Anyone who shopped at Chung-bok Hong’s small market here more than once quickly got used to calling Mrs. Hong what the rest of the working-class neighborhood did: ”Mama.”
It did not matter that she was a Korean-American and that most of her customers were black in a city where the two groups have a recent history of bad blood. She treated young and old with respect and kindness and they treated her the same. Mama knew that everyone was chasing the American Dream; some people just ran a little faster or had better running shoes.
When young mothers came in with no money for diapers or milk, Mama put the items in a bag and whispered, ”Pay me next time,” and they did.
When the teen-age boys came in with their baggy pants and their trying-to-look-tough faces, Mama smiled at them and went about her business. After all, she had a son of her own.
”She didn’t follow you around the store like you were going to steal something,” Terrence Smith, 18, said today outside the dark and locked market. ”She treated you like a person. She didn’t treat you like a color. I’m going to miss her.”
Mrs. Hong, 52, was killed last week during a robbery at the store in South-Central Los Angeles. Today, a few blocks away, black, Korean and Hispanic Angelenos, sitting side by side, gathered at St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church for her funeral.
Even in death, Mama was still making strangers feel like family.
Mrs. Hong did not live in the neighborhood, but her husband, Chung-pyo, wanted her funeral held there so her customers of more than 15 years could say goodbye, said City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the neighborhood where Mrs. Hong was killed.
”This is incredible,” Mr. Ridley-Thomas said as he watched the mourners on the steps of the church waiting to hug Mr. Hong and softly cry into his ear.
Mr. Ridley-Thomas said the scene of sorrow was in sharp contrast to the angry pictures after the shooting of a young unarmed black girl by a Korean shop owner in 1991 and the burning and looting of Korean-owned businesses in black and Hispanic neighborhoods during the riots of 1992 and the suspicions and the fear on all sides ever since.
”That’s the stereotype of African-American and Korean-American relations,” he said. ”But this radically contradicts that. This can set an example of what ought to be.”
During the riots, among the worst the country has seen, the Hong store was not touched by rage or fire. And that is one reason that people in the neighborhood believe that the two people sought in Mrs. Hong’s killing, described as a pair of young Hispanic men, came from somewhere else.
”Everyone who knew her,” said Joyce Rankins, 51, ”would do her no harm.”
More than 300 people, most of them black, filed into the church. Then the pallbearers, six uniformed city bus drivers who were frequent customers of the market, wheeled her coffin to the altar.
Mrs. Hong’s son, Edward Hong, 25, who was wounded in the leg during the robbery and was walking with a cane, said there was no mystery to his mother’s popularity in the neighborhood.
”She just treated everyone with kindness and respect,” he said. ”It’s the way everyone else should be treated. Everyone says this is so unique. But the thing is, this is the way everything should be.”
At about the same time the sounds of ”Amazing Grace” floated through the church, Kenneth Wheeler parked his jeep in front of Mrs. Hong’s market. Ever since the shooting, people from the neighborhood have stopped at the store to leave flowers, candles, Bibles and messages of support and tribute on the sidewalk.
”I was going to the service at the church,” Mr. Wheeler said, ”but there was no place to park. There are too many people, so I came here to pay my respects.”
Mr. Wheeler peered through the security bars and looked at a handmade sign hanging in the window, ”Thursday Closed. Mama’s Funeral.” Below that were two wanted posters, in English and Spanish, offering a $25,000 reward for Mama’s suspected killers. Then Mr. Wheeler walked around the side of the building and pointed out a wall covered in tributes, prayers and vows of vengeance.
”I will always love you, Mama,” one read.
”To Mama,” another began. ”A loving angel who specialized in the role of helping others.”
Nearby, written in red, was a promise, ”We will find killers — and they will pay.”
Mr. Wheeler said the message was written by local gang members.
”Whoever killed her,” Mr. Wheeler said, ”must have thought they could come to this community and kill a Korean store owner and we wouldn’t care. They made a big mistake. They picked the wrong store and they picked the wrong Korean.”
But there was another message on the wall that sounded much more like Mama. ”Forgive them Lord,” it said, ”for they know not what they do.”
Photos: Janet Hong, 14, above, was comforted after her mother’s funeral by Mary Washington Solomon as her father and an unidentified relative stood by. At the service, left, a store worker, Charles Lee McCelleary, left a flower. (Photographs by Monica Almeida/The New York Times)