Korea “Town” happens to be a narrow street on 32nd Street, stretching from 5th to 6th Avenue, and yet those two to three sidewalks are jam packed with over fifty prominent small businesses. Everything you would ever want for a night out with your friends is right on that street: restaurants, bars, bookstores, beauty stores, and karaoke bars. My friend Madison and I frequently eat at Food Gallery 32, a crowded cafeteria-style eatery with about a dozen places right inside to enjoy Korean cooking, sweets, and drinks. Therefore, we decided to conduct an in-depth qualitative and quantitative investigation of K-town. The area is divided evenly between long standing businesses and new flourishing businesses. With the rise in popularity of international beauty products and music, and the desire for immigrating Koreans to have their own enclave in the city, K-town continues to expand past Fifth and almost down to Madison Avenue.

The area now known as Koreatown today first began with a singular restaurant, Seoul House, which opened in 1972. It wasn’t until the opening of a few other restaurants as well as Koryo Books in 1980 that Koreatown really started to pick up.

As I learned in “Exotic Flavor, Beyond Just the Food” by Baldwin, Korean immigrants actually led the redevelopment of of West 32nd Street in the 1970s. The Department of City Planning’s website gave me more information.


Image Source: Department of City Planning. Midtown Development Project Draft Report. Department of City Planning,1980,https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/about/city-planning-history.page

In the photo from the Midtown Development Project Draft Report of 1980, K-town was in the middle of the Garment District and the Herald Square Retail District, and was part of the Department’s plan to begin a major rezoning project that lasted over 30 years. It was during this project that entrepreneurial Koreans, supported by the new wave of Korean immigrants to the country, were able to start small businesses.

Koreatown served primarily as an ethnic enclave for many years. Retailers would import Korean goods to sell to Korean immigrants who did not readily want to assimilate to American culture and missed foods and products from home.

However, the history of Korean immigration to the U.S. is full of restrictions and strife.  The book New Urban Immigrants: The Korean Community in New York by Illso Kim, published in 1981, provides the history of Korean immigration until the 1980s as well as amazing insight into the development of Korean businesses in metropolises such as New York City.

In 1910, Japan had control of Korea. Between 1903, and 1905,7,226 Korean immigrants had arrived in the Hawaiian Islands for work.The Islands served as a rung on the ladder of Korean immigration; many Koreans from the Island would soon move to the West Coast and beyond after accumulating enough money. But after they were under the control of a de facto Japanese protectorate, the Japanese forbade Korean immigration to the Islands in order to decrease competition between Japanese and Koreans immigrants. Also, the National Origins Act further reduced the wave of immigrants; only 2,000 Koreans, many of them refugees, came into the U.S. between 1910 and 1924 when the law was effective. The law actually was not lifted until the 1960s with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. By this time, the Japanese had left Korea after their defeat in World War II, and a new wave of Korean immigrants came into the country. This wave would be the one that established enclaves such as Koreatown. As of 1980, the Korean population in the U.S. went to about 500,000, a giant leap from only a few thousand before the Act was passed. The tables below reflect these staggering numbers.


Image Source: Zong,Jie and Batalova,Jeanne. Korean Immigrants in the United States.Migration Policy Institute, 2017,http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/korean-immigrants-united-states#Distribution_State_Key_Cities.


Image Source: KIM, ILLSOO. New Urban Immigrants: The Korean Community in New York. Princeton University Press, 1981, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvp7n.

In the beginning, we can also see that retail and wholesale business was the main occupation among immigrants


Image Source: KIM, ILLSOO. New Urban Immigrants: The Korean Community in New York. Princeton University Press, 1981, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvp7n.

This accounts for the small Korean businesses that began Koreatown and other small enclaves as well as some history about the neighborhood.In “Secrets of Koreatown”, Jinwon Kim, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Oberlin College, details that Koreatown was initially for wholesalers and working in the Korea Business District nearby, but they moved out as restaurants opened and rent prices skyrocketed.

The growth of this area was by no means immediate. Kim gives a reason for the slow growth of Koreatown in its beginning stages. Apparently, a “welfare hotel” known as the Martinique made the area unattractive because of its terrible reputation. With its closing in 1989, business in K-town started to improve.

Now, Korea Way is booming with over 40 businesses on its street, vertically growing instead of horizontally growing, mimicking the jam-packed streets of Seoul. It attracts a wide range of customers from all over the world who want to try Korean barbecue, hot pots, face masks, and drinks. Although the enclave may not necessarily be serving primarily Koreans  anymore because of the increasing popularity of K-pop groups and K-dramas, the cultural identity of the neighborhood will hopefully remain the same, where anyone can experience genuine Korean cuisine and imported goods.

