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
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).
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
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
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
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.