Angela Chung reigns over her San Francisco wig empire with an elegant flair. Her makeup is meticulous, she favors dresses over pants and, on a recent Sunday, immense, globular earrings gave the impression of a woman in her fifties.
No matter that she is 73, a Korean immigrant and unlikely to use any of the products she sells. Her Ebony Beauty Supply on Third Street in Bayview appears to be a favorite among the neighborhood’s Black women.
Buried behind wig braids that seem to be piled to the ceiling, Chung knows hair, all kinds of hair, and that has served her well. For the past 20 years, nearby residents, from teens to grandmas in their eighties, have been regulars, asking for hair advice, expecting to find the newest extensions and rarely being disappointed.
“Customers are like family to us,” said Chung’s son, Pillib An.
Behind the boarded-up façade, the lengthy aisles and towering shelves make Chung’s shop a maze of beauty products. Customers wander from one shelf to another as they follow along the black-and-white checkerboard-like floors.
From day one, Chung was well aware that she was an outsider in the community. Her hair is certainly different. But she’s never seen this as a hindrance, and she understands the store’s importance.
“For African Americans, this place is an essential necessity, like a Korean market for Koreans, or the Chinese market for Chinese,” Chung says, deconstructing the cultural importance of specialty stores like her own.
All indications suggest that she’s succeeded. The teenage customers she used to serve are now bringing in their children as customers. For some, Chung says, the wigs she sells have an emotional aspect. “Hair is pride,” she said as she walked through the aisles, sorting the seemingly infinite goods that filled the shop as if she were caressing silk. Her eyes fill with concentration as she looks at the wigs that take up every inch of space on the walls, the expression of an artist examining a painting.
“Butterfly Locs,” or crocheted hair, is the latest trend, Chung said, holding up a package of 12-inch-long water-wave hairpieces.
“Your hair is very pretty,” Chung sometimes says when her customers walk through the door.
At 1 p.m. on a recent Sunday, the mother and daughter, Panorea Roomel and Bernice Scott, strode into Ebony on a mission. Bedecked from head-to-toe with Golden State Warriors memorabilia, in the team’s distinct royal blue and gold, they hoped to find a pair of earrings that would match Roomel’s outfit. They were already late for a game.
The two retained a clear memory of the things they had bought at Chung’s shop: “hair products … shampoo … conditioners …”
“It’s not just convenient … they treat us so friendly…” said Roomel, about her encounters here in the past seven years. Her daughter agreed as she looked out through eyeglasses shaped like basketball hoops. It’s a phrase often repeated in Chung’s shop’s Yelp reviews.
From German textiles to the United States
But running a shop selling beauty products on the other side of the world is not something Chung could have envisioned growing up.
In addition to Korean and English, Chung is a fluent speaker of German who lived most of her life in Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, as a manager of a German textile company. After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the goods Chung imported into South Korea could only be sold at half the price. When she lost her house, it was time to go.
She and her husband arrived in the United States empty-handed but welcomed by her sisters who had already immigrated. Chung dug in, working seven days a week at four part-time jobs. “It doesn’t matter. I needed money, money, money,” Chung said. “I had to earn my potato.”
In a city with a Chinese plurality — 21 percent of San Francisco, compared to 1 percent Korean — she was often mistaken for being Chinese. No matter, the city offered interesting possibilities and, even after being here for 20 years, it hasn’t lost its allure. “I like the variety,” said Chung, who enjoys the variety of food and attractions in the city. “I’m globalized, not a typical Korean.”
By 2002, Ebony offered her a full-time job and she didn’t hesitate.
Eight years later, her son, husband, and Chung became Ebony’s owners.
The pandemic and change
The pandemic has been merciless but, while other small businesses around Ebony have been forced to close, Ebony held on and now has four employees.
Twenty years is plenty of time to see changes; in hair, the neighborhood and her own life. “Younger people like their own hair more,” Chung said.
She’s also been a witness to the wider and brighter Third Street, more visitors brought by the new T-Third train, and the seemingly diminishing sounds of gunfire. Most alarming, however, are the increasingly frequent encounters with shoplifters. “Shoplifters will be ‘prosecuted,’” reads a sign on the shelf.
And the demographics have changed dramatically. In the time she has run the store, the percentage of African Americans in Bayview-Hunters Point has gone from 46.1 percent in 2000 to 23.5 percent in 2020, according to U.S. Census data.
Still, her business is doing well, she said. But personally, her habits have changed.
As an older Asian woman, the last two years of Covid-19 and anti-Asian hate have had their downsides. She lives in the South Bay and, instead of going to public pools for exercise, Chung now walks around her home. Instead of going to concerts in the evenings, she stays home to watch “The Swimmers” and “Mr. Sunshine” on Netflix.
“Culturally, we are raised to always watch out,” said An, Chung’s son. Her customers, too.
Back in the store, Roomel finally found royal blue earrings and joyfully put them on. Before she and her daughter exited, she paused and peeked outside. “Let me make sure they aren’t fighting.”
Like them, Chung too is cautious in the neighborhood. But she mentioned no plans to retire. “I’m very satisfied with my job, meeting customers, and making customers satisfied,” she said.