By CAROLINE SHIN
Trays of Korean food lay steaming against the refrigerated air of the Fulton Fish Market. There were thin slices of beef sautéed with soy sauce and garlic (bulgogi), glass noodles stir-fried with beef and carrots (japche), and sweet crescent-shaped dumplings filled with sesame seeds and honey. The table stood beside boxes of whole trout, sea bass and blue crab, and about fifteen men, ending a hard day’s work at 7 a.m. on a Friday in October, waited in line to scoop the hot food onto their plates. For some, it looked familiar; for others, colorful and interesting.
This celebration of the Korean harvest festival—also informally called the Korean Thanksgiving—marked a small victory for Dong Joo Park, 57, president of the Korean Seafood Association of New York, who had organized the event. “This is the first party for Korean people at this market,” he said in accented English.
And it is a culmination of a long history of immigrant politics, corruption and solidarity in the briny underbelly of New York City’s seafood business.
Since the 1970s, Korean seafood workers have been slowly gaining clout in the Italian-dominated Fulton Fish Market. Last Friday marked the first Korean cultural celebration on the floor of the first Korean wholesaler in what is now the largest seafood market in the country.
The Korean Seafood Association started in 1977 following an influx of Korean immigrants in the 1960s and 70’s. Though many headed towards produce, a small but growing network of Korean immigrants became seafood retailers and purveyors—the middlemen between the retailers and wholesalers—and they bought seafood from the wholesalers at the Fulton Fish Market.
At the time, the Genovese mafia family, following waves of Italian emigration in the 19th century, controlled the Fulton Fish Market, which was then operating beside the docks of South Street in Manhattan. “People could not complain. If you complained, you got beaten. One person per year was killed,” Park said. Scale readings were also miscalculated; prices were arbitrarily determined; cheap fish were switched for expensive fish: and the Koreans received the brunt of the discrimination. Afraid to alert the police, they quietly went about their business.
A couple of changes started taking place in parallel in the 1980s: a sweeping anti-mob crusade led by then U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani and a surge in Korean immigration to New York. In 1987, Giuliani filed a racketeering suit against the Fulton Fish Market, effectively leading to the successful federal prosecution of mafia bosses through the 1990s and the eventual diminution of organized crime in New York.
In 1986, Tony Lee, a nuclear power plant engineer, left South Korea and became a seafood purveyor, supplying retail shops and restaurants in New York City. “I liked my [former] job, but I came for my family. My mother wanted me here.”
Shortly after his arrival, he met Il Yeon Kwon, 53, Chairman and CEO of the Korean supermarket conglomerate H-Mart, which was recently highlighted in Forbes. Lee explained that, at the time of their encounter, there were only two H-Marts in Flushing, Queens, a haven for Korean immigrants then and now. As Lee supplied the H-Marts with seafood, the number of Korean immigrants kept growing and fueling a greater demand for Korean food, which in turn, grew Lee’s business more and more. H-Mart now has 33 stores from New York to California, according to the company Web site, and Lee is their sole seafood supplier.
In 2005, as part of the ongoing cleanup, the city moved the Fulton Fish Market’s 38 wholesalers and 600 employees—mostly Italian—to a new $85 million facility in Hunts Point, Bronx. “Before this market moved from downtown Manhattan, all the mafia people controlled this market. Since Giuliani cleaned up all the mafia people, the situation is very different than before,” Park said. Now it is “very clean. No crime. No nothing here. Now, Koreans can buy fish without problems. They can negotiate prices, complain.”
In 2008, with new market conditions and financial strength backed by Korean immigration, Tony Lee opened Captain Blue, the first Korean wholesaler in the 187-year history of the Fulton Fish Market. “Since I started in seafood, I always wanted to be a wholesaler here,” he said. After nearly 25 years in seafood, he now runs a multi-ethnic 19-person company selling fish and shellfish from all over the world. According to his long-standing business partner and salesperson, Paul or “Paulie” Muzzio, 38, “he could sell you a bag of rocks if he could.”
Lee admits his main challenge as a new entrant is acquiring new customers who have been using the same vendors for years. “A lot of companies got more than one hundred years of business. It’s generational.” Currently, H-Mart represents 60% of Captain Blue’s sales, and Muzzio, who has been a seafood salesperson for 23 years, has brought his own customer following to Captain Blue. But they want to grow the business.
Lee said, “It’s very hard right now,” but “a lot of Korean people try to help me by buying from me.” Park has also been supporting Lee’s business by strategically placing the Korean festival on the floor of Captain Blue.
Outfitted in his glossy blue Members-Only jacket, Park said, “We are right in front of Captain Blue wholesalers. It is run by Korean people. It is owned by Korean people. It’s a big operation. It was not easy.”