Oral Histories

Interview of H. Cooke Sunoo

Project manager of the Redevelopment Agency under Mayor Tom Bradley. Board member of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, the Korean Resource Center, and the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program.
Korean Americans in Los Angeles after 1965
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Project manager of the Redevelopment Agency under Mayor Tom Bradley. Board member of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, the Korean Resource Center, and the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program.
Cline, Alex
Sunoo, H. Cooke
Persons Present:
Sunoo and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Sunoo’s home in Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the material are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research; musician.Cline prepared for the interview by conducting extensive research on the history of Korea and of Korean Americans, particularly Korean immigrants who settled in the Los Angeles area, via books, periodicals, and online sources. He also consulted with advisors who are closely connected with L.A.’s Korean American community and who are acutely knowledgeable about it, including attorney and activist Angela E. Oh and UCLA associate professor of anthropology and faculty member of UCLA’s Center for Korean Studies Kyeyoung Park. Assistance from series interviewees such as Johng Ho Song and John Lim also frequently proved invaluable.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Sunoo was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and make corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
7.4 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
This series includes full-life histories of a number of prominent Korean Americans who represent their community’s tremendous expansion during the period after federal anti-Asian immigration laws were repealed in 1965. The series focuses on the remarkable growth of the Korean American community in Los Angeles; that community’s impact on the history, economy, and culture of the city; and the development and evolution of Koreatown, the only such officially designated community in any city in the world. While concentrating largely on Korean immigrants who are part of the so-called 1.5 generation, or immigrants who relocated to the United States from South Korea while still relatively young, the series also includes influential members of the L.A. area’s Korean community who are first- and second-generation Korean Americans.
Parents--Father’s scholarly interests and pursuits--Parents meet in San Francisco before father attends graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle—Father gets his Ph.D. at King Charles University in Prague, then returns to San Francisco and works at the San Francisco Chronicle—Impact of father’s left-wing political interests on him and the family—Father’s unconventional military involvement—Father appears before the House Un-American Activities Committee—In 1963 Sunoo moves with his father to Fayette, Missouri, where father begins teaching and Sunoo begins studies at Central Methodist College—Father’s political activities on behalf of Korean reunification—Mother and father’s relationship—Mother’s family role and personal interests—Sunoo’s relationship with his father—His relationship with his mother—Sunoo’s brother Jan—Korean language and culture in Sunoo’s home—His sense of what his Korean identity meant as a youth—San Francisco residences in which Sunoo lived while growing up—His feelings looking back on name-calling and discrimination he experienced as a youth—The handling of racial issues in Sunoo’s family—Girls—Awareness of the Korean War.
Sunoo’s own relationship with the church—His parents’ church affiliation in San Francisco—Attends San Francisco City College after graduating from Lowell High School—After losing interest in classes at SFCC, Sunoo’s interest in college is reactivated at Central Methodist College—Interests and activities while living in San Francisco—Dates Caucasian girls in Missouri—Racial issues in Missouri during the early sixties—Sunoo’s social environment at Central Methodist—Spends a semester in a United Nations class at Drew University in New Jersey—Joins the Drew University rugby club—Works with his brother at the Hawaiian Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair—Decisions regarding the draft during the Vietnam War era after graduating from college—He joins the Peace Corps, thereby deferring being drafted—Receives training and ships out to Korea to teach English in 1967—Profundity of his experience learning Korean culture and language in Korea after receiving verbal guidance from his father while young—Sunoo speaks to his grandmother in Korean for the first time—After one year in a small village, he moves to teach at a boys' school in Seoul—Arranges to have American textbooks pirated for his students—Koreans’ reaction to Sunoo—Seoul in the late sixties—Changes Sunoo witnessed during his two years in Seoul—Similarity between the rural South Korean home in which Sunoo lived and relatives’ home in North Korea which he visited many years later—Pervasiveness of Korean nationalism—His own feelings while in Korea—Police presence in Seoul—Experiences being detained by authorities while in Korea—Access to news and popular culture from outside Korea during the late sixties—While visiting Los Angles to attend his brother’s wedding in 1970, he meets his future wife Elaine—Elaine joins Sunoo in Hong Kong for Christmas—He quits the Peace Corps, marries, and attends graduate school at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, before moving to L.A.—Reasons he wound up staying in L.A.
