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Dan Sung Sa: A Korean bar built of dreams

After the division of North and South Korea, when the seperated country struggled to overcome the ravages of war, people gathered underneath rustic, canvas covered shops to do business. These shanty-boutiques were called “po-jang ma-cha” and they gave rise to a proud aspect of Korea's culture. In today's Los Angeles Koreatown, The Dan Sung Sa bar and restaurant stands as a reminder of this culture.

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Established 15 years ago, Dan Sung Sa was built almost completely from hand-furnished wood in the style of the po-jang ma-cha. Interior and exterior are draped with crimson banners like an outdoor bazaar. A worn billboard displays North and South Korean presidents, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il, smiling at each other from across the national flag. The store front sign, the red bannerets, and the lumber furnishings were all carpentered by the hands of Dan Sung Sa's owner, Byung Cho.

“I remember when I first came to America, all I had was 15 dollars in my pocket and a dream,” says Cho. “When I built Dan Sung Sa, I built it according to that dream.” Cho, 42, arrived to the U.S. with his older brother in 1992. For years, the two worked to build up funds and slept little, bicycling to get to and from work. "My memories are built into this place," says Cho, fondly tapping the bar counter, "I remember sanding down this counter and nailing together the barstools like it was yesterday."

Memory is a major theme behind the conception of Dan Sung Sa. This is evident in the old newspaper pages, movie posters, and vinyl records nailed to the lumber columns, but it is most noticeable in the sheer amount of graffiti scribbled on the walls.

"People ask me why I don't remodel the bar into a fancy, luxurious place," says Cho, motioning to the writing covering every nook and cranny of the establishment, "my response is this: how can I erase 15 years of memories that my customers have built up here?" Cho points to a scrawl near him: a heart enclosing two names, "how can I erase that? Suppose years later, these two get married? I want them to come back here and see this again. I want their children to come here and see their parents' love."

As one of the most popular bars in Koreatown, Dan Sung Sa has served numerous celebrities such as Chan Ho Park and the rap-group Drunken Tiger. However, it is because the pub has recieved the laughter, tears, and patronage of the common people that it has flourished. "It's a place where you can be comfortable. There's no pretention in Dan Sung Sa. It's just fun and really energetic," says a casual customer, Woo-tek Lee, 22.

"My business philosophy is this: it's not about what sauce comes out with what dish, or stuffy work methods; it's about the heart and soul behind the business. When I look at my bar, it's a building that's risen straight out of my heart into reality. Dan Sung Sa wasn't made 15 years ago-- it was being built from my childhood, when Korea was still poor and struggling. I simply took my dreams and made it into a bar," says Cho with a smile.