Artist, music producer, and entrepreneur Chino (Kyu Min Lee)is “Seoul-born, Bogotá-raised, L.A.-grown, Brooklyn-aged.” He’s dined with diplomats and considers Erykah Badu a friend. He’s run the streets with a Mexican American gang and gained notoriety as one of the first graffiti artists in Dallas. An art school dropout, he once owned a hip-hop record store in south central Los Angeles. He was the mastermind behind the promotion of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s double platinum single “Baby Got Back,” which won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. Last spring, he opened EsCaLA, which serves Latin American-inspired cuisine, reflecting Chino’s childhood in Colombia.
Nestled in the heart of L.A.’s Koreatown, EsCaLA is among Eater L.A.’s “25 Hottest Restaurants.” Executive Chef Chris Oh (winner of the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, Season Three) commands the kitchen with menu items such as ceviche (Chino’s favorite, made with Asian pear ají) and beef empanadas.
Chino envisions EsCaLA as a creative hub. With extensive contacts in the hip-hop music industry, he curates programming such as “Beats & Eats,” which pairs Sunday brunch with hip-hop sets from various DJs like the Beat Junkies, and “Mixtape Mondays.” He’s also hosted pop-up collaborations with chefs, including once with New York’s Maharlika Filipino Moderno.
“Latinos, blacks, many different people live in K-town, but if you’re not Korean, it can feel a bit intimidating to hang out and have drinks. A lot of people come to EsCaLA because they find it comfortable here. It’s a multicultural establishment,” says Chino.
EsCaLA’s name, which means “layover” in Spanish, is a tribute to his close-knit family. As they lived separated across continents, they were often only able to see one another during layovers. “L.A. became the layover where we could reconnect,” explains Chino.
Chino’s family was among the first Koreans in Colombia. In the mid-1960s, his father, a diplomat, went to Colombia to help establish the Korean embassy there. A few years later, he brought his family to Bogotá, where Chino lived from age one to ten.
His mother always cooked Korean food for the family and his parents tried to teach Korean to their children. “My parents definitely tried to keep our home Korean,” says Chino. “I was very aware that I was a Korean in Colombia. I knew it wasn’t my country.”
“The Korean population never grew that much, so we all knew each other. There were probably less than two hundred Koreans,” recalls Chino. The embassy served as the social gathering place for the Korean population in Colombia, organizing weekend trips and hosting events.
His father founded a taekwondo school in Bogotá as part of Fundación Colombo Coreana, which he created to promote Colombian-Korean relations and cultural exchange. His father also advocates for Colombian veterans of the Korean War (Colombia was the only Latin American country participating with the U.N. forces during the war) and his foundation has granted scholarships to the veterans’ children.
“At first, we were definitely struggling,” Chino relates of the early years. “Our place was rat-infested and we all slept in a little room. Then the Korean government started putting more money to fund the Colombian embassy and my childhood in Colombia became very privileged. I remember going to a lot of functions at the embassy and the taekwondo school and feeling special because the other kids were like, ‘Ooh!’”
The youngest of four (two boys and two girls, each spaced two years apart), he and his siblings attended an American school and then a British school in Bogotá so that they could learn English. He aspired to be a scientist who worked with animals. “I liked animals. I still do,” he smiles.
As a child, Chino became obsessed with drawing. “I had a problem with drawing on the walls, which makes sense with the graffiti later on,” he laughs. “One time, my father covered all the walls with paper and I stopped drawing because I thought it wasn’t fun anymore.”
Growing up in Bogotá, the family’s house was filled with Colombian music. “When I was little, I listened to what my father listened to. He didn’t play much Korean music—maybe because he didn’t have access to it. He was always playing music in Spanish—salsa, cumbia, jazz. He was a big record collector. As kids, we weren’t allowed to wait up for him because he came home late from work. Sometimes I stayed up knowing he’d bring home a big stack of records,” says Chino.
His face softens as he remembers Colombia: “I miss the warmth of the people. Colombia is very unique and friendships in Colombia are very intimate,” he says. Chino visits Colombia a couple times a year to spin at events or to book artists for events such as the annual hip-hop festival in Bogotá.
At age ten, Chino was sent, along with his older brother, to live in Los Angeles.
“It was basically what a lot of immigrant families were doing in the ‘70s to have a better life. Word got around that L.A. was the place to be, the place to send your kids,” says Chino. His father had retired from the Korean embassy and didn’t want to return to Korea, where his sons would have to fulfill mandatory military service.
The first three months in the U.S., he lived with his mother and brother in Carson (a city bordering Compton and Long Beach), where he was one of only two Asians in the elementary school. Then they moved to an apartment above family friends on Wilton and 9th Street in L.A.’s Koreatown. His sisters joined them from Colombia and his mother checked the children into public schools.
