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(UPDATE) A Changing Koreatown: After 34 Years as a Community Hub, Chong’s Sesame Oil Is Being Forced to Stop Milling on 8th Street

[dropcap size=big]C[/dropcap]hong’s Sesame Oil is a sensually gratifying place. The aroma from Mr. Chong’s pressed sesame and perilla oils permeates throughout the gently lit space. Under the warmth of the sun that peers through the store’s bamboo blinds, there is no better place in Koreatown for your sesame seed needs. 

In Korean, the word to describe the distinctive smell is “go-so-ha-da,” typically used to describe the natural flavors of sesame, wheat, or nutty foods after they’re cooked, ground, or pressed. The smell can stir up vivid nostalgia for many Koreans. Right on the corner where 8th Street intersects Western and Oxford, longtime residents have walked into the store and let their senses go sparking.

Mr. Chong has been making some of Koreatown’s best cooking oils and powders from behind the shop’s counter for nearly 34 years. In a matter of weeks, his family may have to vacate the premises to make way for a new multi-story mixed-use site that includes hotel and apartment development plans. They’re the last ones occupying the building that is targeted for demolition.

Sue Hee Chong, the daughter-in-law of owner Mr. Chong, mentions that the family received their first notice to vacate in June. At this time they have paid for two more months’ rent; they hope to hold on until November to figure out their next steps. 

“It’s so complicated,” Chong told L.A. Taco. “The whole family lives [in Koreatown]. We wanted to be close to the work, but if the business has to move elsewhere, then truthfully we also have to move. We have to be close to the business.” 

The Chongs’ business’ impact can be measured by the loyalty of their customers who care deeply about high-quality oils, beans, and powders.

Sun Hee’s concerns arise because the Chong family perfected a routine to run their mill. The family is up early to receive imported products or ship their goods. Once a week, Mr. Chong, who inherited the family mill from his mother, uses the quiet space in the back of the store to ground peppers and press sesame and perilla seeds. The store then sells the fresh finished ingredients for the week, or until supplies last. Sun Hee herself runs the counter during business hours. Together, the Chong family stayed close to the neighborhood to make the best use of their hours. To lose their storefront in town means a larger uprooting of their lives. In the worst-case scenario, they may have to prepare to move out of Koreatown.

Chong’s Sesame Oil is the last oil mill in Koreatown. Just a few years ago, Koreatown’s Kim Bang Ah closed its doors after over 40 years of business. They were often regarded by longtime residents as the one and only true rice cake mill in town. The building now stands weathered and unoccupied on Olympic Boulevard and Irolo Street, awaiting its fate. After Kim Bang Ah shuttered, Chong’s Sesame Oil managed solo as one of the few Korean-owned mills left to make their goods in-house.

The Chongs’ business’ impact can be measured by the loyalty of their customers who care deeply about high-quality oils, beans, and powders. Such is the case for Rana Cho, who now resides in the Bay Area but visits family in Los Angeles every other month.

“Any time I go to L.A. and am driving back up, I will stock up on ingredients from [Chong’s Sesame Oil] in a cooler and bring it all back to the Bay Area,” recounted Cho.

Chong’s is a community hub that helps feed thousands of Korean Angelenos every week.

It was during her last visit earlier this week that Cho discovered that Chong’s has to vacate their current location by fall. The thought of losing Chong’s shook Cho enough to tweet a tip about its remaining days, in hopes that people will pay attention to its unshakeable situation. 

“After visiting [Koreatown] every two months for the last 10 years and seeing the changes over time—and then hearing about Chong’s directly from them—the news really hurt,” said Cho. “I just wanted to help in some way, so I asked her if it was okay if I could garner some interest.” 

Chong’s is a community hub that helps feed thousands of Korean Angelenos every week. The majority of Chong’s sales come from selling their ingredients to church members who prepare meals for attendees after service. Their ingredients are also popular amongst families who are preparing for ceremonies or special occasions such as traditional weddings or birthday celebrations. Then there are customers like Cho who stock up on Chong’s gochugaru (red pepper flakes), doenjang (soybean paste), sesame seeds, and pepitas for their cooking pleasures. 

Chong’s carries a variety of oils, beans, and gochugaru, all of which are used in staple Korean dishes: marinated meats, dduk (rice cakes), kimchi, and more. The grains and seeds Mr. Chong uses to make his cooking oils and powders are sourced from El Salvador, Guatemala, and China. Chong then grounds, presses, bottles and packages the ingredients.

“Plan B was to find a smaller space to run an oil mill and a store, but it’s too hard. Rent is too high.”

Though they have not received a hard date for when they would have to leave, the Chong family is already preparing. Sun Hee has been collecting the names and telephone numbers of their frequent customers to let them know their new location once finalized. They are also currently assessing their backup options, but the ones that allow them to preserve their legacy in Koreatown—at the request of their customers—are not financially viable. 

“Plan B was to find a smaller space to run an oil mill and a store, but it’s too hard. Rent is too high,” explained Chong. At this time, it seems most plausible that the family will relocate their mill then distribute their products to established stores.

Though hopeful about Chong’s Sesame Oil’s resilience, Sun Hee Chong cannot help wondering what the loss of their building indicates for the future of Koreatown.

“Many businesses like ours are dwindling, while more new luxury apartment buildings are getting built,” Chong lamented. “We’re disappearing.” To put it like this, Koreatown’s starting to turn into a Little Tokyo, where it’s just Little Tokyo by name but the culture disappears.”


Update as of Nov. 14, 2019:

L.A. Taco recently learned that Chong's Sesame Oil will close on November 27th. In a text message sent to customers, Sue Hee Chong notified recipients that the family will not be reopening as a shop and mill at a new location because of how difficult it is to find affordable space to run both. Their plan is now to finish building a new mill and distribute to two stores in Westlake and Garden Grove in December.  Chong ends her text with immense gratitude for everyone’s long-standing support.

In Korean, Chong writes that the shops are owned by longtime family friends who they trust for their savviness. The two locations are below:

Yang Ga Neh
1676 W 11th Avenue
Chong writes that their kimchi is some of the greatest in town.

Chung’s Food
9972 Garden Grove Boulevard #D
Garden Grove, CA 92844

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