A Korean Travel Writer Reveals the Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know

By Colin Marshall 

I moved from Los Angeles to Seoul in part because I prefer living as a foreigner to living as a native. But I continue to appreciate Los Angeles, and still plan to spend a significant chunk of my future in it, for that same reason: not because I feel like a native there, but because I and everyone else there feel, in one way or another, like foreigners. The city’s role first as a magnet for the rest of America, then as a magnet for the rest of the world, has long since obliterated any assumptions one Angeleno might hold about another. We’re all “foreigners” there, all to some degree outsiders, whether Los Angeles-born-and-raised or immigrants from elsewhere in the country or another country entirely: Mexico, England, Armenia, China, Ethiopia, Korea …

Anna Kim (안나킴, in her Westernized Korean spelling) came to Los Angeles from Korea, not as an immigrant, nor even as a particularly long-term resident. But her older sister who preceded her to Los Angeles did emigrate, establishing a life there first and thus providing Kim with someone to visit and a place to crash. And so, putting a few months of Los Angeles time in here and there, doing different things each time, Kim performed the surely inadvertent as well as deliberate body of research that went into her book LA 도시 산책, which literally means “L.A. City Walk,” but whose cover also bears the English title Los Angeles, Portrait of a City — followed by the Korean subtitle 사람은 도시를 만들고, 도시는 사람을 만들다, which translates to the Churchillian observation that “people make the city, and the city makes people.”

I picked up Portrait of a City on my very first visit to Korea, eagerly following the wise dictum that, when studying a foreign language, you should study materials in that language on subjects that interest you most. Few subjects interest me as much as Los Angeles, and so finding an in-depth volume on the city written in Korean felt to me like happening on a sacred object, especially given the Korean publishing industry’s respectable design standards for travel essay books. Given the lower level of my Korean skills at the time — and Kim’s distinctive writing style, which a Korean friend described to me, with a slight sneer on her face, as an odd mixture of the too-elevated and the too-casual — actually understanding the thing proved a bit of a struggle from page one, but sheer fascination carried me through the years of off-and-on reading it took to get through.

Before Portrait of a City, Kim wrote a book on that other American metropolis called 뉴요커도 모르는 뉴욕, or The New York Even New Yorkers Don’t Know. Given the potential to market as a series, it actually surprises me that she didn’t call her Los Angeles book The Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know. It certainly reflects the content, since the author’s regular but temporary presence in the city galvanizes her to explore farther and wider and participate in a range of cultural activities than even some who live in Los Angeles for decades do.

The book organizes its essays into geographic sections, each fronted by a nifty isometric map of the area in question with a red line delineating the maximally interesting walking route through it. This comes without the posturing I too often see in writings about Los Angeles that focus on the city as experienced on foot: “They say ‘nobody walks in L.A.,’ but they’re wrong. I walk in L.A., and I’m here to tell you that you can do it too,” that sort of thing. (Maybe it has to do with the fact that Missing Persons never blew up here.) Kim not only assumes from the outset that her readers will walk in the city, she specifically selects places to write about for their accessibility by bus and train.

Not for her, then, the comforts of the exurbs, or even that quintessentially Los Angeles territory: the technically-urban neighborhood within the city limits that nonetheless feels like an exurb. She does begin with a nod to greater Los Angeles’ internationally brand-namiest places with sections on Beverly Hills (the book’s first essay titled “Beverly Hills Is Not Really Los Angeles”), Hollywood, and — reflecting South Korea’s intense interest in higher education and the best-known institutions thereof — USC and UCLA. But the journey gets deeper thereafter with sections on Bunker Hill, Downtown’s historic core, Koreatown, the Pueblo, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Santa Monica, and Venice Beach.

Korean travel writers often focus on observing, say, the deliciousness of lattes sipped in the boulevard cafés of various world capitals, but Kim, apparently a bred-in-the-bone history buff, displays a more rigorous interest in the city. This manifests especially in an architectural consciousness stimulated almost everywhere she goes: she pays attention, of course, to the likes of Capitol Records Building, the Bradbury Building, Disney Concert Hall, and Union Station, but also to the whimsically exaggerated (and only faintly sinister) cottages of Beverly Hills, the Herald-Examiner Building (which leads her to consider architect Julia Morgan’s entire career as a precedent of the late Zaha Hadid’s), the football-themed gargoyles perched around the USC campus, and the Department of Water and Power headquarters, at which she marvels as the Civic Center’s Taj Mahal. (Weirdly, the symbolic and eminently tour-able Watts Towers gets the short shrift, just a few sentences alongside a small photo.)

Kim also devotes a substantial essay to the downtown campus of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, well known to many Angelenos and architecture buffs everywhere simply as SCI-Arc. Her nose for buildings also takes her to the Bonaventure Hotel, for my money one of the most fascinating structures in Los Angeles, an occasion to tell the story of how her sister — the one who settled in the city — received her marriage proposal in its top-floor revolving lounge, but had to wait two hours alone for her now-husband, who’d descended to the parking garage to collect the ring and bouquet from the car, to find his way back up through the hotel’s notoriously bewildering interior.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when Kim inevitably gets around to writing about the Church of Scientology, she writes about their penchant for buying, preserving, occupying, and iconifying old buildings. But in introducing that controversial and high-profile religious organization, she describes it as a profit-driven cult whose members “believe that the human soul is a reincarnation of an alien,” words whose starkness might shock a Korean-speaking Westerner used to reading those of an American media that, fearing Scientology’s legal and economic wrath, hew to such comparatively diplomatic terms as “controversial and high-profile religious organization.”

