At 82-years-old, K.W. Lee is considered the “Godfather of Asian American journalism.” He immigrated to the U.S. in 1950 on a student visa and became the first Asian immigrant to be hired by a mainstream news daily and has reported for the Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee, the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and the Sacramento Union. He has covered stories ranging from the plight of coal miners in the Appalachians to the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South to the unjust incarceration of Chol Soo Lee. K.W. founded the Korea Times English Edition and continues to work and lecture across the country. He is also working on a project to document the Korean American experience during the L.A. riots.
The Tiananmen Square Massacre broke out in 1989.
Nobody knew the name of that forlorn figure of a Chinese youth on the TV screen in a death-defying, heart-stopping standoff, daring to stop the rolling tanks at Beijing’s blood-drenched Tiananmen Square.
Three years later, a made-in-USA mini- urban pogrom erupted in, of all places, the City of Angeles. It’s called the April 29, 1992, L. A. Riots or Sa-I-Gu (4-2-9 in Korean).
Nobody knew another lonely figure, a faceless Korean grocer’s son, who penned a heart-rending letter of protest and defiance to the mighty Los Angeles Times at the height of the local media-instigated open season on hapless Korean mom&pop storekeepers in the crime-and-violence-ridden inner cities of LA.
I ran into his defiant letter buried in the readers’ columns, as I was frantically editing the lone weekly English voice –the Korea Times English Edition—for the embattled voiceless and powerless immigrants under mounting siege by the triad of Hollywood, the only paper in town and the feverish TV stations for ratings contests.
But that unforgettable moment still remains vivid with me as if it happened yesterday.
The Letter began:
“I fear for my father’s safety and well-being because of the way the media have perpetuated the problem existing in South Central Los Angeles.”
Soo Hyun Lim wrote then-Editor Shelby Coffey under whose haughty stewardship the Times had been engaged in a marathon racebaiting, pitting one politically powerful but economically frustrated minority against a seemingly thriving tribe of non-English-speaking newcomers.
That was a year before South Central and the adjoining Koreatown burned and choked through three days of firebombing, looting and mayhem, mother of all riots in modern American history.
Soo Hyun’s happened to be the only letter from Korean Americans appearing in the Times’ editorial page during the darkest hours of Korean American history, while their American-educated elites stayed silent and aloof from the bedraggled hole-in-the-wall shopkeepers under mounting anti-Korean bashing.
“My father is a Korean American merchant in South Central L. A. and as his son, I fear for his life every day. Both minority groups are trying hard to endure their cultural differences and are having a difficulty time just surviving,” Lim said.
“However, the media consistently misrepresented how these groups exists which is in turn pitting African Americans and Korean Americans against each other. Yet this friction is what both groups are trying so hard to overcome.”
This UCLA student’s desperate pleas to help overcome the media-fanned “friction” as well as his dire warnings of dangerous consequences fell on the deaf ears of not only the media honchos but both the powers that be as well as the established political leaders of minorities.
In a huge cut-throat market such as Los Angeles, the so-called Korean-black conflict is tailor-made for circulations and TV ratings. Round up the usual scapegoats.
The May sweep that started from the last week of April harvested the highest ratings of the year at the expense of the American Dreams of countless victims of all colors.
Ji Hyun, a sophomore in college at the time of the riots, had become a staff writer for the Asian Week, a national Asian American weekly, based in San Francisco. She reported that her father re-opened a new store in Central California a year later, a much safer place to the family’s relief.
Here’s a daughter’s worm’s-eye view of how a typical Korean father puts his life on line for the future of his children in South Central LA:
“I saw blazing fire, clouds of smoke, people scurrying to loot stores in their neighborhood. It was chaotic and hellish to watch. With my eyes glued to the TV screen, my head spun and my heart pounded as anxiety swelled within. Where is Apa (dad in Korean) and is he safe?
Apa was a victim of the looting. He opened up his business in January of 1991. He chose his location because there was very little competition with the larger, more established Safeway or Ralph’s. Like many Korean business owners, Apa found a niche in places where other business refused to accommodate.
“He was aware that crime was commonplace. His register counter was raised a foot above the ground so he could watch his customers in case they had the urge to steal from him. As a businessman, his merchandize was his livelihood and many of his customers resented being spied upon. Relations with his customers were tense. At first he tried to befriend them. When that didn’t work, he would scream back to them, angry at their disrespect for his kindness and frustrated that they didn’t understand his situation as an owner of a business.
“Apa was even robed at gunpoint once during the first few months of opening the store. Frightened, he handed his hard day’s worth of money over and called the police. My father was not hurt and the assailant was never caught.
“A rapport between Apa and his customers never really developed. Tension increased between the African Americans and Korean Americans [over the Soon Ja Du vs.Latasha Harlins shooting case. Du was convicted of manslaughter and placed on probation.]
“It was during this time, my older brother wrote a letter to the L. A. Times….
“When this (Rodney King) verdict was delivered on April 29, the racial tensions in the community erupted in full force. Apa received a call from his friend who warned him of impending violence and urging him to leave that day.
“Apa grabbed his money bag, got in his car and left the store immediately….Rioters broke through the security door that was encased in metal barrier by smashing through it with a metal pipe. They broke windows, began rummaging through all of his belongings, stealing food and merchandize in the store.
“Apa knew that if he stopped them, there would be violence. The next morning, Apa returned to his store. …The store was a shambles and Apa was incensed with worry. His livelihood crumbled with the facades of the buildings.
“’I had nothing,’ Apa said. I only had fire insurance …The main thing was that I didn’t want to lose my life. If I fought them, they will kill me. It was a crisis waiting to happen. Like the Watts riots in 1965, it’s become a part of history — buried in old newspaper clipping and perhaps written in history book. Like the Jewish business workers in Watts, the Korean business owners in South Central became the victims of rage and discontent in the African American community.”
She summed up: “Not all Koreans stood on top of the roof of their business with guns. Most were like my father. They lost not only their source of income but their dignity as human beings. Apa (father in Korean) is not disillusioned and does not seek sympathy. He just wants a fair chance to seek the American Dream. He always tells me, ‘It’s all about survival.’ This sentence always resonates deeply in me.”
It’s no accident that Ji Hyun’s brother is a product of UCLA, longtime spawning ground for a steady stream of second-generation activists who returned home to fight on social, political and coalition fronts on behalf of probably the most misperceived and maligned ethnic group in this country at the time.
The spirit of Soo Hyun Lim is very much alive today among the younger sisters and brothers of the Children of Sa-I-Gu who stood by all alone as the first and last line of defense for their parent’s generation of sacrifice and silence.