Why did Madison and I choose K-town as our neighborhood of choice to explore? Well, I personally will take any excuse to go there. Both of us being open to different Asian cultures, our love for K-pop, and our love for noodles made K-town an easy choice. But K-town wasn’t nearly as easy to analyze as it was to choose. In our first excursion, we went down the street from business to business asking for managers or long standing employees for interviews, but were met with either rejection or to come another day and try again.

However, one local business we had researched beforehand was welcoming and set up a concrete interview with us. And so, we entered the world of Besfren Cafe and Beauty.


Cafes and beauty stores are staples around K-town, but Besfren happens to offer the pleasant experience of convenient shopping for both tasty treats and trendy treatments. You can go into Besfren Beauty and purchase any products you desire, and then walk four steps to the door of their cafe, where you can sit, relax, and have some pastries with tea. On our first outing, we met Suzi Kim, the lively and lovely Vice Manager of Besfren, who was excited to talk to us and help us learn more about the business. When we came back, she recognized us right away and greeted us with a warm smile. Since she was scanning new shipments of merchandise, Madison and I decided to explore Besfren Beauty a bit.

The store is white, bright, and sparkly. There are giant TV monitors on the tops of shelves playing Korean advertisements for the very skincare products they sell in the store, as well as K-pop music videos. The shelves are lined with masks, facial cleansers, exfoliators, serums, creams, lotions, and anything else you could ever imagine that could help your skin stay moisturized, bright, and clear. In the middle of the store there is a selection of makeup, as well as cute bunny-related merchandise. In fact, Suzi would later tell us that Besfren’s brand is “all about the bunny”, which is easy to tell given the two adorable bunnies on their logo.

After Suzi finished her work, she led us to the cafe one door down, which is a combination of white marble and dark latticed wood. The glass display case made my mouth water with all its different cakes, cookies, and chocolates of every size and color. We sat down together and for the next half hour, Suzi shared a glimpse into the beauty and cafe world.

The cafe portion of Besfren had been in operation since 2012, first in Flushing, and then in K-town. The beauty store, however, has only been in operation for about five months and its expansion was personally supervised by Suzi, after she had been with the company for about a year and a half.

“Seven years ago, yeah, [I moved from Korea]. I was studying art in [The] Art Institute, and then I graduated and I moved here to this company. Actually I was doing [a] part time job, but my bosses wanted [a] design for online [content]. I was working for the graphic design team, and then I was always interested in beauty, so [when] my bosses tried to open a beauty shop, I volunteered.”

In recent years, a desire for skincare products and skin health in the American public has been making businesses like Besfren compatible with different types of consumers, especially tourists and social media users. Suzi said that people love to show off facial masks on Instagram or Facebook, and the masks are widely marketable because of its easy application.

“For the facial masks, everyone can easily try it [because it comes] in small packs, and you just open it and put in on your face.”

She also shed some light on the skin care phenomenon and why Americans are interested in the Asian market.

Everyone wants their skin to be clear and natural. They want to follow [Asian trends]. Suzi Kim

“Usually, the American cosmetic [industry] is focused on makeup, but Korean is more focused on skincare. And right now, it’s [all about] K-pop, K-dramas, skincare. Everyone wants their skin to be clear and natural. They want to follow [Asian trends]. Yeah, maybe that’s why it’s kind of popular.”

“Right now, K-pop and K-drama is popular, so they want to try what’s Korean, [see] why they like it, they want to try it and also they are open like 24 hours (the stores in K-town), so that’s why they enjoy it.”

Surprisingly, Madison and I learned that these tourists or American consumers made up almost the majority of Besfren’s customers. We had assumed that, even with the increasing popularity of Korean products, K-town would serve as an enclave to Korean-Americans or Korean immigrants, and so everyone’s customers would mostly be Korean, or at least Asian. Suzi informed us that our idealistic vision of a Korean domain was not entirely true.

“I was expecting like Koreans or Asians, different cultures more, but this area is more tourist. So more tourists come, and less Asians.”

In terms of customer demographics, Suzi Kim, the manager of Besfren, told me she expected there to be a greater Asian population, but in reality there was not one dominating racial group buying products at the store. The rise in popularity of Korean products among different groups of people is certainly a factor in this, as well as the fact that Koreatown’s location happens to be in a prime tourist-centered area. However, perhaps by examining the racial trends from before Besfren was created to present day, we can answer these two questions: What group dominates the area? Is Koreatown an ethnic enclave?

