Koreatown, Venice, And Other Parts Well-Known

Beloved punk-chef and professional food snob Anthony Bourdain has revamped No Reservations for CNN this season as Parts Unknown, but I’ve got a few reservations.

This week’s episode (the second of the series) brought Tony to Los Angeles’ very own Koreatown. It began with a pithy overview of the LA Riots, during which Bourdain delivered an annoyingly elementary summation of the mood of Black Angelenos in 1992: “To say that people were angry would be an understatement.” Well, yeah, it would be. The offhanded nature of the comment would reflect the surprisingly shallow nature of the rest of the show.

African Americans are not heard from again in the hour-long program; their only presence is one of aggression to the Koreans who self-policed their neighborhood during the Riots. The message of the episode develops into one of selective multiculturalism: the melting pot portrayed seems to have quietly pushed certain groups farther East.

First we meet Ray Choi, owner of the Kogi truck and A-Frame in Venice. Choi is full of pride for K-town, and maintains that it has had a lasting impact on his life and business: “It’s kind of like I’ve got a huge Las Vegas hotel, but my hallways are the streets,” he remarks. But the cursory attempt later to tie Choi’s storyline and other Korean residents to nearby Mexican street culture didn’t convince me of a substantial or relevant alliance; the Latino street photographer profiled did concede that there are a few Korean lowriders, but he didn’t seem convinced himself.

Bourdain begins the show by highlighting a contrast between the ‘good Koreans,’ who want to be doctors or lawyers, and the bad boys who start restaurants and art studios. Bourdain unsurprisingly identifies with the bad boys, and his Pulp Fiction reference while eating an Aloha burger from the Jollibee (“that is a tasty burger”) is in character.

Yet I couldn’t help but question the ‘Bad’ premise of the episode when most of it is dedicated to a mogul (Choi) whose business model hinges on not being stuck in Koreatown. When Bourdain comments that Kogi’s food is affordable and “infinitely better than the King and the Clown and the Colonel,” does he understand that the truck most often leaves the neighborhood to find diners?

Later, he visits the Downtown studio of a graffiti artist who does murals for Facebook. When we are introduced to David Shoo, he is surrounded by young women dressed in bikinis, fawning over him, as he announces that he is “racist” against Korean women. The blatant glorification of offhanded sexism remains unqualified. It seems to be just part of the show’s exploitive paradigm: Bourdain gets a hip new portrait, and Shoo gets airtime, supporting the Bad image being sold.

Hopefully Bourdain’s move to CNN won’t portend a total jumping of the shark (I’ve always loved him!). In this episode, though, he was like an overwritten character, a corporatized punk playing an exaggerated, formulaic version of himself, palling around with other wealthy bad boys to boost the news network’s sagging ratings.

When Bourdain announces to a room full of locals that he’s just “a white boy from the suburbs,” the premise of Parts Unknown becomes as clear as its title is vague: as they say in the fashion world, blatant is the new black.

6 replies
  1. Leanne
    Leanne says:

    This is really unfortunate to hear I just moved to the area and I gotta say you’re right in that Koreatown is hip even my real-estate agent sold me on apartments in koreatown because it was hip and the best kept secret. Too bad this guy is only interested in it now. I gotta say I did love the episode and was fully entertained.

  2. Flummoxed
    Flummoxed says:

    Where did the notion that the Kogi trucks originated from Koreatown come from?

    Wasn’t it the Filipino-American who came up with the concept of Kogi, and like the other poster said, they were pretty much absent from Koreatown before the area became a cool destination.

    If you listen to how Roy Choi talks about Koreatown (watch the show), it’s obvious he really doesn’t know the area, not even basic geography. He just repeats cliched nutshells of facts. I’ve been following his Twitter feed, and before this show and the announcement that he was hired by some hotel in Koreatown, I never had the impression that he was from KTown or was interested much in Korean culture. Wasn’t his schtick was that he could barely speak Korean?

