Hi Duk Lee, the Man Who Built L.A.’s Koreatown, Passes Away at 79

Hi Duk Lee, a business owner and visionary who is credited with building Los Angeles’ iconic Koreatown, has died aged 79. 

Lee passed away on March 7 after a six-month battle with colon cancer, the Los Angeles Times reports. A private Korean ceremony was held on March 14, in which around 100 people gathered to honor the life of the pioneer.

“My father’s life is a story of a true American,” Roger Lee, his son, wrote in his eulogy, according to NBC News. “He took all the risks, and dealt with all the consequences, nevertheless, he did it his way.”

Lee, who arrived in L.A. in 1968 after escaping South Korea’s military dictatorship, is famous for sparking the development of perhaps the world’s most well-known Koreatown.

“They didn’t have any good restaurants for entertainment or a meeting place,” he told the L.A. 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.”

Hoping to instill a sense of community and establish a hub for Korean Americans, Lee opened the Olympic Market grocery store in 1971, where he found success selling locally sourced Korean vegetables and Korean-style cuts of meat. Later, he would open a restaurant and business plaza — VIP Plaza — which became the meeting grounds on which the local Korean community got together and socialized. VIP Plaza was built in a Korean architectural style, including roofs made with tiles imported from Korea.

Other Korean-operated business soon began flooding in and, soon, Lee’s dream of creating a Koreatown was realized: then-Mayor Tom Bradley officially named the neighborhood “Koreatown” in 1980, and the state even installed a Koreatown exit sign on the Santa Monica Freeway.

Hardships would eventually come, leading Lee to eventually declare bankruptcy in 1982. He would go on to explore other business ventures, spending time in South Africa and China, although L.A. was always his base.

“Whether he failed or succeeded, he was always trying something new and making change,” his daughter, Helen Lee, told the L.A. Times. “He wanted a certain community, people helping each other. He’s proud to know he took part in creating whatever is there.”

In 2016, Lee and his wife, Kil Ja, opened their final business: a plant nursery called Echo Garden. Having grown up on a farm, Lee had carried with him a lifelong passion for gardening.

“I’ve lost much money, but I don’t regret what I’ve done since it all happened in Koreatown,” Lee told the Korea Daily in 2016. “My failures became fertilizer to bloom flowers. You know, an old-timer never dies. He just disappears.”

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