Koreatown happens to be located in a single census tract: Census Tract 76, New York County, New York. However, I did examine surrounding tracts for more data. Koreatown’s roots have been in place since the 1980s, with the opening of Koryo Books and a few restaurants. A map from this time period showed that there was already a growing Asian population in the area which was greater than in the surrounding areas,although a few surroundings tracts also boast a higher Asian population than its neighbors. The most probable reason for this specific location to be utilized by Koreans is, again, the proximity to tourist attractions such as Macy’s and Madison Square Garden, as well as the proximity of several train lines.


K-town's Asian population in 1980

And the Asian population in the area since the 1980s had tripled by the founding of Besfren in 2012, from 249 residents or 13.154% in 1980 to 722 residents or 34.218% in 2012.


K-town's Asian population in 2012

After flipping through different census maps in different years, it was clear there were two groups that dominated this section of Manhattan: Whites and Asians. And it was also clear that although the Asian population had steadily growing numbers, the White population was still the majority. In 2012, the White population in Tract 76 was at 57.299% or 1,209 residents, and in 2010 was still at 51.395% or 1,197 residents. So, one answer to these questions; White people make up a majority of this area, which makes sense because Manhattan’s rent is generally more expensive and immigrants may not have the means to pay this money.


However, while comparing Asian populations in surrounding census tracts, while Koreatown’s tract is experiencing a slight decline in its Asian population, there is a significant increase in nearby tracts, such as Tract 84 and 113. In 2010, the population of Tract 76 was at 37.87% or 882 residents, but in 2012 decreased slightly to 34.218% or 722 residents. Tracts 84 and 113’s Asian populations ,however, had increased by 6% and 8%, respectively. So, another answer; although white people constitute a majority of the population, there is still a large number of Asian people in the area, although not immediately residing in Tract 76, but in surrounding tracts,making Tract 76 easily accessible.So, Besfren seeing a mix of different ethnicities makes sense; not only because of tourists, but also because the Asian population is not even the majority in the first place. However, we can say that, because there is a substantial, if not majority, population of Asians, it can still be considered an enclave where Koreans can go and buy products from their cultural background.

The main theme surrounding businesses in K-town is that their businesses used to cater to primarily Korean consumers, but recently there has been a shift to a broader audience. What drove this new craze of Korean products, genre, and music? It just so happens the Korean government is a major proponent in advancing Korean culture overseas, and therefore Korean products. In fact, the most remittances South Korea receives comes from the United States; a cool 2.9 billion was sent back to the country in 2015 alone. (www.migrationpolicy.org)


Image Source: Zong,Jie and Batalova,Jeanne. Korean Immigrants in the United States.Migration Policy Institute, 2017,http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/korean-immigrants-united-states#Distribution_State_Key_Cities.

As I learned in the September 2016 article by Hwang, Chung, and Kim, “Consuming Gangnam Style: Nation-branding in Koreatown, New York and Los Angeles”, beginning in the early 2000s with the Roh administration in South Korea,government agencies enthusiastically spearheaded campaigns to promote Korean culture. There is a phenomenon called the Hallyu, or a wave of Korean popular culture rolling into a country, creating a larger fan base for Korean entertainment. This wave peaked during the Lee administration from 2008 to 2012, when the president established a Presidential Council on National Branding,the Food Service Industry Promotion Act, and the Korean Food Foundation under the former Korean Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. These organizations were specifically created to devise campaigns that would increase interest in Korean cultures. A fun campaign in New York City outlined in this article was when the Korean Food Foundation implemented its “Discover Korea’s Delicious Secret Campaign” in which mobile food trucks gave our free Korean food in various public locations in New York such as Bryant Park,Union Square, and Columbus Circle.

The government also supports beauty products, especially skin care products, which are a main commodity among Korean women. As learned from “What You Don’t Know About the Rise of Korean Beauty” by Schaefer, The Korean International Trade Association helps Korean companies start businesses in the United States by helping them create relationships with American retailers and distributors and also by having marketing training programs, specifically geared towards appealing to U.S. consumers. They also help beauty stores purely through the promotion of Korean music and Korean dramas, which frequently advertise beauty products. Also, beauty companies that are export-only receive a tax-break for the government as well as government funding in case they need to protect their business overseas in legal cases. These programs prove the Korean government has a heavy hand in the popularization of Korean products, as well as close ties with Korean companies overseas. This provides a great amount of help to companies such as Besfren, who profit from this increased exposure of Korean media to the U.S. population.