    I think it’s because non-Koreans see him as Korean, they just assume he knows Koreatown and Korean stuff. Same goes for David Choe. I had never heard him as being from Koreatown before. Not sure if he’s one of those “Koreatown” ballers who actually went to Beverly Hills High and/or grew up in Orange County, while their parents had eked out a living in Central LA.

    Just wish non-Koreans would stop assuming that anyone with a Korean last name is automatically an expert and authority on Korean culture and the Korean-American experience. It’s pretty shallow and degrading.

  3. CompletelyDisappointed
    CompletelyDisappointed says:

    I can’t speak to the other episodes of this CNN show… I think a lot of people tuned in to this one because hey, it’s about Koreatown.

    So disappointing though. Half the show isn’t even shot in Koreatown… There were quite a number of inaccuracies about what they did cover in Koreatown — both in terms of facts and overall impression.

    It really wasn’t a show about Koreatown… It was like two separate stories about two Americans who happen to be of Korean descent… and they had to figure out how to connect them and turn it into one show? So uh, why not Koreatown? ‘

    Need more “depth” in a few three-minute segments? Let’s reference the RIOTS. Yeah, 1992 was the crucial turning-point in KoAm consciousness, but the cognizance of that seemed so fake in this show, especially the first part.

    Maybe Anthony Bourdain was friends with or wanted to hang out with these two interesting guys (and ride one of those cars in East LA as well)… and his staff just shoehorned everything into a story purportedly about… Koreatown.

    Apparently, a lot of people lapped it up. It’s Bourdain. Anything he does becomes popular because he’s already a celebrity. He could chew an obscure brand of Korean gum and it would sell out the next day. (He should’ve demanded payment from Sizzler and Jollibee — corporations with massive advertising budgets.)

    Sad that the time devoted to Sizzler and Jollibee could’ve been spent on Koreatown-specific restaurants. Maybe it’s true that the weekend highlight of David Choe’s childhood was Sizzler…. For many Korean Americans, it wasn’t… we did go to to Korean restaurants after church. A lot of us still do that.

    We of the new generation (and even the old really who’ve come a long way) are open-minded enough to appreciate the ethnic diversity in the area, but there’s a lot of Korean Koreatown pride among Korean Americans. Didn’t see that sincerity and earnestness in this episode.

  4. Mary
    Mary says:

    It’s sketch that Roy Choi took Anthony Bourdain to Jollibee for that SPAM sandwich… he’s a paid endorser of SPAM.

    There should’ve at least been some sort of disclosure… In case you guys didn’t get what I just typed… The “chef” Roy Choi is a PAID endorser of SPAM.

  5. james
    james says:

    First, it’s Roy Choi not Ray Choi and it’s David Choe not David Shoo! How can anyone take your article seriously when you can’t even get the names right. Second, the African-American angle has been done a million times in the media. In fact, it was the only angle shown in the media for the past 21 years. This is the first time that a major news channel like CNN has shown the Korean-American angle. Stop whining about one friggin show that finally shows what Koreans were going through at the time of the riots. It was an incredibly difficult time.

  6. KoreanAmerican
    KoreanAmerican says:

    ROY Choi is a fraud. It’s almost like he lied throughout the entire show about his connection to Koreatown.

    And golly, if you only knew for how many years he tried to distance the Kogi trucks from Koreatown… One of his trucks had to be paid $800 to show up at a Koreatown CHARITY event, whereas all the other trucks that showed up for that event (all without a single connection to Korean culture or Koreatown) willingly and silently lost money in the spirit of holiday charity.

    The only reason his Kogi trucks have been showing up on Wilshire and the area more recently is because Koreatown has gotten “hip” and he was hired to do some upscale shit for a development on Wilshire & Normandie…. so all of a sudden he’s marketing himself as a Korean American who knows Koreatown.

    Guess where he went to high school. Do a chronology of where he’s lived his life.

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