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
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
"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
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. …