Sunoo’s expectations before he went to South Korea with the Peace Corps—The quality of life during his stay in the village of Non San—Change in his perception of his own racial and national identity after living in Korea for over a year—Once in Korea, he experiences authentic Korean food for the first time—The improvement in his grandmother’s Korean cooking after the first big wave of Korean immigrants comes to L.A. after 1965—Life with Sunoo’s father during their first year together at Central Methodist College—How Sunoo chose the University of British Columbia planning school for his graduate work—Source of his interest in planning—Culture shock upon returning to the United States from Korea—Encounters with the early phase of the increase in Korean culture in Los Angeles upon his return to the U.S.—Experience of receiving the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination while in Korea—Life in Vancouver as a graduate student—Sunoo and his wife Elaine move to Los Angeles and settle down there—Through involvement with an anti-eviction activist group in Little Tokyo, he winds up getting hired as project manager in the Redevelopment Agency of the mayor’s office under Mayor Thomas Bradley—Eviction issues in Little Tokyo—Creative subsidization solutions employed to relocate evicted tenants in Little Tokyo—Sunoo is assigned to the Hollywood Redevelopment Project—Feeling toward Sunoo on the part of Japanese American residents of Little Tokyo—His own politics in relation to his position as an employee of the mayor’s office—His Japanese American in-laws and their history in L.A.—Similarities between the Hollywood and Little Tokyo communities—Sunoo’s two children—Mayor Bradley.
The Sunoos move into what became the Koreatown area—Sunoo witnesses the dramatic growth of Koreatown after the early 1970s—The proliferation of Korean language (Hangul) signage in the Koreatown area—Mini-malls begin to proliferate in Koreatown by the mid-1980s—Forms of early Korean immigrant entrepreneurship in Koreatown—Types of businesses common in Koreatown during its period of early growth—Sunoo’s appreciation for the vibrant diversity developing in Los Angeles—The percentage of Korean business owners versus Korean residents in Koreatown—Increase in high-rise residences in present-day Koreatown—Korean investment in devalued large office buildings in Koreatown during the 1990s—Dr. David Lee’s successful real estate investment scheme—Koreatown’s business clientele—The noticeable increase in mainstream acceptance of Korean goods—Koreatown’s lack of a trademark center displaying traditional Korean architectural elements—Korean preference for a modern Western architectural style—The unique character of the immigrant, particularly the Korean immigrant—Reasons most Koreans immigrate to the United States.
Challenges facing new Korean immigrants—Relationships within the Korean community that allow money lending and support to members of the community circle in need—Sunoo’s memory of the outbreak and development of the 1992 Los Angeles riots—As an employee of the Redevelopment Agency, he delivers plywood to business owners victimized by the riots—Business owners defend their businesses with firearms—The riots expose the financial vulnerability of the immigrant business owners—The rebuilding of Koreatown businesses—How the riots led to an increase in the community’s political involvement—L.A. City Hall’s response to the riots—The Korean community’s relationship with political officeholders—More Korean Americans begin to hold public office—The role of service organizations in the Korean American community—The Korean Resource Center—The Koreatown Youth and Community Center—The ongoing importance of Korean churches in the Korean community—Sunoo’s current preference for advocating on behalf of the larger Asian and larger immigrant community—The Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program—Sunoo’s view of his life as a satisfying course of choices and involvements—The future of Koreatown—Koreatown as a frame of mind—Possible impact of gentrification in Koreatown on its lower-income, mostly Latino residents—Korean contribution to Los Angeles in view of the city’s rich, larger multicultural evolution—The future of Los Angeles—Sunoo’s interest in possibly focusing his work on more strictly local issues in the future.