Korean Collective Action: The Hunts Point Market Demonstrations and Boycotts

by Hee Won Yi '00

Throughout the past two decades, boycotts and demonstrations against Korean-American grocers by African-Americans have become increasingly common. This Anti-Korean stance has been fueled by complaints of Koreans' rudeness and physical violence towards customers, shoplifting suspicions, and price discrimination. However, using these same grievances, Korean-Americans have also done their share of shaking up the system.

By the early 1980's produce retail had become the dominant business among Koreans in New York City (Min, 61). There are several reasons to explain this phenomenon. One reason is because of new immigrants' lack of English language and professional service skills. Although most Korean immigrants arrive in America with high levels of education and professional experience, these skills cannot easily be translated into American white-collar work ("The Koreans," 223). Therefore, the only alternative for them is to invest in small businesses. Furthermore, Koreans entered America at the time when retiring Jewish and Italian produce store owners were willing to sell their stores because their children had already transitioned into the mainstream American economy ("The Koreans," 239).

These stores are located in predominantly low income minority neighborhoods where vandalism, high crime rates, and the perception of residents' low spending capacity exist (Min, 67). Since large chain stores have been unwilling to invest in these areas, opportunistic Korean immigrants have stepped in to fill this void (Min, 230).Consequently, to where have the Jewish and Italian Americans transitioned?

One area where Jewish and Italian Americans predominate is the wholesale business. Korean produce retailers buy their fruits and vegetables at Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, the largest produce wholesale market in New York City. As of 1993, only five wholesalers were members of racial minorities and the rest were either Jewish or Italian.

Korean merchants have encountered discrimination by white wholesalers in terms of prices, quality of merchandise, item selection, speed of delivery, parking allocations, and overall service. Many times, they have received rotten fruit; they have not been allowed to exchange merchandise; they have been forced to buy items they did not want; and they have had to wait longer than white retailers to get their produce loaded into their trucks.

Due to the fact that Korean produce retailers go the market as early as 4 a.m. and carry large amounts of cash, they have been victims of robberies. Moreover, severe beatings of Korean merchants by employees of wholesalers have been reported (Min, 170).

In response to this harassment and discrimination, Korean produce retailers established the Korean Produce Association of New York (KPANY) in 1974. The main purpose of this organization is to use collective strategies to protect their common interests when dealing with white wholesalers at Hunts Point Market. When a Korean produce retailer is treated unfairly by a wholesaler, he or she is supposed to report the incident to the KPANY office at Hunts Point. KPANY then sends a troubleshooter to the scene to resolve conflicts.

Nevertheless, harassment by white wholesalers has been so severe that demonstrations and boycotts have resulted (Min, 170-171). The first ever mass demonstration in the history of New York's Korean community was organized by KPANY on June 13, 1977. A Hunts Point white wholesale employee was rumored to have labeled Korean produce retailers as "Moonies" (Min, 195). This derogatory label wrongly insinuates that Korean greengrocers are associated with the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon ("The Koreans," 238). Reverend Moon and Tong Sun Park, a Korean rice dealer, were accused of illicit lobbying for South Korea. They attempted to bribe American congressmen with campaign contributions, cash gifts, and free trips to South Korea (New Urban, 228).

This blatant form of prejudice mobilized approximately a hundred Korean greengrocers to march through Hunts Point market. They carried posters with such slogans as "We Are Not Moonies" and "We Are Gentlemen. Treat Us That Way." The demonstration and the confrontation with the white employee were resolved peacefully ("The Koreans," 238). Even more important, this act of organized resistance increased Korean solidarity and established the Korean political voice. KPANY leaders have found that the nonviolent technique of boycotting is even more effective than demonstrations.

At the end of February 1980, KPANY leaders decided to boycott a white supplier, Wishnatzki and Nathel Produce, for racist attitudes toward Korean merchants. Specifically, Wishnazki refused to take money from Koreans who customarily put saliva on the fingers to separate bills effectively. KPANY demanded that the wholesaler stop discriminating against Korean merchants, give receipts to Koreans whenever a business transaction was completed, allow merchants to exchange items or get cash refunded on dissatisfied goods, and load merchandise in order of purchase. The boycott lasted for a week, at which time Wishnatzki accepted most of the demands and apologized. This was the first major Korean boycott of a White wholesaler that demonstrated the power of Korean greengrocers (Min, 171-172).

