling a lot for vacation, education and business, so 80 percent became Korean. Samsung, SKC—the big companies came here. Now, it’s really slow. It’s just local customers—50-50, local Korean Americans to Koreans. Business is like airfare, and the rental car industry is the same. Non-seasonal and seasonal.
I enjoy meeting new people. Also, we have many repeat customers coming back each year for almost 20 years. Dangul sunim — we call it that. When they come to the U.S. three or four times a year, they come here, so they know us too. When my kids were young, my clients would ask me personal questions about my family. And also, people from other states—Arizona, Texas, New York, Hawaii and even Alaska—come to Koreatown because they say their medical and dental bills are so high. They want to see Korean doctors because it’s more affordable —even with hotel and airfare—they still say it’s half-price.
What is your favorite place in Koreatown?
Olympic and Normandie. I love that area because of jangtoh— the Korean Parade. There’s a lot of Korean stuff for sale, from cosmetics, a farmers market, socks.
The parade is normally done in the fall because of Chusok. Vendors from Korea and other states come to sell traditional food and products like hongsam, saewoojut, ionsam. It used to be small, but every year it is getting bigger and bigger. Now there’s McDonald’s, Hyundai, Kia—every big Korean company sponsoring events and K-Pop.
What do you like about the Chusok Korean Parade in K-Town?
It’s interesting and I can see a lot, and they give away free stuff too. It’s a big event in Koreatown. I’ve been going for more than 10 years. I used to work at The Korea Times, so they put on that event. I worked in the advertising department, so every time we had to prepare for the parade, in 1986 or 87’, The Korea Times and all the employees wore hanbok, holding taekukki.
What was Koreatown like when you first started going to the Chusok parade?
That time, about 10 years ago, people didn’t talk about rent. Before I never heard that it was a hard time in business, nobody was stressed. That time, apartment rent was $500-600 for a one-bedroom. Now, rent is $2000-3000 for a one-bedroom in a fancy place. About three years ago, a lot of Chinese students came to Koreatown and stayed in good apartments and drove sports cars, and recently everyone is gone. Since last year, Mongolian people are here. Before, it was chosun-jok—Korean-Chinese from Harbin, but now it’s Mongolian and some of them speak Chinese. First, it was Japanese, Chinese and Mongolian. Even OMC, —there is even a Mongolian chapel. The population is getting bigger and bigger. I used to be OMC.