Book: Immigrant Entrepreneurs – Koreans in Los Angeles. 1985-1982. (Ivan Light & Edna Bonacich)

Book cover

Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Book title: Immigrant Entrepreneurs – Koreans in Los Angeles 1965-1982 (Ivan Light & Edna Bonacich)

This book is a sociological case study on Korean Immigrants to the Unites States, specifically to Los Angeles. Succinct in its conclusions, the book’s soft narrative is a product of census data, stats, and research that attempt to explain the larger-than-average percentages of Korean entrepreneurs immigrants (classified in the book as those who are self-employed or own small businesses) among the Asian immigrant population in Los Angeles and their larger clustering in Los Angeles compared to other American cities.

The book gives an objective historical overview of the influencing forces that lead to the immigration of Korean citizens to the United States starting in the 1950s (and again in the 1990s) and analyzes pressures at home in Korea both from outside sources (American government, capital, and investments) and within; Pressures that created an influx of Korean immigrants to the Unites States. The Authors explain that the use of familial and political cultures  as well as the financial and educational status of Korean Immigrants are factors that help justify the above average percentage of Koreans with the entrepreneur mentality in comparison to other  immigrants to the United States after the Korean War.

In their conclusions, Light and Bonacich make the observation that Korean immigrants were willing to work hard and employ their families as informal employees as a means of cheap or free labor (Part III of the book). A few assessments are made; Korean immigrants represented a higher percentage of immigrant entrepreneurs (Self-employed) than other immigrants, and a higher percentage of entrepreneurs than the native population, Koreans who are entrepreneurs in the US usually have a higher level of education than native self employed, Koreans relied on informal workforce by employing family members (Ethnic Paternalism, p. 388). These qualities seem advantageous at first, and they are to a great extent. but Light and Bonacich argue that the tactics of family as workforce and overworking created negative effects on both the Korean population and the job market in Los Angeles.

Korean immigrants were over-represented as self-employed entrepreneurs, the book argues, because their lack of access to other jobs as outsiders and non-English speakers made entrepreneurship a viable option for work, adding to pressures from US immigration by way of naturalization or immigration requisites of money to obtain immigrant visas. In addition to these prerequisites, the job market in the US for a non-native, non-speaker who might suffer from discrimination made it appealing to created ethnic enclaves and business outside the mainstream, in ethnic neighborhoods where language barriers were not an issue.

One of the conclusions derived from this book is that higher Education among Korean entrepreneurs and their willingness to work harder, longer, and for less, proved advantageous to some immigrants, but it also exploited workers and families, drove business owners in a competitive race for subcontractor bids and jobs that decimated profits, and was fueled by labor-law and wage violations as well as other abuses that in the most part affected illegal workers and family employees the most (Part IV)

Further reading:

Federal/State Cost sharing of Immigrant Welfare by Ivan Light  (The California Journal of Politics & Policy, Vol 2, Issue 1, 2010)

Ivan Light

LA Riots of 1992

Watts Riots of 1965

KCET’s A Los Angeles Primer: Koreatown

KoreAm: LA Riots in our own words (good pictures too)


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