Economic Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Koreans/Young-Sik Yoo

In the mid-1960s there were only about a hundred Koreans in Toronto. Thirty years later, forty thousand lived in Ontario, the majority in the metropolitan Toronto area. In that city there even developed a commercial area known as Korea Town, located along Bloor Street between Bathurst and Christie. According to the yellow pages of the Korean Business Directory of Ontario (1993– 94), members of the community have established businesses in 188 different categories in the province, accounting for 1,142 enterprises. They own real estate companies, restaurants, Korean-language schools, dry-cleaning shops, grocery and convenience stores, beauty parlours and barber shops, and service stations. Economic success in small business, with as little government interference as possible, has been the primary goal of many immigrants. By 1993 there were 3,323 Korean entrepreneurs in Canada: 2,003 in Ontario, 512 in British Columbia, 400 in Quebec, 330 in Alberta, and 78 in Manitoba. In Quebec 74 percent of the community were owners of small businesses, with 60 percent of these being involved in corner stores or other retail outlets.

These businesses are usually family concerns. Once an enterprise is started, the entire family will work to maintain it. The operation of a convenience store averages more than twelve hours a day, and such shops are open every day of the year. As one immigrant poet has suggested, storekeepers see the stars twice a day; they open their businesses before dawn and do not close them until long after nightfall. Despite this hard work, an economic recession in the 1990s, the legalization of Sunday shopping in some provinces, and the expansion of the underground economy have destroyed many immigrants’ dreams. Some Koreans are economically trapped by their stores and, more serious, physically endangered by the ever-increasing threat of robbery. Convenience-store burglaries have resulted in the death of the store owner on a number of occasions. Recent statistics show that economic and social insecurity, as well as the sudden growth of the economic sector in the home country, resulted in 398 out of 3,407 immigrants returning to Korea in 1992.

Korean small-business people, who were often professionals in the homeland, are characterized by a high level of education. Overworked, they gain little financial return. There is a tendency for families and friends to pool the money needed to buy such operations, the profits of which are used to establish another business for friends or other family members. Despite such dedication, Korean small businesses, especially convenience stores, face a bleak future because of their owners’ unhappiness in the face of the social and economic challenges confronting them. In Quebec in the mid-1990s, 74 percent of all Korean entrepreneurs were dissatisfied with their businesses, and 95 percent did not want their children to take over those enterprises. Some agencies of the Korean government and community leaders in Canada have tried to rectify the situation by holding seminars or conferences to exchange business information. They have also begun founding self-help institutions such as the Business Academy for Korean Immigrants, started in Toronto in 1993. In addition to the ubiquitous convenience stores, a number of other businesses are run by Koreans, including several bookstores and farms. In Toronto there are three Korean banks – Korea Exchange, Chohung, and Hanil – branches of a number of companies such as Hy gung,

undae and Sams gand three Korean credit unions. Vancouver claims the second-highest Korean population in Canada (an estimated 17,000), and members of that community are involved in various businesses, including convenience stores and motels. There are also two Korean banks and one credit union. The city has seen a growth in its Korean population since 1993, when Canada and Korea signed a visa-exemption agreement that made travel between the two countries more convenient. Because of its geographical closeness to Korea, Vancouver has had more visitors from that country, and in 1994 alone there were about 2,700 programs for trainees in English as a second language. In both cities, as well as in other parts of the country, Korean Canadians work as family physicians and medical specialists, dentists, lawyers, and college and university teachers.