I mean honestly, in K-town, there are so many cafes and beauty stores. But this is the only place that is multi-brand. Suzi Kim

After learning a bit about Besfren’s history and its customer demographic, we asked Suzi why she thought Besfren was special.

“I mean honestly, in K-town, there are so many cafes and beauty stores. But this is the only place that is multi-brand. So there, [the other beauty stores], have one brand but here [there are] so many brands. It’s also a little cheaper than others.” Perhaps since those stores have a following in Korea as well as the U.S., they can venture to have steeper prices, but Besfren is New York City based, and so to gain traction, their products are a few dollars cheaper. It’s definitely a good strategy, as Madison and I were tempted to buy something after we saw they did not cost as much as other beauty stores, but were the same skincare products.

Suzi also showed us products in both the cafe and the beauty store that were popular. First, she pointed to a “roll cake”, or cake that has its filling rolled into it. Suzi says the different fillings, such as jasmine green tea, red ginseng, or lemon chamomile “feel like ice cream.”

Personally, she says, her “favorite is salted caramel. It’s really delicious!” She also said that they received a surge of popularity from their chocolate chip cookies.Turning around, Madison and I were met with a colossal cookie bigger than our hands, with large, embedded chunks of chocolate.“We got popular because of that cookie because so many people [are] taking pictures.” She said loads of people like to upload pictures of the cookie on Instagram. “And then we came out real popular, so that’s why our company is kind of grown from last summer.”


Me with a giant cookie!

The cafe also offers a wide selection of tea, which Suzi says is the staple drink of the shop. The owners of Besfren originally “were making ginseng [tea], so they tried to make a collaboration”, and the tea along with their different hand-crafted pastries eventually started the cafe. Drinking ginseng tea may actually have many health benefits. There are numerous reports of ginseng improving the immune system as well as lowering blood sugar levels, and Kim says this is why “so many people were interested in the tea.”

Besfren Beauty has its own creative element; it offers a selection of bunny-inspired products, including slippers, travel bottles, and pom pom bag charms. Kim confirmed that these are original Besfren goods, and the bunny, “the symbol of our company”, is at the focal point of this business.

On their website, you can find the origin of this. Their logo is two bunnies on a moon pounding sweet rice with a mortar and pestle. This design is based on a Korean folktale in which these rabbits pounding rice cakes symbolize a long, happy life. And honestly, the bunny is just too cute not to use as a motif for their entire store. The animal sets the mood for the experience you have at Besfren, one that is cheerful and warm.

I couldn’t resist and bought myself two facial masks before we left. The employee who helped me went through different options with me and told me what would be best for my skin and what I was looking for, and at the register Suzi signed me up for a rewards card. I’ll definitely be back.

What does Suzi want for the future of Besfren?

I hope to let them know, here’s one other store here. Just come! Suzi Kim

“Some people noticed that [it] is much more cheaper than others, but it’s only [a] few people. So I want to let them know, in Fifth Avenue, it’s really crowded but if you cross the street [to] here, it’s less [so]. I hope to let them know, here’s one other store here. Just come!”


Me in front of Besfren merchandise


Baldwin,Deborah.(2008,October). “Exotic Flavor, Beyond Just the Food”. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/19/realestate/19livi.html

Hwang, Chung, and Kim.(2016,September).“Consuming Gangnam Style: Nation-branding in Koreatown, New York and Los Angeles”. ResearchGate. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305723681_Consuming_Gangnam_Style_Nation-branding_in_Koreatown_New_York_and_Los_Angeles

KIM, I. (1981). New Urban Immigrants: The Korean Community in New York. Princeton University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvp7n

Lu,Wendy.(2016, July). “Secrets of Koreatown”. AmNewYork. Retrieved from http://www.amny.com/secrets-of-new-york/secrets-of-koreatown-1.12035249

“Midtown Development Project Draft Report”. (1980) NYC Department of City Planning. Retrieved from https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/about/city-planning-history.page

Schaefer,Kayleen. (2015, September). “What You Don’t Know About the Rise of Korean Beauty”. The Cut. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2015/09/korean-beauty-and-the-government.html

Social Explorer. Retrieved from http://www.socialexplorer.com/

Zong,Jie and Batalova,Jeanne. (2017,February). “Korean Immigrants in the United States” .Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/korean-immigrants-united-states#Distribution_State_Key_Cities.

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