Another one-week boycott occurred in August, 1981, in response to a beating of a Korean produce retailer by employees of a white wholesaler. This boycott was also accompanied by a demonstration of 250 participants (Min, 195). In May, 1985, a white wholesaler's employees falsely accused two Korean merchants of stealing merchandise. The merchants' truck was searched and they were detained for two hours until their receipts were found. In retaliation to this abuse, KPANY staged a demonstration and a boycott. Suffering extreme business losses after one week of the boycott, the wholesaler met with KPANY's leaders and negotiated a settlement (Min, 172).

Collective boycotting is highly effective for Korean produce retailers because most wholesalers at Hunts Point Market depend on Korean business. If wholesalers do not respond quickly to complaints and requests by Korean merchants, they will suffer great economic losses. Since the late 1970's, KPANY has organized five demonstrations and five boycotts. In every action taken, Korean produce retailers have succeeded in getting their demands met (Min, 171).

Reflection:

I chose to research and write about this topic because the Korean Produce Association of New York has directly impacted my life. Like so many other Korean greengrocers, my father was a member of KPANY. He would buy fruits and vegetables at Hunts Point Market and deliver them to a small supermarket in addition to his own produce store.

On some nights, he would wake up at 1 a.m. (Hunts Point Market was opened from 11 p.m.-12 p.m.) and travel to the Bronx in order to obtain the freshest produce. He would also assiduously do this in order to assure that he would obtain all the goods that he and his client needed before they were sold out. On one of these late night trips, my father was a victim of robbery. Being just nine years old when it occurred, I only remember that a bat suddenly became a permanent addition in our graffiti-covered truck.

Though it is difficult to deter all crime, the KPANY has definitely succeeded in improving relations between Korean merchants and white wholesalers at Hunts Point. For example, because of KPANY's efforts, my father never received a crate of rotten fruit. He was allowed to inspect all the produce that he was purchasing. In addition, he obtained receipts for all of his transactions and he could exchange an item if he deemed necessary.

KPANY has indeed paved the way for Korean greengrocers today. They have established Korean merchants as a powerful, visible force in New York City that has demands. This has hopefully helped in eradicating the perception that all Asians are quiet, obedient, and passive. Moreover, they have increased Korean solidarity by organizing and uniting Korean merchants under one banner. They have shown that collective action will lead to successful and influential outcomes.

KPANY has definitely influenced my "Korean-ness." My childhood is filled with memories of KPANY picnics, held to strengthen the friendship among organization members and their families. Most of the Korean children whom I interacted with while growing up were from these picnics. I also have vivid memories of participating in the "Korean Harvest and Folklore Festival," a huge festival held every year by KPANY. Approximately 30,000 Koreans in the New York metropolitan area attend this festival every year to enjoy Korean folk songs, dances, games, and food. KPANY definitely assists in retaining the Korean cultural tradition in New York City (Min, 205).

What is ironic to me is how Korean immigrants have now been given the racial epithet of "Kew" or "Korean Jew." This connotes the idea that the massive Korean entry into small businesses is following the traditional immigrant path of the Jewish immigrants before us ("The Koreans," 219). Hence, does that mean that Korean merchants, who have been mistreated by Jewish wholesalers, will someday BE the wholesalers of the future and mistreat the next wave of immigrants? I am angered by this generalization because it assumes that all Koreans will climb up America's socio-economic ladder. Personally, this concept is hard for me to grasp since my father has actually fallen down America's ladder after losing his store due to bankruptcy.

Works Cited:

Kim, Illsoo. "The Koreans: Small Business in an Urban Frontier." New Immigrants in New York. Ed. Nancy Foner. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. 219-242.

Kim, Illsoo. New Urban Immigrants: The Korean Community in New York. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Min, Pyong Gap. Caught in the Middle: Korean Merchants in America's Multiethnic Cities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.