Nearly 40 years since a first wave of Koreans immigrated to Augusta, today the area is simply home to several thousand Korean-Americans.
Some have risen to great prominence: Augusta businessman Eugene Yu was elected last year as the national president of the Federation of Korean Associations. The role means he represents 3.5 million Korean-Americans on Korea’s Congress, and it recently took him to Dallas to help resolve a 57-day protest by blacks of a Korean store.
Yu immigrated as a teenager, graduated from Butler High School and worked as an interpreter in 1973 for the first Korean, Hahn Chang Sang, to play the Masters Tournament.
Yu said that despite Augusta’s smaller size, it is instantly recognizable in Korea as “home of the Masters.”
He estimated that metro Augusta’s Korean-American community —as many as 5,000 — is drawn to the area primarily by Fort Gordon, Georgia Health Sciences University and manufacturers. Others either own or operate businesses such as dry cleaners, restaurants and liquor stores.
In his role as federation president, the fiercely patriotic Yu said he often reminds immigrants that their Korean culture is important, but equally so is learning the American way of life.
“We’re always kind of low-profile,” he said. “We kind of sit back and try to live among ourselves. Sometimes it is good, and sometimes it is bad.”
During Masters Week, the community reaches out to Korean tourists unfamiliar with Augusta National Golf Club policies and who one year were the target of a ticket scam, Yu said.
But it’s a special time of year for several Korean-owned businesses and church congregations that have forged relationships with Korean golfers such as K.J. Choi, who typically attends a service at Augusta’s Korean American Methodist Church on Barton Chapel Road.
“He’s a good Christian, and he comes to worship before he goes to play games,” said church secretary Seun Scanlan, who came to Augusta 12 years ago from Texas when her retired serviceman husband needed treatment at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center on Fort Gordon.
Choi has developed a friendship with Jong K. Ha, the owner of the 10-year-old Korean restaurant Happy House in south Augusta. Ha cooks for him. “He likes,” Ha said.
Successful Blanchard and Calhoun Realtor Kim Klein emigrated from Seoul to Augusta in 1975 for her husband to attend the Medical College of Georgia.
“It was a good decision,” Klein said. “Back when I was younger, I thought this was a little bit too country and too slow. As I get older, I think Augusta is a very good place.”
Like Yu, Klein has been active over the years with the Korean Association of Augusta, one of several Korean-oriented groups that unite the community.
Mihyon Blackburn, the owner of Emashiya Korean BBQ in Evans, joined family members from Seoul in Augusta in 1986 when she was 22.
A hairdresser for 20 years before entering the restaurant business with her sister, Blackburn also initially found the area’s slower pace less than appealing.
“I love Augusta now. This is home,” she said.
Yong Hong joined family members in Augusta in 1976 when he was 26.
“I’m probably the second-longest one” among Augusta’s Korean-American community members. Hong recently purchased and operates Lotto Express on Broad Street, he said.
The 2010 census showed suburban Columbia County with more Korean-American residents — 1,001 — than Augusta-Richmond County, where 711 reported Korean ancestry.
Moving to the suburbs is common among local Koreans, said Phillip Song, who owns Superstar Wine & Spirits in south Augusta but lives in Evans.
Song graduated from Westside High School but moved his family to Columbia County, like others in the community, “because of the schools,” he said.
Song’s parents immigrated to Augusta more than 30 years ago, when he was 13, to run a small convenience store. His father later bought a liquor store, where Song worked for years before acquiring his own.
Song is active with Augusta’s Korean Golf Association and Korean Liquor Association, which represents at least 17 stores in the area, including two of the largest, Harbans Wine & Spirits and Harvard Wine and Beverage, both of which are owned by the same Korean-American, he said.
“To me, Augusta is pretty nice. The economy is very stable, I think,” Song said.