“My father never moved to the U.S. He stayed in Colombia. My mom was going back and forth. She’d be gone for a month at a time to take care of my dad. She’d be in L.A. for one or two months with us. That was the pattern. That’s still the pattern today,” says Chino.
“We were on our own, pretty much. We were in K-town so we had many influences around us. We had no authority at home. I used to get kicked out of school a lot. I was a big troublemaker,” he confesses. He became involved with a Mexican American gang. “I lived that whole cholo culture. That’s why people still call me Chino,” he explains.
As a youth growing up in L.A., he credits hip-hop with exerting a positive influence in his life. “I hung out on Crenshaw and Adams. That was my area. The summer I was in eighth grade, my brother got a job working at a liquor store there and I used to help him at the store. That used to be an all-black neighborhood. Every day I’d just hang out with the black kids and listen to music. We’d listen to funk and soul in the late ‘70s when I first moved here. Hip-hop started coming out slowly and I got pretty into it. It helped me get out of trouble. We used to just hang out at hip-hop venues.”
In high school, an art teacher who recognized his talent helped him to obtain an art school scholarship. “I thought that was gonna be my life thing, you know? But I was still running the streets and my interest was still hip-hop. I was addicted to collecting records,” he says.
He dropped out of art school to open a record store, B-Boy Records, on Slauson Avenue in South Central L.A. in the late 1980s. “It was like a community center. Kids would come and hang out and DJ and paint my walls. It became a center for graffiti art. I didn’tmake any money, but a lot of people still in the music scene today are kids who used to come to my store,” Chino fondly notes.
The store opened doors for Chino in the music industry. He began working at Def American, the record label run by Rick Rubin, the co-founder of one of hip-hop’s most acclaimed record labels, Def Jam Records.
In addition to promoting Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” Chino worked with independent hip-hop groups such as The X-Ecutioners (a DJ collective), Dilated Peoples, Large Professor, and the Grave Diggers. “Back then, there was no Internet. I was doing radio and street promotion to get our records played at radio stations across the world,” he says.
In 1995, after losing a job at the record label in L.A. (“I didn’t want to deal with music industry politics”), Chino moved to Dallas, where a family friend offered him a job managing a law firm and providing Spanish interpretation. Although the job was short-lived, he remained in Dallas for a few years, becoming involved in the hip-hop scene.
“I still get a lot of recognition for the little time I was there because of the timing. There was no graffiti art in Dallas then, so I was one of the first,” says Chino. In fact, he was recently invited to be in a documentary about the Dallas hip-hop scene.
From Dallas, Chino moved to Brooklyn, where he designed graphics for record covers and logos. For five years, he was a DJ for the Block Radio Show on East Village Radio. He continued to return to L.A. regularly.
Last year, during a visit to L.A., where all but one of his siblings still reside, Chino’s oldest sister asked if he would be interested in opening a new restaurant/bar in Koreatown. Her friend, a former partner at Bohemia (EsCaLA’s predecessor, which operated for a decade from the space), had approached her to gauge her interest. She immediately thought of Chino.
“I’m the bar guy. I like hanging out and organizing parties. When I saw the bar space, I thought I could throw parties and invite my DJ friends. I didn’t really think about the restaurant part,” he admits.
Then he was introduced to chef Chris Oh through a mutual friend. “Chris is already well-known from the Food Network shows and we clicked.” Chino proposed Korean-Colombian fusion, but after Chris suggested that Korean fusion was no longer a novel concept, they decided to go more Colombian. “He did a lot of research. I took him out to eat Colombian food and he designed the menu from that,” says Chino.
Chino continues to provide opportunities for artists to showcase their talent at EsCaLA. He created the burn art displayed over EsCaLA’s bar and invited his artist friends (P-Jay, Kofie, Minor, and others) to paint EsCaLA’s interior. “These are the same friends that painted my record store in 1988. I invited them back,” he says.
He gestures to a Latino man sipping a beer at the bar counter and explains, “That’s my best friend Steve. We were neighbors. We’ve known each other since we were little kids. But we never hung out together because I was the little gangster kid and he was the little skateboarder kid. After getting kicked out of all these schools, we both ended up at L.A. High together and started hanging out. I didn’t want to hang out with the gangsters anymore.”
“I’m back in the old neighborhood,” he grins. “I want EsCaLA to stay around for a long time, to become something classic. I want it to be a space where people come to have fun, not just because they’re hungry or because they want to get drunk. An open space for creativity.”
All photos by Charles An for KoreanAmericanStory.org