BLACKS RESENT KOREAN COMPETITION ETHNIC TURF DISPUTE SIMMERS OVER BEAUTY PRODUCTS AIMED AT AFRICAN-AMERICANS Series: AN INVISIBLE POPULATION Sidebar Story

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BLACK MERCHANTS WONDER why so many Korean immigrants have targeted their neighborhoods to sell hair and beauty supplies, squeezing them out of one of the few trades they dominated.

"They've come in and taken away a market that's not rightfully theirs," complains Winford Arps. He says his string of five beauty supply stores here folded in the late 1980s because of Korean competition.

Stung by such comments, Koreans respond that they offer a variety of goods at low prices in neighborhoods where consumers often have little selection. They're kind to black customers and employees even when tested, the immigrants maintain.

"We serve them in very dangerous areas," says Kay-Song Lee, publisher of a Korean-language journal for the beauty trade. "No one wants to serve them there, not white people. But Korean people take a risk."

The battle over the $25 million black beauty supply business, pitting immigrants against an American minority, has been waged in north St. Louis city and county, the city's central corridor and East St. Louis.

Like much else related to immigration in St. Louis, it has gone largely unnoted in the absence of major confrontation. Yet tension simmers, a reflection of broader strains nationwide in relations between blacks and immigrants.

Blacks express concern about not being hired in large numbers by immigrant-owned businesses and about entry-level jobs traditionally held by blacks going to those who have just arrived in this country. Immigrants, who for various reasons often build businesses in poorer areas, sometimes begin with negative stereotypes of blacks and say they find those reinforced.

A decade ago, at least nine blacks had beauty supply businesses in the St. Louis region, some of them thriving chains. Like preaching and burying people, the beauty business was something blacks boasted that they did for themselves, a source of pride as well as income and jobs. Today, the area has 30 Korean-owned beauty-supply shops, dominated by two local chains with 15 stores between them, and Koreans control more than 80 percent of the black beauty trade. Three black shops are hanging on.

`Just Kind Of Gave Up'

On one end of the first floor of the old Sears building at 1408 North Kingshighway, Arps, a stolid, low-key man of 51, cuts clients' hair in his salon, Sapphire's Scissors.

He seethes when he talks of how he and his colleagues were rapidly driven into the ground.

"Everybody just kind of gave up and went away," he says. "Nothing else you could do."

As he sees it, the Koreans made a focused effort to capture the black beauty market: They pooled resources and got credit long denied blacks, then bought in bulk and sold as cheaply as needed to undercut longtime shop owners who depended on traditional margins of profit to survive. The Koreans compensated for any losses by selling imported trinkets and T-shirts in their shops.

They now take the money they make in black neighborhoods, Arps complains, and spend it in affluent west St. Louis County, where most of them live.

And they hire blacks mainly as "window dressing" or to help speak to customers when language problems arise, he contends.

Arps gestures to the Nu-Fashion Beauty Products store on the first floor's south side, and speaks with derision of how the owners locked in 14 employees as they worked in the third-floor warehouse.

"That's how they treat black people," Arps scoffs.

In his office a few yards away, Sun Moo Chyu says he locked the doors to curb inside thefts. He stopped doing that a few months ago after someone called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

His wife, Kyung Chyu, says running stores in poor urban areas is tough. But she maintains her family has good relations with most blacks, saying that after the Los Angeles riots in 1992 things were tense but those who knew the couple helped avert violence. …