Kim grapples with LA’s diversity throughout the book. She calls to schedule personal training sessions at a Koreatown gym and soon after meets her trainer: “a brawny black man standing like a mountain range with his arms folded.” Flustered, she breaks into a sweat and he face turns red. “Don’t be scared of me,” he says to her in Korean, turning out to be the son of an American G.I. and a Korean woman who spent the first 20 years of his life in his mother’s homeland. Elsewhere in Koreatown, she passes the Gaylord Apartments on Wilshire Boulevard and, interpreting its grand sign as literally meaning “Lord of the Gays,” shruggingly imagines it as a luxury residential complex for upper-class homosexuals.

Kim no doubt wouldn’t imagine such a place in Korea, a country with a long way to go in terms of officially accepting, or even acknowledging, the full range of human sexuality. But as with most everything else she writes about in Portrait of a City, she neither judges the concept, nor, as would accord with the dismissively observational tradition first established by visitors from the east coast, does she write it off as just one more act in the circus that is Los Angeles. She regards the city as a challenge to be navigated, understood, and with sufficient persistence mastered, even during such trying times as when she discovers the searchable online geographical database of California sex offenders and falls into a paranoia about how many of them could live just doors away.

She reserves more of her instinctive judgment for people from her own side of the world, as when a Japanese tour guide through little Tokyo starts tearing up while talking about World War II. Kim at first has little sympathy, finding this behavior typical of “a war-criminal country that tries to cry away its sins.” But then they reach the Go for Broke Monument, where she learns, and finds herself moved by, the story of whom it memorializes: the Japanese Americans, including a relative of the tour guides’s, who turned against Japan in order to protect their families.

On another tour, this one through Union Station, she learns of the ruins of the old Chinatown, hastily vacated in the late 1930s to make way for the grand new railway terminal, through their artistic incorporation into the building itself:

Suddenly the tour guide spoke in the tone of an Indiana Jones-esque archaeologist. “But take a look here. So far I’ve figured out the meaning of every symbol in this station, but with this strange one, I just don’t know. Maybe someone here does?”

At a glance, it looked like a round form of the Chinese character 車. What, this, some kind of mysterious ancient Egyptian hieroglyph? “It’s a Chinese character that means ‘coach’ or ‘car,’” I answered, chuckling. The elderly whites in the group all stared at me, wide-eyed.

Sheesh. He’s led this tour for the Los Angeles Conservancy for something like ten years, with at least a few dozen participants each week. How regrettable that all this time, there hasn’t been one Asian who could read that character. Isn’t this Los Angeles, the American city so well-known for its large Asian population? I mean, 車 is a simple, common character that any Chinese, Korean, or Japanese could read.

The first generation of immigrants were busy making a living, and the second-generation kids don’t have any special interest in this kind of thing. The first generation has a strong tendency to keep to themselves, so one doesn’t see them in mostly-white meetings like this. Second-generation Asians are so fully assimilated into American culture that they’re lucky to understand the language of their parents’ country, let alone its writing.

Actually, the young Chinese lady who’d led my tour through Chinatown was like that. She said her mother immigrated with her when she was a toddler. She was a rare model student in having such a strong interest in her roots that she led English-language tours of Chinatown, but when I asked her what a character on a sign meant, she flinched. “I can’t read Chinese,” she answered timidly. For heaven’s sake, a Chinese Chinatown tour guide who can’t read Chinese — to someone like me, born and raised in a Chinese character-based culture, that’s preposterous.

A book like this underscores, for a student of Korean such as myself, the extent to which anything written in the Korean language begins with the understandable assumption of a Korean readership. Would a Korean reader better understand why Kim, when she decides to finally give one of Cole’s famous French dip sandwiches a try, freaks out at the cut and color of the meat and eats only the crust of the bun dipped in au jus? In any case, they’ll certainly appreciate the fact that she writes up pieces of Korean Los Angeles wherever she can find them, such as the home of independence activist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho transplanted whole to the USC campus, his actor son Philip’s tucked-away star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Korean saint featured on a tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Kim also finds, here and there, points where Los Angeles could do well to Koreanize further. Spending an evening at the Chapman Market, the ornate drive-through grocery store restored by Korean owners into a popular bar and restaurant complex, she envisions a day when its central parking lot will become a setting for more outdoor cooking, eating, and drinking, the kind of public social life visible in almost every neighborhood here in Seoul. That day still hasn’t quite come in Los Angeles, a city slow to realize the potential of its public and quasi-public spaces, but these kinds of observations make me wish Portrait of a City would come out in an English translation accessible to more of the people making the city (and getting made by it) today.

Even in the original Korean, non-Korean-speakers with an interest in Los Angeles will find things to enjoy in this guidebook to the city superior to pretty much any published in English in the past couple of decades: they can still follow Kim’s suggested walks, for instance, and seek out the places she photographs, some of which they may not know no matter how thoroughly they’ve explored.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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