Chances are if you’ve ever taken your silk or wool garments to a dry cleaners, you may have noticed at some point that the person behind the counter is Korean. Similarly to why so many nail salons are run by Vietnamese people, we wanted to figure out what drew Koreans to the business of clean linen and crisp suits.
It is not a new or unusual phenomenon for a group of people to specialize in a specific industry. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research explains that tight-knit immigrant groups stay within their communities and network, which leads to the sharing and inheritance of similar skills and businesses. For Koreans and dry cleaners, it started in the late 1970s when large numbers of Koreans immigrated to America, specifically New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. With a language barrier, limited resources, and lack of certifications and education needed for career opportunities in the U.S, many Korean immigrants took up jobs in produce and learned skills such as sewing.
At the time, most dry cleaners were operated by other ethnic groups such as Jewish and Italian owners. In Pyong Gap Min’s book, Caught in the Middle: Korean Communities in New York and Los Angeles, Min explains that the Koreans grocers depended heavily on Jewish wholesalers to avoid discrimination they suffered from other White suppliers. However, after saving enough earnings to purchase businesses, Koreans decided to invest in dry cleaners which they held in high regard as a “clean” (kkakkŭthan) business, which would be simple, profitable, and done as a family. Many Koreans took over dry cleaning businesses from Jewish owners, who they had formed trust from their grocer days. The families brought their sewing skills to these dry cleaning businesses, which is why so many Korean dry cleaners have alterations available on site.
Naturally because immigrant communities are so close and learn from each other, many Koreans stuck to the dry cleaning business. According to the Korean American Dry Cleaners Association of New York and Voices of NY, there were as many as 2,400 dry cleaners owned and operated by Koreans in the 1980s-1990s in the city. Before the global financial crisis of 2008, Sang Suk Park, president of the Korean American Dry Cleaners of New York shared that the dry cleaners earned a net income of $200,000 to $300,000 a year.
However, those from the immigration boom of the 1970s-80s are reaching the age of retirement and the next generation of Korean Americans are dropping out of the family business to pursue higher education and the other opportunities that those before them did not have.
Sang Kyun Kim, an immigrant of over 30 years and owner of “Kim’s Cleaners” in New York told Voices of NY, “I bought a house and sent my kids to college after a long time of hard work. It’s time to enjoy the rest of my life. I will leave as soon as the sale is closed.”
Like many immigrants, Kim plans to sell his business and move away for his golden years. Although we are still seeing many dry cleaners owned and operated by Koreans, this will most likely change sooner rather than later. After all, with troubles such as the 2007 case of Pearson vs. Chung where an American man ruined the lives of a Korean family with a $67 million lawsuit over a lost pair of trousers, who could blame them for abandoning the business for college degrees?